Published: 28-02-2023 10:00 | Updated: 28-02-2023 10:05

Internet CBT to prevent child sexual abuse launched in several languages

Fingers on a computer keyboard.
Genre image donwloaded from Pixabay. Photo: public domain CC0

An online anonymous cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) treatment program for individuals with a sexual interest in children showed good results in an English language pilot study. Now the CBT program for crime prevention also opens in Swedish, German, and Portuguese. The treatment program, which has been developed by researchers and psychologists at Karolinska Institutet, will be evaluated within the framework of an international research collaboration funded by the EU.

Portrait of Malin Joleby
Malin Joleby is the coordinator of the Swedish part of Prevent It. Photo: Karolinska Insitutet

“Sexual exploitation of children is a major social problem which unfortunately seems to be increasing with the advancement of technology”, says Malin Joleby, researcher at the Centre for Psychiatry Research and the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet. “In my previous research, I have focused on the consequences for children who have been sexually abused. Therefore, it makes extra sense that we now try to work with prevention of sexual abuse – before any child gets hurt.”

The CBT program, called Prevent It, is a nine-week treatment with therapist support that is conducted digitally free of charge. It is aimed at people who are concerned about their sexual urges involving children. Participants will be recruited from encrypted web forums on the Darknet and via advertisements in search engines and social media.

Completely anonymous

Police authorities in various countries will also inform persons suspected of sexual crimes against children about the possibility of attending the program. The police will, however, not be able to follow up whether the suspect signs up for the program, or how he/she is doing in therapy. According to the researchers, an important condition for reaching the affected group and being able to evaluate the treatment program scientifically is that the participants can be completely anonymous.

“Often, people who need and want help, don’t dare to contact the health care system, because of shame or fear of being reported to the police”, says Malin Joleby. “We hope to reach out to people who would not otherwise seek help and to be able to offer a treatment that is scientifically developed and evaluated.”

The pilot study give hope

A first pilot study of Prevent It was conducted in English in 2019–2021 and focused on people who used child sexual abuse material. The pilot study showed that the treatment works; participants significantly reduced the time they spent viewing the material compared to placebo. Roughly half of the participants that completed the program reported not having viewed child abuse material at all during the preceding week. In addition, it was well-appreciated by the participants, which is crucial in getting people to want to undergo the treatment.

The results of the pilot study give hope that it is possible to treat people with sexual urges involving children effectively and safe. Therefore, the program has now been translated and culturally adapted into three new languages, Swedish, German and Portuguese, and is being launched on a larger scale across the EU. In addition, the English version of the CBT program has been updated. 

About the project and its partners

The CBT program Prevent It is evaluated within the framework of the EU project PRIORITY (Prevention to Reduce Incidence Of Sexual Abuse by Reaching Individuals Concerned About Their Risk to Young People), funded by the EU's Internal Security Funds. The project is a collaboration between researchers at Karolinska Institutet and Linköping University in Sweden, Universitaetsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany, Universidade do Porto, the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research at The Royal in Canada, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA. Principal investigator for Prevent It is Christoffer Rahm, a researcher at Centre for Psychiatry Research and the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, and also affiliated to Psychiatry South Stockholm, Stockholm County Health Care Area. 

More about Prevent It and how to register

On the open website (anonymous)

It is also possible to register by using an onion link/TOR browser.