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Child sexual abuse online

It’s important to understand the methods abusers use to access children, the signs that abuse is occurring, and how to help children who have been abused.

This page is mainly for health, social and community sector workers, but it also provides links to information for parents, carers and educators.

Key points:

  • Online child sexual abuse can happen to any child.
  • It is illegal to create, share or keep sexual images or videos of children, or have sexual contact with them online.
  • Having age-appropriate conversations with children about online sexual abuse helps them recognise the risks and seek help if they are harmed.

Stay safe

If you are in Australia and someone is in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000) now. If you are elsewhere, contact the police in your country.

 

Online child sexual exploitation, including online grooming and inappropriate contact, should be reported to the Australian Federal Police-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE).

 

Report Abuse

 

Reports can also be made in confidence to Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or at crimestoppers.com.au.

What is online child sexual abuse?

Any sexual activity between a child and an adult is child sexual abuse. Sexual activity may be sexual intercourse, sexual touching or sexual acts that happen in person or online. It may involve coercion, force or implied force.

In Australia, children under the age of 16 (or under the age of 17 in South Australia and Tasmania) cannot legally consent to sexual intercourse or sexual activity with adults. Asking for, accessing, possessing, creating or sharing sexualised images of children and young people under 18 is also against the law, though there are some defences or exceptions if it happens between young people of a similar age. For more information on Australian consent laws, see the Australian Institute for Family Studies.

When a child under the age of 18 causes sexual harm to another child, this is sometimes referred to as ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ instead of child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse does not include age-appropriate education and support relating to sex and relationships.

When considering the risks to a child, it is important to be aware that not all sexual abuse of children is by 'paedophiles' who are sexually attracted to children.

Online child sexual abuse is any form of sexual abuse of a child under 18 that has a link to the online environment (Greijer & Doek 2016). It includes situations where an adult:

  • engages in an online act, experience or contact with a child that involves sexual content, or sexually explicit comments or conversations 
  • shares, or threatens to share, a sexual or sexualised image or video of a child, whether it was produced by the child or someone else – such images and videos are child sexual exploitation material (for information about the non-consensual sharing of intimate images of adults, see image-based abuse)
  • livestreams sexual or sexualised activity or conversations with a child online, for example via a video call or video chat
  • encourages or coerces a child to livestream sexual or sexualised activity or conversations online
  • grooms’ a child for sexual or sexualised activity – this is when an adult manipulates a child into trusting them, to make it easier to have sexual contact with them online or in person
  • blackmails a child who has already shared sexual content into sending money, more sexual images or videos, or getting sexual over a video call or video chat – this is often called ‘sexual extortion’ or ‘sextortion’ when it happens to adults
  • uses phishing or other security breaches such as remotely activating a webcam to monitor a child in private settings without their knowledge or consent, for sexual gratification.

Online child sexual abuse can occur when someone uses their relationship or power to exploit a child's vulnerability and persuade or coerce them into sharing sexual content or engaging in sexual activity. People with a relationship of power over a child may include teachers, coaches, faith leaders and older family members among others. For example, a teacher might use the promise of better marks to talk a child into sending them nudes, or a faith leader might exploit a child’s religious beliefs to frighten them into getting sexual in a video call.

It is estimated that in 50% to 70% of cases of online child sexual abuse, the abuser is someone who is known to the child.

Online child sexual abuse can also occur when an abuser ‘grooms’ a child into feeling comfortable about sexual contact.

For example, an abuser may: 

  • pretend to be another child, young person or trusted adult to trick their victim into trusting them
  • promise ‘rewards’ such as gifts or money in exchange for a sexual image, video or livestream
  • threaten harmful consequences, such as physical harm to the child or their family, if they don’t share a sexual image, video or livestream.

Child sexual exploitation and abuse material

Child sexual exploitation material (or ‘CSEM’) is any content that presents a child in a sexual context. It includes content that sexualises and takes unfair advantage of a child, as well as content that shows sexual activity by a child. Child sexual abuse material (or ‘CSAM’) shows a sexual assault against a child, and can be considered a sub-set of child sexual exploitation material.  

Child sexual exploitation and abuse material is illegal to create, share or keep.

eSafety does not use the term ‘child pornography’ to describe child sexual exploitation and abuse material. Online pornography contains sexually explicit descriptions or displays of adults intended to create sexual excitement in adult viewers. It is often created by consenting adults. As noted by Interpol, ‘Child abuse images involve children who cannot and would not consent and who are victims of a crime.’

Child sexual exploitation material includes images or videos that have been voluntarily produced by children for other purposes but have made their way into collections of child sexual exploitation material. Self-generation of content is a complex issue, and there are many reasons why young people may send sexual images, videos or messages. These include peer pressure, exploring their sexual feelings and identity, wanting to feel good about their bodies, and knowing some older people send ‘nudes’ as part of seeking or participating in romantic or intimate relationships. However, abusers can also manipulate, coerce or threaten children and young people into creating and sharing sexual images, videos or depictions of themselves.

eSafety analysis of 1,330 URLs containing sexualised images of children indicated that 12% of the material was self-generated. When children are coerced, manipulated, or threatened into providing sexual exploitation material of themselves, it often happens in areas of the family home, including the bedroom, living room and bathroom. This is because these areas may be more private, and children are being directed by the abuser to hide their interactions.

Once anyone sends sexual content of themselves, there is always a risk it will be shared with others.

If a child is manipulated into sharing the image or video with an abuser, it may also be sent to other abusers and posted to online child abuse forums.

In addition, abusers can use livestreaming to broadcast child sexual abuse happening in real time, or manipulate a child into livestreaming sexual acts without any physical contact. The livestream can be shared with other abusers, and recorded for future sharing, with or without the child knowing. 

Child sexual exploitation and abuse material can also be created using generative artificial intelligence (generative AI). Image manipulation tools can be used to generate deepfakes, which are fake digital photos, videos, or sound files of real people which have been edited to create realistic, but false, depictions of them doing or saying something. This can be based on sexual or non-sexual images, video, audio or other media or combinations of media to form a depiction of a real child, who may remain recognisable.

eSafety can give a removal notice to a website, social media service, relevant electronic service or hosting service provider who must remove the material within 24 hours of being given the notice. However, where there are established reporting pathways for the removal of online child sexual exploitation material, eSafety prefers them over taking formal action. 

For example, eSafety is the Australian hotline member of the INHOPE, a global network of organisations dedicated to the rapid removal of online child sexual exploitation material. All hotline members have established relationships with the online industry and law enforcement agencies in their own country, which means that the removal of reported material can be actioned much faster than if we chose to issue a removal notice. 

Where child sexual exploitation and abuse material is hosted in or provided from a non-INHOPE member country, eSafety will consider the use of formal powers to get the material removed. 

If child sexual exploitation and abuse material is found to be hosted in or provided from Australia, eSafety will notify the relevant Australian police force first and, once we are certain that their investigation (and the potential rescue of a child) will not be compromised, we will direct the relevant online service to remove the material.

For more information, see eSafety’s Online Content Scheme.

How does online child sexual abuse impact children?

Children who have been sexually abused online are four times more likely to experience mental health problems immediately after the abuse and throughout their lives. This can include: 

  • inability to participate fully in life online and offline
  • negative feelings about themselves
  • feelings of shame and worthlessness, and blaming themselves
  • depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • nightmares and sleeping difficulties
  • relationship difficulties, including with trust and intimacy.

(Commonwealth of Australia 2017; Hamilton-Giachritis et al. 2017; Say et al. 2015)

These issues can contribute to physical harms, including self-harm and suicide.

In addition, the ongoing availability of online child sexual exploitation material can continue to impact the mental health of the child shown in the image or video into adulthood, and through the rest of their life. ‘Revictimisation’ can occur if they know other people are still seeing and sharing the material online. Often they fear being contacted by the perpetrator of the abuse again, or by other people who have accessed the material and then identified them from it. 

A child who is recognisable in exploitation and abuse material created using generative AI (including deepfakes) may experience the same trauma and revictimisation as a child whose real images have been shared.

What are the barriers to children disclosing online sexual abuse?

When a child feels too scared or ashamed to talk about what’s happened or to get help for sexual abuse, they are more likely to experience mental health issues and feel unable to cope. (Schomerus et. al. 2021)

The reasons a child might not directly tell anyone they have been sexually abused include:

  • their age – younger victims are less likely to disclose
  • a close relationship with the abuser, such as a family relationship
  • not knowing certain behaviours or interactions are abusive, or believing that abuse will happen no matter what they do or say
  • fear of being blamed for what happened, or blaming themselves
  • being convinced by the abuser that the abuse is the child’s fault, or there will be bad consequences if they reveal it
  • seeing that when others disclose, they face negative consequences such as having their devices confiscated
  • not trusting that adults will believe them or protect them from further harm
  • not understanding the process of reporting
  • feeling they won’t be able to cope if they tell someone about the abuse.

(Alaggia et al. 2019).

Children are more likely to experience multiple forms of abuse than a single form. This is called ‘multi-type maltreatment.’ Child sexual abuse often co-occurs with exposure to domestic violence, emotional abuse and physical abuse. Children experiencing multi-type maltreatment may be less likely to feel they have a trusted adult they can tell about sexual abuse.

Practitioners (and parents, carers and educators) can show they are safe to talk to by making it clear that:

  • online sexual abuse is never a child’s fault
  • they won’t blame a child if they reveal something has happened
  • they know where to get help and support for the child if something does happen.

What are the signs that a child might be experiencing online child sexual abuse?

Signs that a child may have experienced (or be experiencing) online sexual abuse can differ depending on their developmental stage, the nature of the abuse, and who abused them. An abused child may show some of the signs or none at all. Some of the signs can also suggest other causes, so they don’t necessarily confirm sexual abuse without further evidence.

Where children are particularly vulnerable to abuse or may struggle to identify an adult they can trust, it’s important to monitor their wellbeing closely.

Signs of possible online child sexual abuse include:

  • changes in how much time the child spends online, their online activities or their online friends
  • avoiding or seeming anxious about their phone or other devices
  • using their devices in private spaces and becoming vague or secretive about their online activities (abusers often tell the child to keep their ‘special relationship’ a secret, or threaten them with harmful consequences if they tell others about it)
  • having unexplained access to money, gaming credits or new items such as expensive shoes or clothes (abusers sometimes bribe the child with gifts) 
  • becoming quieter or more withdrawn generally
  • seeming more worried or anxious generally.

More information about the signs of child sexual abuse can be found at the Bravehearts website: What are the Signs of Child Sexual Abuse? | Bravehearts.

How can we support a child who has experienced online sexual abuse?

When a child experiences online sexual abuse, it can cause significant trauma. You can help them deal with this by learning how to sensitively respond to a disclosure of sexual abuse on the Emerging Minds website. These are some key points to remember:

  • Stay calm.
  • Do not disbelieve or ignore a disclosure.
  • If the child is in Australia and is in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000) or your local police.
  • Any type of suspected child sexual abuse, including grooming, should be reported to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE). The child can make a report themselves, or an adult can help them. 
  • Anyone can anonymously report online child sexual exploitation and abuse material to eSafety at any time. We work with law enforcement agencies and the global INHOPE network to remove the material wherever it is hosted. Your reports make a difference – every image or video removed helps prevent the re-victimisation of the children involved.
  • Material that can be reported to eSafety includes posts, comments, chats, texts, messages, emails, memes, livestreams, images or videos. The material can be sent or shared using an online or electronic service or platform.
  • Anyone whose nude or sexual image or video has been shared online without their consent can report it to eSafety, so we can have it removed. 
  • The TakeItDown tool can provide a secure, anonymous way to prevent sexual images or videos being uploaded and shared on a range of online platforms and services. 
  • There are many counselling and support services that help children who have experienced sexual abuse, including grooming, and their families. These are listed on the ACCCE website.
  • Educators can support students to build the skills to help prevent and manage unwanted contact and grooming. eSafety provides a factsheet and scenarios to help educators get started.

How can we help prevent online child sexual abuse and limit its impacts?

Children are often better at managing risks and protecting themselves online if they are given information, guidance, and support by trusted adults. Family support and strong peer relationships can also help limit the impacts if a child does experience online sexual abuse.

No single strategy is completely effective on its own, so it’s best for parents and carers to use a range of approaches that include:

  • having age-appropriate conversations that empower children and young people to understand consent and privacy, recognise risks and get help if they experience threats or abuse
  • letting children know they won’t be angry with them if there is a problem, and they’ll work out a solution together
  • believing children if they report a problem 
  • encouraging children to use their devices where others can see and hear what they are doing 
  • managing the amount and quality of time children spend online
  • regularly asking children about their online activities, so they will notice if things change
  • showing children how to select strong privacy settings, and ensure they review them regularly
  • helping children build good online safety habits from an early age 
  • using parental controls
  • exploring more eSafety advice for parents, including online safety basicsthe hard-to-have conversations, sexting and sending nudes and the eSafety Guide, which provides information about the latest games, apps and social media.  

Practitioners, teachers and communities can:

  • create safe, trusting environments that children can access where they feel comfortable discussing their feelings, including about sensitive topics
  • believe children and validate their experiences
  • support families to teach children about online boundaries – this includes what is appropriate to share online and what isn’t, and who to share with
  • provide age-appropriate sex and relationships education, including consent and recognising and responding to abuse, so they can understand and develop healthy sexual behaviours
  • guide parents and carers to ask their children about what they’re doing and what is important to them online
  • consider advising parents and carers to avoid threatening to prevent their children’s access to devices or accounts
  • discuss and identify trusted adults who children can talk with if something goes wrong online
  • suggest families explore eSafety’s online safety basics page and our webinars for parents and carers.

Educators, including teachers and school counsellors, may be the first adults to become aware of an incident involving child sexual abuse, or exploitation and abuse material. It is important that there are processes in place so that it is managed appropriately. 

Remember that many instances of online sexual abuse involve people known to the child.

Be aware of the risks of harm to the child, follow school and/or sector policies and procedures, and involve child protection agencies as necessary. eSafety provides information for educators on responding to incidents.

How can we support a child who has engaged in harmful sexual behaviours?

As children develop, they can naturally become curious about sex and relationships. This might include using digital technology to view, create and share sexual material. 

When children engage in sexual activity online that endangers themselves or is harmful to others, it is often best the family seeks support together, though this may not always be possible or appropriate, such as in the case of domestic or family violence. Incidents of harmful sexual behaviour by children tend to be impulsive rather than premeditated. If they get professional support, they are unlikely to continue with the harmful behaviour as adults (Raising Children Network).

Signs that a child might be engaging in harmful sexual behaviour include: 

  • frequently spending an unusual amount of time in the company of younger children, or taking them to play ‘special’ games in hidden or ‘secret’ places
  • excessive or insistent unwanted physical contact with another child
  • taking photos of others without consent
  • frequently using sexual language about others (adults or children)
  • being secretive about online activities.

If you suspect a child is engaging in harmful sexual behaviour, there are things you can support their parents or carers to do. It is important they let the child know that they care for them and will help them. They should try to keep routines as normal as possible and take care of their own health while supporting the child. The Raising Children Network has more information about supporting children with harmful sexual behaviours. If you think they may be harming others, you can access advice and support via Stop It Now! Australia.

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What programs are there to prevent offending and re-offending?

There is a range of programs available in Australia and internationally to support and redirect those who feel they may be at risk of sexually abusing a child or accessing child sexual exploitation and abuse material. There are also programs to prevent re-offending.

Emerging evidence suggests that early intervention may be effective in redirecting people at risk of offending. These initial touchpoints can provide a gateway for more robust therapeutic interventions for undetected offenders, and those at risk of offending.

Many people who experience sexual thoughts about children feel shame, worry and distress, and do not want to have those thoughts. Online self-management courses support people who have unwanted sexual thoughts about children, or view online child sexual exploitation and abuse material, to understand their challenges and develop prevention strategies. Building people’s understanding and confidence in their self-control can help reduce their feelings of isolation and distress.

If you are worried about having sexual thoughts about children or viewing online child sexual exploitation and abuse material, you can get support via Stop It Now! Australia.

More information on the evidence surrounding initiatives to prevent viewing of child sexual exploitation and abuse material is available in this Australian Institute of Criminology paper: Preventing child sexual abuse material offending: An international review of initiatives (aic.gov.au)

References

Alaggia R, Collin-Vézina D, Lateef R. (2019). ‘Facilitators and Barriers to Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) Disclosures: A Research Update (2000–2016)’, Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 20(2):260-283.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2017). Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Australian Government.

Davis P. (2022). ‘Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic’. National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic (missingkids.org). Accessed 9 August 2023.

Gannoni A, Voce A, Napier S, Boxall H, Thomsen D. (2023). Preventing child sexual abuse material offending: An international review of initiatives, Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Government.

Greijer S, Doek J. (2016). Terminology Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse. ECPAT International.

Hamilton-Giachritsis C, Hanson E, Whittle H, Beech A. (2017). “Everyone deserves to be happy and safe.” A mixed methods study exploring how online and offline child sexual abuse impact young people and how professionals respond to it. National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Haslam D, Mathews B, Pacella R, Scott JG, Finkelhor D, Higgins DJ, Meinck F, Erskine HE, Thomas HJ, Lawrence D, Malacova E. (2023). The prevalence and impact of child maltreatment in Australia: Findings from the Australian Child Maltreatment Study: Brief Report. Australian Child Maltreatment Study, Queensland University of Technology.

Kamar E, Howell C. (2023). ‘Online predators target children’s webcams, study finds’, The Conversation. Online predators target children’s webcams, study finds (theconversation.com). Accessed 14 August 2023.

Napier S, Teunissen C, Boxall H. (2021). ‘Live streaming of child sexual abuse: An analysis of offender chat logs’, Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice, no. 639, Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Government.

News & Media Research Centre. (2023). Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse: Guidance for Media. Commonwealth Government and University of Canberra.

Say GN, BabadağI Z, Karabekiroğlu K, Yüce M, Akbaş S. (2015). ‘Abuse Characteristics and Psychiatric Consequences Associated with Online Sexual Abuse’, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 18(6):333-336.

Schomerus G, Schindler S, Rechenberg T, Gfesser T, Grabe HJ, Liebergesell M, Sander C, Ulke C, Speerforck S. (2021). Stigma as a barrier to addressing childhood trauma in conversation with trauma survivors: A study in the general population. PLoS ONE 16(10): e0258782. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0258782. Accessed 24 July 2023.

Last updated: 11/01/2024