The number of people seeking help for sexual thoughts about children has doubled during lockdown, a UK charity has told the BBC.
Campaigners warn that lockdown has created a ‘remarkable and unique’ opportunity for those wishing to exploit children.
Increased isolation, stress and uncertainty could mean that more people may act on harmful impulses.
The National Crime Agency had previously warned of the threat.
It said that 300,000 people in the UK pose a sexual threat to children.
The Lucy Faithfull Foundation is a UK charity that works with people affected by child sex abuse, including adult abusers.
The charity runs ‘Stop it Now!’ Helpline, an anonymous and confidential helpline for anyone with concerns about child sexual abuse and self-help resources for people troubled by their own sexual thoughts or behaviour towards children,
It told BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme, that demand for these resources has doubled since lockdown.
Donald Findlater is its hotline director; “Back in February, when coronavirus news dominated the headlines, we saw a significant reduction in contacts with the hotline and our self-help resources, but that has since reversed.
“In March, we saw between 200 and 250 visitors per week to the self-help resources. That number has grown to – and sustained – at around 600 each and every week, so a significant increase since lockdown.”
The percentage of new visitors to the site is also increasing, currently accounting for 64% of total users
Unwanted feelings and urges
The details of some of the calls made to the anonymous helpline make for difficult reading.
One caller explained that being out of work, at home with extra time on his hands to be online, made him feel at higher risk of seeking out harmful material.
Another talked about wanting to take risks after being constrained for so long during lockdown.
And a third explained that he had previously been managing his sexual thoughts about children through work and daily routines – but being at home alone, watching neighbours’ children playing in the back garden forced his mind towards harmful or unwanted feelings and urges.
Mr Findlater believes child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable – but says there needs to be a plan.
“We can’t simply assume we arrest our way out of this problem because by the time we’re arresting someone, a crime has been committed, [the individual is] a sex offender and a child or many children have been harmed.”
He warned that while lockdown created a ‘remarkable and unique’ opportunity for those wishing to exploit children, it may also result in people who did not have a pre-existing sexual interest in children exploring illegal material.
Loss of control
“Circumstances and situations change how people behave and how boundaries are or are not maintained – but we are affected differently.
“All of us have experienced disruption to our normal lives, with normal ways of being distracted changed for many. Add to that anxiety about the virus itself, uncertainty, loss of control – all these things may be enough to prompt some individuals to abandon normal standards and boundaries.”
Mr Findlater is confident that if the charity can stop some people troubled by their own thoughts or behaviour, the police can focus on those who are unlikely to stop.
“There is a sizeable population of people intent on abuse, so the fact of them knowing children are more at home, more online, less supervised by parents who are not attentive to the risk, such individuals are not likely to look for help to stop.”