How People Use the Internet to Sexually Exploit Children and Teens

What is child sexual abuse material?

Both male and female adults and some young people may use the Internet and other new technologies to harm children. Some do this by viewing, producing or distributing photographs and video images on the internet of children naked, in sexual poses and/or being sexually abused – this is child pornography, now called child sexual abuse material (CSAM). We do not yet have enough research to understand how likely it is that someone who has looked at abusive images of children may also go on to sexually abuse a child directly. However, all of this behavior is illegal and anyone participating in these activities must stop. What we need to remember is that child sexual abuse material is an event of child sexual abuse captured in a photograph.


Some people look at photographs and video images on the internet of children naked, in sexual poses and/or being sexually abused. Although the Internet sites that host this material are illegal, people are still able to gain access and some will actively seek them out. Some people will say they came across the images by accident, but this is rarely the case. Over time, some will feel they have become addicted to such material and find that they are sexually aroused by them. This may lead to developing a powerful desire to regularly view more images which can give the user a frightening sense of being out-of-control.


Some people take, produce or reproduce photographs, videos or DVDs. Images may be of children naked, in sexual poses or being sexually abused. These images will, generally, be taken with a digital camera which means that the makers of the images do not have to take their film to be developed – they can just download them onto their computers. This makes it much easier to keep such activity secret. The newer models of mobile phones which are used for digital photography as well as for videos can be used to immediately uploaded images to the Internet making mass distribution dangerously fast.


Some people distribute or trade illegal images via the Internet. These images may be distributed or traded (without exchanging money) with others who have a sexual interest in children. These images may also be shown to children and young people by someone with the intention of sexually abusing them to ‘normalize’ the activity in the eyes of the child. Images may be distributed via computer, phones or other mobile technologies.

Chatting or online enticement

Some adults communicate online to form ‘friendships’ with minors. Sometimes there is an intention of meeting in the ‘real world’ to sexually abuse them. The process of developing a relationship with a child (usually an underage teen) online is often called manipulation or “grooming” and chat rooms and social networking sites are the most likely places for such behavior to start as they offer direct and immediate contact. A teen may be encouraged to give personal details, to go off into a private chat room and also to use a webcam or voice technologies. Although a relationship may be initiated in a chat room or social networking site they can continue through instant messaging, email and cell phone contact.


Using the internet to engage in sexual activity is commonly referred to as “cybersex.” Encouraging children or young teens to hold sexual conversations in which they are instructed to engage in, talk about, or show sexual behavior can also be referred to as “cybersex”. The most common places for an abuser to start targeting and grooming a minor for these purposes are teen chat rooms. Such behavior takes place online, without physical contact between the abuser and the child. Despite the lack of physical contact, children can be frightened and traumatized by these interactions.

Teens crossing the lines with peers

Minors can also be arrested for child sexual abuse material. Recently a trend among youth is the use of mobile technology and cell phones to send nude images and pornographic videos via text message to friends -- sometimes referred to as “sexting.” Although in this context “sexting” is generally done between school friends, it’s important to note that it is illegal for anyone to possess, distribute or manufacture pornography involving anyone less than 18 years of age. Even minors found distributing or possessing such images can be, and have been, found guilty of these crimes. Talk honestly with your teen and make sure that any images or video that they send or receive electronically are within legal boundaries.

Adapted with permission from The Internet & Children: What's the Problem?, Stop It Now! UK & Ireland,