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Why we research: Connecting and moving the entire child safety ecosystem

July 1, 2024

5 Minute Read


These days, technology moves faster than ever, and the ways in which young people use it evolve rapidly with it. New apps, social trends, and cultural norms constantly shift young people’s behaviors online.

To defend children from sexual abuse in our connected world, it’s critical that we understand how children’s online behaviors can make them vulnerable to those looking to do them harm.

For this, research is essential. That’s why in 2019, Thorn significantly increased our investment in youth-centered research initiatives to deepen our understanding of the experiences and risks youth face online. The insights we uncover are powerful for informing our own strategy, and connecting and advancing child safety efforts worldwide. Our findings have driven everything from prevention and intervention programs to Trust & Safety measures and national policies.

The digital age has made child sexual abuse far more complex, diverse, and easy to commit.

By shining a light on the many factors that can put children at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, our research helps the entire child safety ecosystem take critical action.


Why research matters in a digital world

Today, with technology at their fingertips, bad actors also move quickly. They’ve become adept at exploiting young people’s desire for social connection and building communities online.

By understanding children’s online behaviors, we can better grasp how bad actors might exploit these trends while using emerging technologies, like generative AI, to their advantage. For example, predators are already using gen AI to grow solicitation, grooming, and sextortion efforts, and produce child sexual abuse material (CSAM) at scale.

Gaining awareness and monitoring such trends is crucial. A recent surge in sextortion for financial gains is one such alarming trend that’s targeting primarily teen boys and leading to tragic results. Through Thorn’s novel and partner research initiatives, we can better understand how, why, and to whom these devastating crimes are taking place.


Our methodologies

Thorn’s research discipline was born of our innovative spirit. When we first set out to review the existing data on the threats children face online, we realized how little was actually out there. Confronted by this challenge, we took up the charge ourselves, developing our own robust research program.

Today, Thorn employs four full-time subject matter experts. Collectively, our team has surveyed more than 8,000 9- to 17-year-olds, published groundbreaking and globally recognized reports, and briefed sector stakeholders in industry and law enforcement, as well as the media. Just as importantly, they’ve informed Thorn’s own internal strategy, products, and programs.

We know elevating the voices of youth and others with first-hand experiences is imperative to understanding the real nature of these issues. That’s why our team conducts surveys and interviews with young people, caregivers, law enforcement investigators, other child safety advocates, Trust & Safety teams, and more. Then, by analyzing complex data sets, we create holistic pictures of the issues.

We hope our research ultimately leads to more data-driven interventions, a broader research culture, and a more expansive body of insights to combat sexual harms against children.


Our research areas

At Thorn, we tackle several areas of research focused on the online experiences of youth and the intersection of child sexual abuse and technology. These areas include:

Child sexual abuse material (CSAM): Child sexual abuse material refers to sexually explicit content involving a child. The scale of CSAM online has increased at staggering rates, accelerated by the digital age.

Sexting and consensual sharing: Many youth engage in sexting or sharing “nudes” — either consensually or nonconsensually. The dissemination of these images poses significant risks to the minors depicted and can be used for grooming or exploitation.

Grooming and sextortion: Bad actors build trusted connections with their child victims and exploit those relationships to commit abuse. These perpetrators may have sexual, financial or other motivations.

Disclosure and reporting: Youth navigate all kinds of potentially risky situations online. Understanding whether they seek help in these situations and how is critical to developing tools and resources to support them.

The data we collect in each of these areas allows us to monitor the overall state of the issue. With that knowledge, we along with others in the child safety ecosystem can take the right actions to defend children.


The impact

Thorn’s extensive research leads to tangible improvements to tools, programs, and resources that have real-world impact on child safety.

For example, the insights we gather lead to more effective campaigns through our NoFiltr youth program. With them, we structure our programs and communications in ways that better resonate with youth, in their language and about issues that affect their everyday life.

With deeper knowledge on youth behaviors as well as what parents and caregivers grapple with, we also develop more applicable guides for our Thorn for Parents resource hub. In 2023, 10,000 parents visited the Thorn for Parents site for these tips.

More broadly, our sextortion research led to the development of the Stop Sextortion campaign in partnership with Meta. The campaign has been translated into many languages and provides a crucial resource for parents and teens alike.

And we don’t just monitor current trends; we also stay vigilant to emerging threats. In an trailblazing collaboration, our research on the risks generative AI poses to child safety brought pivotal and timely insights to the wider ecosystem — illuminating the current scale and nature of this potent technology and the threats of its misuse to children.


Build your own knowledge

If you’re curious about getting up to speed on the risks children face online or how you can help recognize and prevent child sexual abuse or exploitation, we invite you to explore our Research Center for easy-to-read explanations and resources.

We share our findings publicly to activate our broader community’s awareness and action. After all, it’s up to all of us to keep the children in our lives safe from sexual harms.

Embedded in our Thorn for Parents resources are key takeaways on how to have judgment-free conversations: Start early. Listen often. Avoid shame.

At Thorn, we heed that guidance by asking youth about their experiences, feelings, and perspectives — while keeping our finger on the pulse of technology’s impact on child safety.

In this way, our research keeps us stay nimble, allowing us to constantly evolve our efforts to safeguard children from those looking to do them harm.

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