Preventing child sexual abuse online through public health approaches


More funding is urgently needed to tackle child sexual exploitation and abuse online, particularly investing in preventative public health approaches.

What we mean by a public health approach

Since responding to the COVID pandemic, the world has learnt a lot about public health approaches to addressing global problems. This approach includes four main steps:


Defining and monitoring the problem

What’s child sexual exploitation and abuse online? What’s its scope and impact on children and the wider society?


Identifying causes of the problem, including risk and protective factors

What are the root causes of this problem? What are the reasons behind offending?


Designing, implementing, and evaluating interventions to test effectiveness

Interventions should be focusing on prevention and target the whole community, including those at risk of perpetration or victimisation, and those who have already been abused or perpetrated abuse.


Scaling up effective interventions while continuing monitoring and evaluation 

Improve and increase the scale and impact of these interventions.

Public health approaches provide an evidence-based framework for understanding and preventing violence. This offers a pathway to prevent countless children around the world from experiencing the trauma caused by sexual exploitation and abuse online.

Inverting the prevention pyramid

The pyramid looks at three different types of preventative interventions. It also shows how funding is currently apportioned and how it ideally should be distributed to prioritise primary prevention.

prevention pyramid arial 01

Tackling the root causes of the problem

Prevention initiatives should primarily be focused on changing social norms, behaviours, and attitudes at a societal level, addressing structural conditions such as poverty which fuel offending, and reducing children’s exposure risk to victimisation. To reduce children’s risk of victimisation, Safety by Design measures and sexuality and healthy relationship education are of key importance.

Sexuality and healthy relationship education aims to teach children and caregivers about sexual health, consent, healthy boundaries, and recognising signs of abuse and how to respond and seek help. While it is not children’s responsibility to protect themselves from abuse, early intervention (and therefore early years education) is an essential component of a long-term primary prevention strategy.

How public health approaches can deter offenders and prevent abuse

There is a need for interventions directed towards individuals at risk of offending. Surveys of the offender community and data from anonymous support services evidence demand for deterrence programmes. 

Data shows that men in Canada who have committed a sex offence may struggle with their sexual thoughts and urges for an average of 5-10 years before committing the sexual offence.

Factors such as public stigma, the challenges of measuring and evaluating these programmes, and underfunding from governments have limited further development of these interventions. From a public health perspective, it is crucial that people at risk of offending have access to stigma-free, competent, and empathic treatment.

Talking for Change

Talking for Change is a Canadian programme providing cognitive-behavioral therapy and anonymous support to individuals who are concerned about their sexual interest in children, their risk of sexually abusing a child, or their use of child sexual abuse material.

Since 2019, the Government of Canada has committed over 3 million CAD through Public Safety Canada to support the programme’s development and growth.

The role of Safety by Design

Safety by Design is a crucial element of public health approaches to tackle child sexual exploitation and abuse online.

“We help adults with their technological problems, yet social media platforms overlook our ability to easily get round child restrictions. Apps need to be developed while keeping us children and our safety at the center.”

Abhinay, 16 years-old, ChildSafeNet 

Especially now,  the rise of new emerging technologies such as generative AI presents a unique opportunity  for Safety by Design measures that can ensure that new tools are built with child safety in mind.

Insights from the Tech Coalition’s annual survey of 31 coalition member companies, signal an increasing but relative lack of investment in measures associated with Safety by Design.

The growing adoption of E2EE in online platforms since 2021 increases the need for safe design and device-level options that offer an opportunity to intervene early before abuse happens.