24/04/2013 09:49 BST | Updated 22/06/2013 06:12 BST

Teenagers: The New Front in the Fight Against Online Child Sexual Abuse Images

The recent figures from the Office of the Children's Commissioner (OCC) showing widespread viewing of pornography by under 18s were somehow both startling and at the same time unsurprising. There has been considerable debate about young people's access to adult pornography and what, if anything, the response should be.

At the Internet Watch Foundation we have been at the absolute periphery of this debate for good reason. Our expertise is niche; we've been successfully working to remove and disrupt access to potentially criminal online child sexual abuse material since 1996.

We have very little day to day dealings with adult content, and even less to do with who accesses it and how. Also for a good reason, we don't use the term 'child pornography' as what our Analysts see in reports are images of the rape and sexual torture of children - not acts between consenting adults.

So why are we interested and why now? Simply - we've linked this recent research with previous IWF polls and it paints a clear picture for us to start engaging with teenagers to combat online child sexual abuse images. Please allow me to explain.

IWF research and the discovery of 'Stumble and Ignore'

Over the years we have commissioned research with adults to understand the public's online habits and concerns. Our research has repeatedly shown that 18-34 year old men are most likely to stumble across images of child sexual abuse.

It also shows this group is least likely to report it or know how to report it.

This group is also most likely to view adult pornography on the internet. And so the connection between viewers of adult pornography and risk of stumbling across child sexual abuse content has been clear to us for a while.

Compounding this, our Analysts frequently hear from reporters explaining how they found the content they're reporting. They tell us they were surfing adult pornography when pop ups or progressive links took them into potentially criminal images.

We realised we had to do more to engage this group and convince them to report the content and not just ignore it. We promoted completely anonymous reporting and have run awareness campaigns; the latest was our Do The Right Thing campaign.

Anonymous reporting has become absolutely critical to our work. Not only does it help reassure reporters but just last year intelligence gathered from an anonymous report led to the conviction of a sex offender and the rescue of at least three children.

Staring us in the face

So back to the research discussed by the OCC. If those looking at pornography are getting younger then surely the same applies that they are vulnerable to stumbling across potentially criminal content?

As the evidence shows teenagers are viewing adult pornography, it follows that we should make them aware of the IWF's reporting tool for child sexual abuse content.

The Practical Approach

The benefits are clear - educating young people to know how to report potentially criminal images from the point they start viewing online pornography might break the 'stumble and ignore' cycle displayed by many young adult online users.

For a long while within the IWF we've debated whether it is right for us to engage with teenagers. But the facts speak for themselves - young people under 18 are viewing adult content. Surely if we ignore this, we put them at risk by not providing them with the information they need to report these images?

More importantly, if they understand the difference between adult content and child sexual abuse content we might help them to avoid veering into dangerous territory in the first place and the possibility of, however unwittingly, committing a crime.

We strongly believe awareness raising among under 18s is both consistent with our vision of eliminating online child sexual abuse content and our values of adapting our practices to meet this vision. Working together with partners we need to deliver the message to young people that if they see the content, do the right thing: report it to us.

Indeed it's entirely conceivable then that some under 18s are already making reports and choosing to remain anonymous. We want others to feel they can do the same.

Given these facts, we cannot ignore under 18s any more and have a responsibility to address this.

Engaging with teenagers fits our vision and values and if it educates young people to make more reports, potentially leading to a safer online experience, the aiding of police investigations and the safeguarding of more children from sexual abuse, then our efforts will be entirely worth it.