10,000 Scots ‘use internet to watch child sex abuse’

10,000 Scots ‘use internet to watch child sex abuse’

Charity warning after we revealed pupils’ photos being harvested onto paedophiles website.

Computer: Child care worker accused of lewd behaviour over the internet.
© STV

By Russell Findlay

A child protection charity has revealed that up to 10,000 Scots are suspected of using the internet to regularly view sexual material about children.

Some offenders charged with online child sex crimes are helped by Stop it Now! Scotland which supports those “worried about their own sexual thoughts or behaviour towards children”.

The charity’s national manager Stuart Allardyce said: “We worked with 130 men last year. We know there were around 600 to 700 people charged with offences in relation to online viewing of sexual images of children. We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“The National Crime Agency estimates the numbers of individuals who regularly look at sexual images of children.

“They suggest possibly 10,000 adults in Scotland are looking at these images on a regular basis, if not more.”

An STV News investigation on Thursday revealed a Russian website which gets 20 million monthly visits is described as “child porn hiding in plain sight”.

We found photos of pupils from at least eight Scottish schools had been harvested from school social media accounts and presented on the site where users openly express paedophilic views.

As most of the website’s content is apparently legal and can be easily found, it can be like a “gateway drug” for more serious criminality.

Allardyce – who believes online sexual abuse is “a preventable public health problem” – said: “I think it’s very shocking when you find out that online sex offenders have been harvesting images from schools, from primary schools and secondary schools and also from children and young people’s social media profiles themselves.

“These kind of websites can often be a place where people are circulating and distributing sometimes legal images of children that have perhaps been gathered in an unethical way without consent or authorisation but also illegal images of children, sexual images of children.

“Sometimes these websites can be like a gateway drug.

“They can lead to individuals who are beginning to look for material that is of a much more serious and sexual offending nature so it is often a starting point for people who are looking for these sort of images.”

According to the charity – which launched a campaign with Police Scotland in March – many paedophiles actively search for material about children while others come to it more gradually.

“There are lots of different pathways into offending behaviour”, said Allardyce.

“There are some individuals who deliberately set out to find sexual images of children online but more commonly what we will see here is individuals looking at a lot of mainstream and perhaps legal pornography who over time become more desensitised to that and are looking for more and more extreme material and that can lead them to being drawn into looking at sexual images of children.”

He fears that the innocent school photos are “clickbait” for more sinister material.

“I think individuals who are harvesting those images and putting those images on websites and saying they are just innocent images probably need to think very carefully about what their motivation is for doing that and indeed,” he added.

“I suspect individuals who are doing that may be involved in illegal activity as well.

“Online sexual offending is not something that goes from nought to 60 immediately; people are often on a slide over a period of time towards more and more illegal material.

“If people are recognising that they are starting to move towards offending behaviour then they should get help as quickly as possible. ”

Allardyce believes that it would be “absolutely logical” for social media companies to make privacy the default setting – meaning users would need to actively chose to make information public.

Vassilis Manoussos, manager of Napier University’s cyber academy, says the STV News probe highlights the issue of “oversharing” information – and exposes the difficulty of regulating a Russian site.

He added: “I recently saw a presentation by a police officer who said that by the time a child is old enough to use social media by themselves, to read and write, there’s an average of 2500 pictures of them online, shared by their parents.

“Schools and other organisations like that need to take responsibility for their actions. They need to have a risk assessment policy and they need to see whether the posting pictures like that may endanger their children in the future.

“This is a Russian website. Our laws do not apply there and our moral values and our ethics do not apply there. This is a complication of the internet.”

Martha Kirby, policy manager with NSPCC charity’s child safety online team urged schools to be aware of how photos can be misused – and that parental consent must be sought.

“It’s a lovely thing for schools to be able to do, to celebrate what their children are doing and to celebrate successes, so we wouldn’t say the government should stop schools from posting online,” she said.

“But I think it’s really important that parents are aware that when you are posting things online that there is that digital footprint and it’s very hard once a photo is up for that to be taken down.”

In response to STV News questions, the website denied being a forum for paedophiles.

Keeping children safe online

Parents are urged to speak to their children about what they are doing online.

The charity NSPCC says this is the best way to maximise children’s online safety.

Their advice includes exploring sites and apps together and asking children if they know how to stay safe online.

It is also useful to discuss what information is personal and what should be shared.

How to keep your children safe online

The charity offers a template ‘family agreement’ which can set out clear rules.

The agreement can include asking a child’s permission before posting photos of them on social media.

Advice on setting up parental controls to block upsetting and harmful content can also be found.

A guide to the potential dangers of some of the most popular apps and games can be found here.

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