Use the dark web, online ads, and internet therapy to prevent child sexual abuse

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Child sexual abuse is a global concern that law enforcement and policy makers are having a hard time addressing. But what if you could stop that from happening instead of tackling the criminals later? This is exactly what a group of researchers and doctors in Europe set out to do with the Prevent It program

Prevent It, is a nine-week cognitive behavioral therapy program aimed at people who are concerned about their sexual urges involving children. The program is anonymous and free, and the researchers plan to reach participants via research and social media announcements, as well as darknet forums.

Every week the participants watch a short video and read some psychoeducational texts. One of the fundamental components of CBT is the interconnection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. So, we work to change one part of this triangle to change the others, Malin Joleby, one of the project coordinators, told indianexpress.com. Joleby is a researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who developed the project.

The Prevent It project is funded by the EU and is an international collaboration between researchers in Sweden, Germany, Portugal, the United States and Canada. A pilot study of the program was conducted between 2019 and 2021 and focused on individuals who used child pornography. The results of the pilot study were published in the journal Internet Interventions in December of last year.

Find participants to recruit for the program

While the program holds promise and could potentially prevent child sexual abuse (CSA) before it happens, it wouldn’t be very effective if people didn’t join it in the first place.

The idea for this outreach approach that we use came from the patient group itself. In a previous clinical trial of a drug treatment for pedophilic disorder, our research group leader at Karolinska Institutet, Christoffer Rahm, interviewed participants, Joleby explained.

During his interviews, Rahm asked people with pedophilic disorder how researchers and psychologists can contact them. Participants told him that psychologists cannot sit and wait for patients. They will have to find them by staying where they are. This is why researchers have started reaching out to people on darknet forums where people discuss CSA or share related material.

When my colleagues first started interacting in these darknet forums, they received mixed reactions. Many were understandably skeptical and feared they were undercover agents. In the beginning, they were often kicked out and sometimes greeted unkindly, Joleby explained.

But over time, they’ve gained trust in the forums by being polite, open, and transparent about who they are (researchers at Karolinska Institutet) and what they’re trying to do (they offer free, anonymous treatment). According to Joleby, the owners and administrators who are high up in the hierarchy of these forums also recommend the program to their members.

Researchers also advertise on social media and search engines. For example, if someone searches for an illegal term or related content, they will receive information about the treatment program and the opportunity to join.

In addition to these outreach techniques, the researchers are also collaborating with law enforcement agencies. Police will assist researchers in providing information about the study to individuals suspected by police but not yet convicted or incarcerated.

However, police cannot verify whether the suspects choose to enroll in the program or how they are doing in the program. This is important because the program can only be effective if participants can remain completely anonymous.

Updates to improve the Prevent it program

While the program is effective and was very carefully designed to have the intended effect of preventing CSA, researchers have observed a significant dropout rate, and because it is completely anonymous, it is not possible to follow up on dropouts.

We’ve made a few changes and improvements to the treatment program, and these are all based on feedback from pilot study participants, therapists’ experiences and statistical analyses, Joleby said, about how researchers are addressing this issue.

For example, initially, the first parts of the program involved quite a lot of work. This has now been rearranged to allow participants to enter the program easily. The new and updated version of the program also has more examples and directions to make it easier for participants to follow.

But at the end of the day, because the program is completely anonymous, once a participant logs out, researchers can never contact or track them to see if they can come back.

Will the program work in India?

Despite this drawback of the program, it could prove to be an important tool that can help fight against child sexual abuse, which is especially important in a country like India, which is home to nearly 19% of the world’s children.

A government-funded study of India conducted in 2007 that surveyed 125,000 children in 13 Indian states found that all forms of child abuse are extremely prevalent in India, including physical abuse (66%), sexual abuse (50 %) and emotional abuse (50 percent).

Indianexpress.com spoke to Binita Das Sharma, a consultant psychologist at Apollo Exelcare Hospital in Assam to find out if the program could be effective in the Indian context. Sharma is also a consultant psychologist at the Navajivan Rehabilitation Center for Women and Child Care Institute under the Assam Center for Rural Development and works with CSA survivors.

CSA has always been a hidden problem in India, generally ignored by the media and the criminal justice system. This was mainly due to deeply ingrained cultural stigmas attached to the term sex and also due to the unawareness of the CSA itself as children had difficulty raising objections against older adults who were in a position of authority, and as such cases were not received. reported, Binita said, via email.

The English version of the Prevent It program is available globally and can be accessed by individuals in India as well. But it may not be entirely effective in the Indian context.

According to Binita, while the Prevent It program may be effective in developed economies, his approach could be just as effective in the Indian context. This is due to the unique behavioral identity of the people in the country and the resulting complexities, making it very different from Western societies.

There’s another problem.

A significant difference between India and other western countries regarding CSA is that Indian society has yet to fully recognize CSA as a behavioral disorder hence resulting in much fewer steps or measures to cure the same behavioral disorder as a measure preventive, however in Europe, importance is placed on identifying these people and helping them to reform their behavioral disorder, explained Sharma.

Hence, for Prevent It to be most effective, it will need to be adapted to the Indian cultural context. But even before that, we will need more awareness about CSA in India as many cases go unreported in the first place due to social stigma.

India has the largest teenage population in the world, and one in five people aged 10 to 19 in the world live in the country. The society, political system and economy of any country depend on its ability to keep its children safe and sound.

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