We need better research for better intervention

Maggie Brennan, Researcher and Lecturer in Criminology, University College Cork, Ireland.

Academic research is central to better, evidence-led decision making in the fight against online child sexual exploitation.  An unprecedented volume of offences is making offender management by prosecution harder than ever before. This challenge, along with the growing complexity of cases, limits law enforcement’s capacity to detect and prosecute offending, let alone curb the growing scale of the problem. Our research focus must adapt to address these problems.

”Improved collaboration will enhance professional practice, and develop better strategies for prevention, assessment, treatment and management.”

We need to evaluate our approaches to management and prevention

In most jurisdictions, management and prevention depends on post-conviction treatment and intervention. Oftentimes, there is little focus on ‘at-risk’ individuals, who have not yet offended, and only those convicted have access to services. Moreover, there is little independent empirical evaluation of the effectiveness of our management and prevention interventions. Prevention efforts must extend their focus from criminal justice to community-based interventions. Undetected individuals, at risk of CSAM use and other forms of sexual offending need to be identified and, where eligible, steered towards community-based as opposed to criminal justice intervention, where these can be demonstrated to enhance preventive capacity.

We need to bring children’s voices to our research

The challenge of protecting children from online abuse and exploitation has become increasingly complex in recent years, as more children generate sexual imagery, and suffer related forms of victimization, whether in peer or adult-perpetrated forms. Our evidence and interventions need to engage with children’s experiences in order to understand and respond to them, e.g. why they engage in such behaviour, or their needs around prevention and intervention.

We need closer collaboration

Finally, there is an urgent need for closer collaboration. Researchers are developing knowledge in the assessment, risk management and treatment of online child sex offenders, as well as strategies to prevent such offences. However, current research is limited by the types of study, accessibility to frontline practitioners and relevance across jurisdictions. There is little knowledge exchange between researchers and practitioners, which means that practitioners and policy makers cannot always make use of the research that does exist.

Improved collaboration will enhance professional practice, and develop better strategies for prevention, assessment, treatment and management. The dynamic nature of online sex offending makes it critical that future research addresses new technology, how offenders are using it, and delivers evidence-driven responses. Academia, policy makers and professional stakeholders need a permanent intervention-oriented platform for this purpose – to advance and share knowledge, to ensure that academic research assists practitioners, and focuses resources where they are needed.


Maggie Brennan is a lecturer in Criminology at University College Cork, Ireland, and a co-founder of CyberSafeIreland, a national charity for child online safety and well-being.