Severity and risk are not the same when it comes to indecent images of children

Evidence can deceive. Shutterstock crime computer

The National Crime Agency recently reported the successful arrest of 660 “suspected paedophiles” who had accessed indecent images of children online, following a six-month investigation. The large volume of arrests revisits the discussion about how to reliably assess risk when it comes to individuals who view such pictures.

The NCA arrests form the second large-scale internet sting in the UK, following Operation Ore in 1999, which ultimately led to nearly 1,500 convictions. Both reflect the fact that the prevalence of indecent child image material has risen considerably since the advent of the internet. In the UK alone, the child-protection charity NSPCC has reported a 26-fold increase in convictions related to such images from 62 in 1989 to 1,619 in 2009.

From a psychologist’s point of view, these figures raise some important questions, for example, regarding the likelihood of a person who views inappropriate images to commit a contact sex offence against a child.

In the UK, sentences for downloading or possessing indecent images of children depend on the content. The Definite Sentencing Guidelines for Sexual Offences were updated in April 2014, with three categories of indecent child image material. The first is penetrative sexual activity, sadism, or bestiality; the second, non-penetrative sexual activity; and the third is any other.

The update is significantly different from the original 2007 version, which described five levels, starting with “erotic posing” and going up to sadism.

This original version was closely linked to the COPINE Scale, developed by the Combating Paedophile Information Networks in Europe Project. This is the most widely used psychological measure of indecent images of children, with the main purpose being a standardised assessment of the viewed material.

The COPINE scale consists of ten levels, from indicative images – non-erotic images such as family photos – to sadistic material. Each ascending level reflects an increase in sexual victimisation and a greater impact on the victim.

In contrast to the sentencing tools currently used, a psychological rating system such as the COPINE scale acknowledges the fact that, for some viewers, arousing images are not restricted to pictures defined as illegal. For example, fantasising about images at lower levels, such as a beach scene involving nude children, can sexualise a supposedly safe situation. The COPINE scale is thus well established as a research tool but is difficult to transfer in a legal context.

At the moment, sentencing decisions are mainly based on the content of the material and and the offending activities the person engaged in, for example, if they viewed, distributed, or traded ICIM. That means that sentencing length is often not indicative of the risk an offender poses, even though the two are often conflated in the media.

In a forensic context, the term “risk” is used to describe the statistical and psychological likelihood that an individual will later commit a similar offence. For offenders convicted of child imagery offences though, the risk focus is not only the likelihood of reoffending but also the potential escalation to direct sexual abuse of a child.

To date, little is known about what makes people cross over from viewing images to committing child abuse. In fact, what little we do know indicates that, statistically, the risk of further offending or offence escalation appears to be low. One study compiled the reoffending rates of 2,630 offenders and found that 3.4% of people who committed an offence related to child images went on to commit another while 2% went on to commit a contact offence against children.

It may even be that an individual who views more serious images of child abuse might be at a lower risk of committing a direct contact offence than someone who develops sexual fantasies about innocent child imagery, which they may more frequently encounter in their daily activities.

There is also an assumption that all people viewing these images have a sexual interest in children and they are often described “paedophiles” in the press. Paedophilia is defined as “recurrent, intense and sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviours involving sexual activities with a pre-pubescent child or children” (generally meaning aged 13 or younger). However, there is evidence that some users also gain satisfaction from the collection process rather than the actual content of the images, while others may use the images to foster online social contacts. Others use them as a way to escape their real-life problems or to shock themselves, similar to how some people view beheadings or car crashes online.

For all these reasons, risk assessment is very different from sentencing decisions. Assessing the risk an individual presents is complex and while the content of the images involved in each case is important, a psychological assessment includes a broader range of factors than the legal system allows for.