What to do if you come across child sexual abuse material

Whilst the internet is largely a positive and useful space, you may come across harmful content online, such as child sexual abuse (CSA) material, and be unsure what to do. It is important to understand what steps to take and that we all have a duty to report CSA, to enable law enforcement and partners to tackle this crime and protect children. 

What do we mean by child sexual abuse material?

CSA material refers to any content that shows indecent images or sexual acts involving under 18 year olds. 

  • Indecent images of children means an image of someone under 18 years of old that may include: nude or semi-nude sexual posing. For example, displaying genitals and/or breasts or overtly sexual images of children in underwear; nude or semi-nude whilst touching themselves in a sexual way; hurting someone else sexually; sexual acts. 
  • Sexual acts include both penetrative and non-penetrative sexual activity. 

CSA material includes live video or streams, pre-recorded video footage, photographs and non-photographic images such as computer generated images.

It is illegal to possess, distribute, show or make CSA material. This includes making copies, printing, sharing, storing or saving.  

This content should always be referred to as CSA material or Indecent Images of Children (IIOC) for image specific content. ‘Child pornography’ is never an acceptable term; the pornography industry is a consensual industry – no child can ever consent to their own abuse.

What should I do if I come across child sexual abuse material online?

1. Report it to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). CSA material is illegal and should immediately be reported to the IWF. IWF are a not-for-profit organisation that work to remove CSA material from online spaces, in partnership with online industry and law enforcement. You can report to IWF anonymously and will only require the URL (web address) of the content. 

2. Report it to the app or site. Most apps and sites have rules they must follow about the type of content allowed as well as a duty to uphold the law. Content that breaches these rules or the law should always be reported. Childnet provide guidance on how to report to the most common sites

3. Don’t share it. Delete it. You may be unsure whether to keep or share the CSA material as evidence. Sharing CSA material is illegal and you will not need to keep it as evidence for a report. Make a note of the source/URL for your report and delete the material. 

Why is child sexual abuse material being circulated online?

There are a number of reasons why CSA material is circulated online, generally these can be split into two categories: 

1. CSA material shared on purpose or with malicious intent. This may be offenders sharing the material with other offenders, offenders seeking gratification from sharing the material, or sharing to intentionally cause distress to the child or others.

2. CSA material shared by accident or without malicious intent. This may be those sharing out of outrage or seeking to raise awareness or help. Whilst this may be done with good intentions this is never acceptable and is illegal; material should always be deleted and reported.  It may also include material that under 18 year olds have consensually shared, for example in a relationship, that has made its way to porn or other websites.   

Some content can also be circulated due to online trends. If content that hasn’t yet been reported and removed is widely viewed and shared, whether intentionally or not, this can come up as trending content and will be shown to you as something you may want to view.  If this happens, you should follow the same steps above to report it to the IWF and the app or site. Do not share it any further. Sharing the content is illegal and can cause further harm to the victim, which may have happened already through the content trending.

What should I do if I come across child sexual abuse material at work?

Adults should not view CSA material. Wherever possible, responses to incidents involving CSA material should be based on what the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) or equivalent has been told about the imagery. If you have unavoidably viewed CSA material because a parent or child has shown it to you, speak to your DSL (or equivalent) about what has happened and seek any support you need. DSLs and senior leadership teams can find information about responding to these incidents and safeguarding young people in the Sharing nudes and semi-nudes UKCIS guidance. A Welsh version of this guidance is also available.

If you find CSA material on a work device, do not make any changes to the device or its contents. Contact your local police force, and wherever feasible, store the device in a secure location. Local police contact information can be found at https://www.police.uk/contact/ or by calling 101.

Looking after yourself

Coming across CSA material can be distressing, it is important that once you have reported the crime, you consider the steps you need to take for your own wellbeing. This will be different for every individual, however talking to someone is often helpful. You may want to speak to a friend or family member, or prefer to speak confidentially to a support service such as NSPCC’s helpline or Samaritans

You may also find it helpful to know what has happened as a result of your report, to help you move on from feelings of distress. If this is the case you will need to provide your contact email address when submitting a report to IWF, they will then be able to inform you at a later date what happened to your report. 

Under 18 years old? 

If you have come across this article and are under 18 years old, you may find the advice and information on our 11-13s or 14+ Thinkuknow sites useful. 

You can also find support on this topic and more from Childline.

If you are concerned about an image of yourself that has been shared online, you can get help to report and remove it by using the IWF and Childline’s Report Remove tool

If you are worried about the way someone is communicating with you online and believe yourself to be at risk of online sexual abuse or grooming, you can report it to CEOP at the National Crime Agency.