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New research explores children and young people’s views on online sexual harm

14 November 2019

The Inquiry has published new research exploring children and young people’s perspectives on online sexual harm and the education they receive on this in school.

The ‘Learning about online sexual harm’ report analyses the views of more than 260 children aged 11-18 from primary and secondary schools across England and Wales. Researchers also interviewed nine young people who had experienced online sexual harm about what more could be done to protect others.

This report was produced by researchers at The International Centre at the University of Bedfordshire on behalf of the Inquiry, and forms part of the Internet investigation.

It finds that many children tend to accept the risk of being exposed to sexual harm as a ‘normal part’ of being online, with girls particularly accustomed to receiving explicit images.

It highlights the existence of an online ‘approval culture’, exacerbated by celebrities and the media, which can lead young people to ignore privacy settings in order to increase their audience.

I don’t think my dad realises how many messages from random boys I get or how many dick pics I get. And I have to deal with it every day… it’s kind of like a normal thing for girls now - female pupil, 14 (Page 5)

9 percent of participants said they had learnt about online sexual harm from personal experience, while 83 percent of secondary school pupils said online sites need to do more to keep children safe.

One particular concern was that almost 9 in 10 pupils said it was their own responsibility to keep themselves safe online. This can lead to harmful feelings of guilt and self-blame in the event of abuse, and also stop children from seeking the help and support they need.

I was already on my phone in year 6 [10-11yrs] and I was already getting messages from random people and I didn’t know what to do - female pupil, 14 (Page 57)

Participants identified key issues that schools should be educating pupils on, including the range of ways online sexual harm occurs, harmful sexual behaviours by peers and links to broader issues of relationships and consent.

Some said education about online sexual harm should start in primary school before they begin using social media, and continue regularly throughout their schooling.

Principal researcher Laura Pope said: 

“By speaking directly to children and young people, we have been able to get a much deeper understanding of the issues they face when going online.

“It is clear that overly simplistic and negative messages around online safety are unhelpful, and conflict with the realities of children’s online lives.

“Instead, they need more support and education from schools before they start spending time online, as well as parents, carers and the online industry, so they no longer feel that it is their responsibility to protect themselves from online sexual harm.”

Dr Helen Beckett from the University of Bedfordshire said: 

“Rather than providing them with a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’, we need to properly engage with children and young people to understand the realities of their online lives and how we can better protect them.

“Educating children about online sexual harm is only part of the solution. We need to challenge the harmful social norms and normalisation of sexual violence that allow such harm to flourish.

“It also means holding the online industry to account around the promotion of safety within their sites, and their responsibilities to protect the children and young people who use them.”

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