You will not find judgment here. You probably do that to yourself, so hearing judgment will not be helpful. Even so, you may have told yourself that what you are doing does not cause harm. What you have told yourself may not fit the reality of the situation. That is why the first three sections are a short description of what sexual abuse, sexually exploiting a child, and viewing sexual exploitation material can do. You may not be ready to hear everything on this page, but you do not need to. Take your time. Go over this a few times. Break it down and take it in chunks. But once you go over each section, you will realize that you have a decision to make. At the end of the day, you can do what seems helpful to yourself, or you can do what will be helpful for you and the child you may have harmed.
Child sexual abuse partly depends on your motivation (i.e., if you are touching the child for sexual purposes vs. cleaning a 2-year-old who had an accident in their diaper), and partly depends on how the child felt the behavior. At the end of the day, if you touched a child's private parts for reasons other than hygiene, you have likely sexually abused a child. If an older child touches a younger child, or there is a maturity or developmental difference, that is also sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not always penetration, painful for the child, or forceful: It can involve looking, exposing, or having a child touch your genitals. It includes viewing and producing images of real children in sexual situations.
The reality is, sexual abuse is a very silent kind of abuse. If you have spent time with your victim, you know that. They seem just fine. Maybe they avoid you from time to time, or maybe they tell you it is okay. Chances are, they will not tell anyone. That is what the numbers say. But inside, that child is confused and hurting. They may think, like so many, that your being sexual with them is a punishment for something they did wrong. They will try to figure out what it was they did, and try to be perfect. They may think that you cannot control yourself (you can). They may try not to think about it, but the abuse will affect how they think. They may not feel traumatized at all, though this is relatively rare.
The reality is, the emotional and mental consequences of being sexually abused are usually invisible for years, or come out in seemingly unrelated ways. The more the victim feels shame, the more trauma they feel. They may seek out inappropriate behaviors, drugs, alcohol, or other outlets when they become teenagers or adults. You cannot know what your behavior has done to your victim unless you give it months or years. Some victims need therapy, which costs money. Some victims get over it. Some never do, and carry that weight for years.
Some people might call it kiddie porn, child porn, pedophile porn, or child pornography. But the reality is, the child you took a picture or video of did not consent to be in that picture, and even if you are only viewing it, you are viewing something that is not yours to view for that same issue of consent. Moreover, you are not likely paying them for the ability to record their bodies, nor are you paying for the images you are viewing. Whether you share that imagery or not, your victim will wonder if you have, and they will likely not trust you either way. They might see an average person on the street and think to themselves... did that person see me naked? Did that person? What about them?
Researchers call this imagery sexual abuse images, child sexual exploitation material, or indecent images of children for a reason: It typically results in harm to the child. The consequences of taking pictures or videos, even if you keep them to yourself, will affect your victim.
To be specific, sexual imagery refers to looking at photographs or videos of real children in sexual contexts. Some claim that the viewing of such material does not really harm anyone, but this is an empty claim: Even viewing such imagery has an effect both on you, and on the internet. It also has an impact on the victim, as described above.
On the internet, whether the imagery is viewed or downloaded, these hits are being counted by browser cookies, trackers, and other technology so that the site hosting the imagery, or the person sharing the material, knows it has been viewed or downloaded. This amounts to digital demand, in much the same way that viewing news articles creates a demand for more news articles. It also fuels ways of thinking that can lead to more victimization.
Searching for this material also makes you an easy target for law enforcement. No matter how much you may know about technology, they can catch you, and they can find you, even without you knowing it. It is better to stay on the safe side by avoiding that, but doing that by your self can be difficult, and that is why this page exists.
When speaking of the effect that viewing this imagery has on you, it gets a lot more serious. Not only can the viewing of sexual abuse images be addictive, and not only can it lead to you needing harder and harder material to find enjoyment, the reality is, you are viewing images of children being sexually abused, even if the children pretend to like it, even if it seems harmless. While there is little in the way of scientific evidence that viewing this material makes it easier for you to sexually abuse a child in person (a "hands-on" offense, if you will), sexual pleasure is not the reason you are looking at this material, and that is the biggest concern.
In short, you are looking to these images and to sexual pleasure to fulfill a need or desire that cannot be met by viewing sexual abuse images or through sexual pleasure. You are trying to solve a math problem by dribbling a basketball. This sets you up to solve more problems with sexual pleasure, and not having these problems resolved. The problems you are trying to fix by viewing sexual abuse imagery will just keep piling up. Chances are, law enforcement already knows what you were looking at.
The reality is, people sexually abuse children and view sexual images of children for a very wide variety of reasons. Entire books have been written on the subject. Even preferential offenders (people who have a sexual attraction to children, and have sexually abused at least one child) are not motivated primarily by sexual pleasure, but by a personal and complex set of stressors, emotions, and issues that leave them feeling in need of an outlet of some kind. That the outlets are sexual in nature is fairly beside the point: What matters more are the issues that have led to seeking out an outlet in the first place.
These issues are specific to everyone. Some are wrestling with other mental health issues, such as compulsive sexual behavior, antisocial personality disorder, depression, anxiety, bipolar, autism, and other issues. None of those motivations justify or excuse being sexual with a child, or viewing children in sexual situations, but all of them are treatable and manageable. Your issues that led you to making these decisions are specific to you, and you will not know what they are without help of some kind.
A wide variety of locations have a wide variety of laws governing criminal behavior and mandatory reporting. If you are unsure if you have mandatory reporting laws in your area, a simple Google search "does [location] have mandatory reporting laws" can be of assistance. You may also want to know what the statute of limitations is, but for that, you would need to know what the specific phrase that your offense would be called under law. Some locations simply call it sexual assault, or sexual abuse, while other places may have other names for it, like lewd acts with a child, criminal sexual conduct, or taking liberties with a child. Regardless, it very much behooves you to know what you may be getting into if you decide to seek a therapist. Even in the absence of mandatory reporting laws, a therapist may break confidentiality to notify the police that a child was abused.
Getting treatment may mean that you get involved with the legal system. Each system will treat the sexual abuse of a child, or viewing of sexual images of children, as a very serious offense. Some may dole out prison sentences, while many others may mandate treatment and probation. Larger counties trend towards treatment and probation, while smaller counties trend towards prison. Some may fine you, or require restitution of some kind. No matter what the legal consequences are, almost every legal system will treat you more favorably if you turn yourself in and admit you were wrong and want help. If you come in yourself, seeking help, it will go better for you than if the police come knocking on your door. Researching treatment options in your area is a bonus to that process, and show that you are serious about changing your behavior. Doing these things before you turn yourself in makes you look fantastic in a judge's eyes, and involving a lawyer before any admission is made can help smooth this process for you.
The specific treatment is generally called "sexual offender treatment", and consists of a specific set of goals and techniques that are unique to treating people who have committed sexual crimes, versus those who have not but fear they might. In some legal contexts, probation or parole officers are heavily involved in the treatment process. In some situations, medications may be prescribed. Regardless of the approach, the end goals will be roughly the same: Helping you take responsibility for what you did, helping you put together skills and plans to use instead of using children or images of children to cope, and helping you build a network of people who can help you when things get rough.
What the bulk of this boils down to is this: You can either get yourself and your victim to expert help to ensure healing for your victim and yourself, or you can try to keep what you did a secret, in which case, it will come out, it is only a matter of when and how. You can choose to have control over when and how the secret comes out, or you can choose to hide until it does. Make no mistake: Sometimes, it does take years for a victim of child sexual abuse to come forward and talk about what happened to them, but the truth comes out eventually. You can get to make the choice to have control over how that happens and why. You may think you can stop on your own, but the reality is, your best thinking led to the choice to abuse a child, look at sexual abuse images, or both. If that was where your best thinking led you, then you need other perspectives to look at this and help you, and the child you hurt deserves to have the truth known so they can get help.
If you are willing to do the right thing and turn yourself in, I suggest that the first step you take is contacting a child advocacy center in your area with the name and address of your victim so that they can interview the child and render services, if needed, to the child or children involved. You can also visit the section on reporting the issue to law enforcement and how to go about doing that.