A retrospective examination of the experience and impacts of adult and peer online sexual victimisation in young people

Chan, Cindy (2024) A retrospective examination of the experience and impacts of adult and peer online sexual victimisation in young people. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Digital ID: http://doi.org/10.17030/uclan.thesis.00044211


Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a pervasive global problem, and online child sexual abuse (OCSA), despite being a fast-growing form of CSA, has continued to receive relatively limited research attention in comparison to sexual abuse experienced without the facilitation of technology. The aim of this PhD programme is to advance knowledge of OCSA by examining the pre, peri, and post online sexual victimisation experienced by young people before the age of 16 using a retrospective mixed methods approach. This was achieved by exploring the initiation and development of online exploitative relationships, examining the scope of different forms of OCSA, quantifying components of the online grooming process and factors predicting sexual abuse following online grooming, and examining the aftermath of OCSA in terms of disclosure of the abuse and its psychosocial impacts in adulthood through a series of three studies. Study 1 used a focus group design to explore young people’s online experiences and interactions with adults and peers. The results revealed four themes consisting of: i) gendered perceptions and experiences of online sexual harm; ii) experience indicative of online grooming by online adult acquaintances; iii) peer perpetrated OCSA; and iv) the psychological impact of OCSA. Using an online questionnaire, Study 2 confirmed that different forms of OCSA (e.g., unwanted online sexual exposure, engagement in unwanted online sexual activities) and online grooming resulting in sexual abuse were common. This suggests young people experience multiple forms of OCSA and highlights the importance of concurrently examining different types of online sexual victimisation to better understand this form of abuse. The experience of grooming tactics and unwanted online exposure as predictors of sexual abuse by online adult acquaintances support existing qualitative evidence and provide quantitative evidence on the online grooming process. Study 2 also demonstrated, for the first time, that peer norms can increase vulnerability to OCSA and found that descriptive norms predicted different aspects of online grooming activities. Using an online questionnaire, Study 3 was the first study to examine the long-term impact of OCSA on psychosocial well-being and the related influence of disclosure in adulthood. The experience of OCSA was found to adversely relate to depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as lower self-esteem, compared to those who had not experienced this form of abuse. This confirms previous findings on the adverse effects of OCSA on young people and shows that the effects can persist into adulthood. This is consistent with the literature on the long-term effects of CSA and reiterates that OCSA is no less serious or less abusive than offline CSA. The link between specific types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and OCSA is an important contribution as they demonstrate both direct and indirect trauma is associated with OCSA and add to a growing body of literature on poly-victimisation across the online and offline environments. Study also extends existing knowledge of sexual re-victimisation by demonstrating the cooccurrence of online and offline CSA and that OCSA perpetrated by both adults and peers was most commonly experienced. These results indicate that young people are being sexually re-victimised before they reach adulthood. These findings can inform clinical practice by emphasising the need to consider vulnerability factors across different domains in order to identify at-risk young people and protect them from further harm. A complex relationship emerged in relation to the influence of disclosure on long-term psychosocial well-being, and self-blame was found to predict post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom severity regardless of whether OCSA had been disclosed. This programme of research developed new knowledge suggesting that vulnerability to OCSA, as well as its experience and impacts, are influenced by social factors and cultural contexts (e.g., gendered sexual norms, peer norms). The role of social stigma about OCSA, negative reactions to disclosure, and self-blame in determining PTSD symptom severity in adulthood and preventing disclosure are also noteworthy contributions to the undeveloped literature on OCSA disclosure. Collectively, the findings underscore the importance of addressing social inequality and social attitudes to prevent exposure to OCSA and to facilitate a safe climate to promote disclosure, which can in turn mitigate the impact of this form of childhood abuse.

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