Warning of link between downloading and child sex attacks
People who download child abuse images pose a risk of committing sex attacks on children, says a specialist police child protection unit.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) centre wants police to prioritise those caught with such images, who have access to children.
Its report said internet images are becoming more extreme and sadistic.
This comes after a committee of MPs heard child sexual exploitation was taking place "all over the country".
Despite the increasing extremity of the nature of abusive images available online, the severity and number of images held by offenders are not enough alone to assess the risk they pose or the sentence they should receive, the report said.
Ceop also called for a full risk assessment to be considered before a judge hands down any sentence.
The idea that any case may result in the identification of a victim should be at the forefront of every investigation, Ceop said.
"The landscape of austerity coupled with the increasing volumes of work that child protection teams are faced with in the UK is unprecedented," its report said.
Referrals to Ceop increased by 181% between April last year and March this year.
And its report cited a study of almost 100 case studies from 34 police forces, which found offenders who both possessed child abuse images and attacked children were "almost exclusively white males", with most aged between 19 and 45.'Terrible trade'
The report said that those not in work, and possibly therefore those with high levels of internet usage, those working in schools or care work, and those in manual and manufacturing jobs made up most of the sample.
"This point in time has the potential to be a golden age for child protection, but the evolution of technology is likely to make the internet an increasingly difficult place to investigate," the report added.
"The predicted dramatic rise in work volumes will require a fresh look at policing priorities and the resources allocated to this area of policing."
Jon Brown, head of the NSPCC's sexual abuse programme, said: "This supports research the NSPCC carried out last year, which revealed one in three of those convicted of possessing child abuse images has also committed other serious sexual offences against children."
"It's a very worrying situation and more research is needed on the most effective punishment and treatment of offenders caught viewing child abuse pictures.
"Trying to stop the terrible trade in these images is obviously a huge task. But it mustn't be seen in isolation. It's part of a much bigger sexual abuse problem."
Meanwhile, England's Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz has told the Commons Home Affairs Committee that girls as young as 11 were being expected to perform sex acts on "line-ups of boys", she said. The committee promised an inquiry into the claims.