Here is a staggering estimate: 75% of victims of child sexual abuse material are reportedly under the age of 12, 63% under the age of eight. Children are more likely to be abused by someone they have a relationship with, either virtual or real. It is essential for parents and educators to recognize this, understand this, and manage it age appropriately for the children in their orbit.
By Austin Berrier
With 27 years of law enforcement experience and more than a decade investigating and combating the online sexual abuse of children, I am often asked for advice, tips and techniques by parents, educators, and even some children. What apps are dangerous? What do offenders look and act like? How do I prevent my child from being kidnapped and trafficked by international child traffickers? Over time, I came to realize that most people (perhaps thankfully) have little to no real knowledge of the true nature of the online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) or child sexual abuse material (CSAM). While lack of exposure to these topics hopefully signifies a life not impacted by this horror, it often leaves families vulnerable. Before we can protect our children, however, we must first be educated on the subject.
Let me first say this is not a treatise on morals, politics, religion, society, opinion, or any other buzz word of choice, those are exceptionally personal topics and are not what I am trying to educate readers about. Nonetheless, understanding the power of the sex drive at a basic level is crucial to understanding OSEC and CSAM. We learn in basic biology that living organisms reproduce to continue the species. This is done generally either asexually or sexually. As this is a fundamental function of living organisms from the most primitive one cell organism to the most advanced, it only stands to reason that the more “primitive” or “ancient” parts of the brain are likely involved. Some quick online research reveals that the mid- and hind- brain are connected to many autonomic and basic functions of life. The hypothalamus, the amygdala and other structures control hormones, autonomic responses, and even alert us to changes in our environment detected by our senses. At this point you are likely asking yourself why you are receiving a biology lesson from a law enforcement official, and the answer is simple, perspective. As parents, children, stakeholders or simply members of society, we must first understand how basic the drive to reproduce is to our biology before we can hope to understand how it can be used to victimize children.
Once we can understand that the reproductive drive is a basic function of living organisms, we can begin to dissect how it impacts children and may lead to victimization. From a fairly young age children may express that they have a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” While as a parent I would argue this is not in any way sexual in nature, it does illustrate that this fundamental part of biology begins to exert influence far before children are emotionally, socially and intellectually developed enough to understand what is happening. Nonetheless it does not take long for this “innocent attraction” to turn into curiosity about sexuality, a child’s own body, or the body of others. Several studies quoted by the National Institute of Health reveal just how young children begin having sexual thoughts. One study suggested approximately 25% of 11-12-year-old children report “thinking a lot about sex” and 16% of 9-11-year-old children as having the same thoughts.
Understanding Puberty And Sexual Development
The next topic for discussion is puberty. A 2019 article by Psychology Today mentions several studies that are quite revealing. The onset of puberty today is generally 10-11 for girls and 11-12 for boys, however puberty is not considered precocious, or early, until 8 for girls and 9 for boys. As a parent, I was quite dismayed when I first read this, as these ages seem exceptionally young. However, when I take a realistic look at my own children (and my own childhood), I realize this is very accurate. Puberty often begins when children still have early school night bedtimes, are still watching cartoons, and still trust and believe most everything adults tell them.
These statistics and numbers are not meant in any way to be a “scare tactic” but to point out that at an early (and easily influenced) age, children are curious, which leaves them susceptible to predation by offenders. This natural curiosity combined with the first hints of hormones, attraction and physical development far outpaces most children’s intellectual and emotional maturity as well as their ability to comprehend the consequences of their actions. Any parent will tell you that most children can’t think or plan past the end of the school day, let alone what the consequences of their actions for weeks, months, or even years to come. In fact, a 2000 neuroscience study of the adolescent brain specifically states that the two most observed behavioral changes in children entering puberty and adolescence are (1) increased novelty seeking, and (2) increased risk taking. A 2013 article from the National Institute of Health states that the development of the prefrontal cortex (home of cognitive analysis, abstract thought, and moderation of socially acceptable behavior) is not complete until the age of 25.
A simple comparison of Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development and childhood physical sexual development quickly reveal that a child’s physical sexual development advances at a faster pace than their ability to understand the consequences of this development. In other words, a child is susceptible to sexual grooming or manipulation due to physical development before they are fully capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.
OSEC And CSAM
The next educational factor for parents and children is to have an honest, and age appropriate, understanding of OSEC and CSAM. In my experience, most of polite society has one of two views regarding OSEC and CSAM. One view is that OSEC and CSAM is merely innocent photos such as the toddler bathtub photo or something akin to the old Coppertone Baby advertisements, or perhaps children being merely curious like “playing doctor.” The other view is that OSEC and CSAM crimes only involve the “guy in the creepy van” or international kidnapping rings whisking children away into a seedy underworld of mafia and criminal syndicate activity. While both of these are possible and do occasionally occur, in my nearly 30 years of law enforcement the truth is much less complex and yet more terrifying; that children are more likely to be abused by loved ones, family members, or trusted adults.
The statistics on OSEC/CSAM victim-offender relationships vary but some of the data sourced from the NGO Thorn include two staggering statistics:
90% of contact victims “know” their offender – “know” is a relative term, but stranger abuse is rare.
75%+ of CSAM victims are under 12, 63%+ were under 8.
These statistics only scratch the surface of the OSEC/CSAM issue, but they deconstruct some myths. Children are more likely to be abused by someone they have a relationship with, either virtual or real, and OSEC/CSAM is certainly not harmless experimentation, curiosity, or innocent nudes. I find it staggering that more than half the victims observed are in the third grade or younger, and I certainly can attest to the veracity of these numbers, I’ve seen the unfortunate evidence firsthand.
When we see these numbers it begs the question why known perpetrators vs. unknown? The simple answer is access. A person looking to victimize a child must have access to a child. Some may argue that a kidnapper or trafficker has access merely by snatching a child but ask yourself if this would be the “best” way for someone to victimize a child. On those occasions when a child goes missing or is kidnapped, the full weight of society is brought to bear. Massive media attention, an enormous law enforcement effort, public outcry, and assistance. It generally is only a matter of time before those crimes are resolved. In my experience the more common, and unfortunately realistic scenario, is the perpetrator desires long-term, regular access to the victim for an extended period, for repeated abuse. A more common scenario is one in which the child victim has been groomed, manipulated, and coerced into a “relationship” like an abusive domestic relationship or marriage. The victim may be taught the abusive acts are a game or perhaps normal behavior. The child may be threatened physically, or with exposure and humiliation. Sometimes a victim is even coerced or extorted into victimizing other children or recruiting new targets for the offender.
A scenario that is becoming more common is one in which the victim and the perpetrator never meet, let alone ever occupy the same room. With the explosion of social media, live-streaming apps, cheap mobile data and reasonably priced internet capable mobile-devices, victims are more likely to be victimized from afar. Perpetrators use the same grooming or extortion techniques, but the victim creates the CSAM themselves, either fully aware they are being victimized or innocently believing they are in a relationship or perhaps conversing with another child. While this concept of “self-produced” CSAM is only a few years old and statistics are difficult to find, my personal investigative experience is that easily 25% to 40% percent of the current, traded CSAM is self-produced. This self-produced CSAM often takes place in the victim’s bedroom, bathroom or when home alone. I have even seen CSAM in which the victim’s parents can be seen or heard in the background, the child being victimized literally in front of their unknowing parent or loved one.
Now that we have a basic understanding of how and why victimization occurs, we need to have the difficult discussion of what OSEC/CSAM truly is. Legal definitions change slightly from state to state, or with Federal Statutes. A simplistic definition would include concepts such as “lewd and lascivious display of genitalia” of a minor or person under 18. Often statutes will include language about penetrative- and non-penetrative sex acts. While both descriptive and clinical in verbiage for legal reasons, statutory language is woefully inadequate when educating the public, parents, or children. When discussing OSEC/CSAM with individuals unfamiliar with the topic I simply tell them to imagine the most explicit or degrading adult/legal pornography and replace one or more of the “participants” with a child, toddler or infant. OSEC/CSAM represents the most traumatic event in the victim’s young life. The content is more accurately described as crime scene photos as the images or videos are documenting a violent sex crime against a child, who by legal definition cannot consent to what is being done to them. This is a difficult image to process, but in doing so, parents, children, and society have a more realistic understanding of the issue.
There Is No Magic Bullet, But There Are Some Things Parents Can Do
Finally, we can circle back around to how children can be protected. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer or “magic bullet.” Monitoring apps, parental snooping, law enforcement efforts, or scare tactics have minimal impact alone. Generally, by time law enforcement or parents learn of apps or technology being used by children or where they are being targeted, it is already too late. Additionally, I have yet to learn of a monitoring app that a tech savvy child hasn’t circumnavigated. Finally, as adults or parents, I think we all know how effective scare tactics are. In other words, trying to regulate a child’s exposure is not necessarily the best option. While setting reasonable guidelines, rules and access is part of a plan, I feel that making a child a “hard target” is the best option.
After many years of OSEC/CSAM investigations I have noticed a few characteristics of both children and their parents where a child has been victimized. I need to be clear that there is no scientific process, double-blind study or even a Ouija Board involved, merely many years spent wallowing in this problem. My biggest take-away is that emotionally healthy and confident children sharing a loving relationship with engaged parents are less likely to become victims. Not immune, but less likely. As a parent and an investigator, I feel comfortable saying that children need structure, support, mentoring, guidance and love from engaged parents or guardians. I imagine there are countless scientific studies regarding this. I also know, as a parent and investigator, that if children aren’t receiving what they need at home or from their family, they will find it elsewhere. Think of your own life or upbringing, perhaps an emotionally distant parent led you to seek affirmation or support elsewhere. Hopefully that other source was a healthy one. As a child of the 70s and 80s I recall the concept of “latch-key” children and images of children home alone, struggling with their homework or to make meals for younger siblings. In today’s world with ubiquitous mobile devices, families, children, parents or loved ones can be emotionally and socially distant while sitting on the same sofa. It is not for me to advise readers how to raise confidant children, but I would suggest a strong start is for mom and dad to “unplug” and spend more quality time with your children. Children model behavior, if they see their parents losing themselves online, how long until they follow suit?
Next, have a realistic knowledge of what an internet capable, mobile device truly is. Your child’s mobile device is literally capable of voice and video chat with nearly every human on the planet and even the International Space Station. It can produce and edit high quality video exceeding what even Hollywood could produce a decade ago. The new smart phone you gave your 9-year-old daughter allows her to search, save, and hide from you the most disturbing content you can think of. And you just gave it to her with little to no guidance and allowed her to take it into the bathroom, shower, or under her blankets at bedtime and you wonder how or why things happen. Have realistic guidelines and expectations of what your child may be doing online when you are present, and more importantly, when you are not.
As you’ve read this you probably realized I didn’t provide hard answers, tricks, or techniques, and you’re correct, there is no simple answer. You probably feel you have more questions than when you started reading this and that is precisely my intention. The goal is for you the reader to have a realistic understanding of the issues and then to critically analyze your specific circumstances. Do some independent research, talk to other parents, talk to your kids!
Disengage the internet and re-engage those personal connections!
If you would like to further educate yourself on these issues, I recommend the following sites:
https://www.missingkids.org/home – National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – A good source for general data, reporting, etc.
https://www.ecpat.org/resources/ – ECPAT International – An excellent source for data driven research and advocacy with information regarding the safeguarding of children on a global scale.
Finally, feel free to contact me with any questions via LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/austin-berrier-478b29114
About the author: Austin Berrier began his law enforcement career in 1993. Since then, he has served in military policing in the United States Marine Corps, municipal policing in Virginia and since 2003, as a Special Agent in Federal Law Enforcement. Austin has presented and spoken on issues regarding OSEC/CSAM both nationally and internationally for nearly a decade and has been involved with child protection for more than twelve years.