Defining the demographics of child victims of online sexual crimes


The work of Dr Ethel Quayle has helped to identify the demographics of child victims of online sexual crimes for the first time.

What was the problem? 

Illegal images of children online are a big problem that is growing globally. Research between 2002 and 2012 identified over 80 million child pornography images.

While cases of sexual contact offences against children appear to be decreasing in most countries, online sexual crimes are not.

There is a body of research on characteristics of offenders, but little research on the victims. Almost nothing was known about the age, gender and ethnicity of these children.

Quayle led research that provided the first demographics of the child victims of these crimes.

What did we do? 

Baseline demographics of images

Working with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) UK, researchers from the University of Edinburgh analysed images of sexually abused children. They found that images distributed online are predominantly of white, western, pubescent and pre-pubescent females. High numbers of Asian children are also targeted. The data provided evidence of gender bias in online abuse, and the first evidence of technology-mediated crimes against children in Asia, whose images are mostly obtained and exchanged by white, western males.

Online luring

Quayle worked with Dr Newman (University of Edinburgh) and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection to analyse online luring (grooming) of children. Chat logs between offenders and children provided real-time data of the role of abusive images in the offending process. The researchers interviewed young people who had been groomed online and sexually assaulted offline, and offenders. They held focus groups with children thought to be vulnerable.

Self-generated content

The CEOP database provided an evidence base of self-generated sexual content by young people. Researchers worked with Interpol on the International Child Sexual Exploitation database (4300 cases). They also examined UK cases from the International Child Sexual Exploitation image database hub, and case files of young people who have self-generated content.

We believe that the information gained from the expert round-table will prove invaluable as the United States Sentencing Commission prepares its report to Congress on the child pornography guidelines and sentencing in the federal system.
Letter from the Deputy Director of the US Sentencing Commission, 2011
What happened next? 

Quayle and colleagues communicated their findings nationally and internationally.

International policy

Quayle co-convened a G8 meeting in 2009 at the University of North Carolina. This led to the publication of a book, endorsed by the US Department of Justice, which has been used by specialist police forces, the judiciary, child protection workers and non-governmental organisations. A further outcome of the G8 meeting was the later establishment of the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online, involving 27 EU Member states and 21 other countries.

Quayle became a member of the Child Online Protection (COP) initiative the United Nations formed in 2008. She co-authored their “Guidelines for Parents, Guardians and Educators”, which developing countries use when creating online child safety policy.

Quayle was one of two non-US invited experts on an advisory panel for the US Sentencing Commission in July 2011. This meeting informed the “Report to Congress: Federal Child Pornography Offenses” (2012) that will form the basis of new sentencing guidelines.

Practitioners and society

Quayle is a board member of the Prevention Policy Committee at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US, and the Marie Collins Foundation which provides expert services to national police.

The research led by Quayle has underpinned advice given to social workers, teachers, police, youth workers and psychologists in the UK. Quayle’s research has been featured in The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and The Herald and she has provided expert comments for The Scotsman, The Times and BBC News.

About the researcher(s)

Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology

Research unit

Subject area:
  • Clinical Psychology


  • European Commission

Related study programmes