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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Internet Investigation Report

F.5: Education

43. A number of witnesses highlighted the importance of education in the fight against online-facilitated child sexual abuse. As one witness said:

We have to educate, empower and protect our children, and those who are working with them, with the right information.[1]

Children

44. The Inquiry heard a range of evidence about how children are taught about online safety.

44.1. Sixty-seven percent of children aged 12 and under and 46 percent of 13 to 18-year-olds would welcome more education in schools about online safety.[2]

44.2. The ‘Learning about online sexual harm’ research[3] asked participants if they thought the age at which they first received school-based education about online sexual harm was appropriate:

  • 95 percent of those who first received school-based online sexual harm education in primary school (years 4 to 6) thought this was the right age;[4]
  • 67 percent of those who first received such education in years 7 to 9 (secondary school) thought it was the right age; 29 percent thought it was too late.[5] One 16-year-old girl said:

    Younger students are using social media and are online from a younger age than secondary school, so they need to be informed on this serious matter.[6]

  • 80 percent of those who first received it in year 10 or later said this had been too late.[7]

44.3. IN-A3 told us:

I really do believe you can’t just give them one – one lesson, like we did really about online safety … have more lessons, maybe once a month, about it. Give them scenarios … show them real-life things that can happen online. It’s not just a simple thing of someone just popping up to you who’s an old man, it’s not like that … so many people can lie about who they are, that there needs to be education for that.[8]

Similar comments were made by the children in the ‘Learning about online sexual harm’ research which found “there was a strong consensus among participants that such education needed to be provided on an ongoing, rather than one-off, basis”.[9]

44.4. In October 2017, Google conducted a survey of just over 200 teachers who had taught for an average of 10 years to learn about the teachers’ perspectives. Teachers thought that online safety (not limited to online sexual harm) should be taught from the age of seven and “82 per cent of the teachers did not think they had all of the resources they needed” to teach online safety to their students.[10]

45. There are a number of initiatives and training programmes designed to try and raise children’s awareness of the dangers of being sexually exploited online. In addition to the NCA’s ‘Thinkuknow’ programme, a number of local police forces also provide similar projects. For example, West Midlands Police worked with local councils on the ‘See Me, Hear Me’ campaign designed to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation.[11] Kent Police and Norfolk Constabulary deliver online safety presentations to secondary schools.

46. A number of internet companies have also established educational programmes and have dedicated web pages which the public can access to learn about staying safe online. For example, Facebook has a ‘Safety Centre’ on its website. In the UK, Google runs two educational programmes – ‘Be Internet Legends’ developed for seven to 11-year-olds and ‘Be Internet Citizens’ aimed at 13 to 15-year-olds. Google also established the ‘Google for Education Teacher Center’.[12]

47. For a number of years now, the UK Safer Internet Centre has run the ‘Safer Internet Day’ in schools. The Safer Internet Day is a global event held in February each year designed to help teachers, children, parents, law enforcement, social workers and internet companies promote safer use of digital technology.

48. The Department for Education not only plays the lead role in prescribing what children are taught in schools but it is also the government department with responsibility for safeguarding children and child protection. From September 2020 in England it will be compulsory for primary schools to teach ‘Relationships Education’ and for secondary schools to teach ‘Relationships and Sex Education’. Schools are encouraged to start teaching these topics from 2019 and the government has announced a budget of £6 million to help schools receive support and training in preparation for the introduction of these subjects in 2020.[13]

49. At primary school level this includes teaching children that sometimes people behave differently online, including by pretending to be someone they are not, and of the significance of keeping personal information private. The importance of these topics cannot be overstated. During the course of her messages with ‘Susan’ (ie Anthony O’Connor), IN-A1 told ‘Susan’ her address. In due course, ‘Susan’ set up an account which referenced IN-A1’s address. Later, towards the end of the abuse, IN-A1 received a letter including a photograph of herself which described all the sexual things ‘Susan’ was going to do to her. IN-A1 told us that what happened to her caused her mental health to deteriorate such that she even attempted suicide.[14]

50. By the time children leave secondary school, the draft statutory guidance states that they should know, for example, about the risks of material being shared online, the impact of viewing harmful content and that the sharing and viewing of indecent images of children is a criminal offence. The difficulty in stemming the tide of self-generated indecent imagery is encapsulated by this comment made by a 14 to 16-year-old child who participated in the ‘Learning about online sexual harm’ research:

“I think educating about things like nudes and stuff is hard because yeah, people are taught that it’s illegal and everyone understands that but it doesn’t stop people being, like wanting to explore. And like, yeah, it is illegal and everyone knows that but [you] still do it because you may be attracted to that person or you’re just generally just intrigued.”[15]

51. The participants in this research were asked for their views about the way in which staying safe online was/should be taught. Many felt that there was a disproportionate emphasis on the negative aspects of spending time online.

“If you [teachers] sort of just come with the approach – this is bad – then you just think – ‘you don’t understand so why should I listen?’ (16-year-old female)”[16]

52. Nearly two-thirds of students thought that online education should be taught, not by a teacher, but by someone from an external organisation as they would have specialist knowledge.

Because it is coming from someone who knows what they are talking about. (14-year-old male)[17]

Particular mention was made of the potential benefits of hearing directly from young people who had experienced online sexual harm.

“By talking to people who have had those experiences it makes it a lot more real. (16-year-old female)”[18]

53. Participants indicated a strong preference for education to be less vague. They want to learn about the details of what online sexual harm looks like and the circumstances where they might encounter this (with some suggesting use of real-life cases or scenarios). Several participants said that the main focus of their education was ‘stranger danger’ when in fact they wanted a broader focus.

“I knew about passwords and blocking people, and stranger danger type things, but I didn’t know that you can get groomed, or sexual abuse online, or something like that, I didn’t know anything about that. (16-year-old female)”[19]

Parents

54. IN-H1 told us that when IN-A1 and IN-A2 got their laptops, she tried to limit their usage before bedtime, would not allow them to have the laptops in their bedroom overnight and that her partner would monitor their internet history. She said she did not know what her son and daughter had been taught about online safety at school and she had not had any education herself on this subject.[20]

55. Ms Lorin LaFave (Breck’s mother) told us:

There were so many people in the story that had they known a little bit more, been better educated, myself included … all of us would have done what we could have, had we been taught where to go.[21]

56. The children spoken to in the ‘Learning about online sexual harm’ research said that their parents did not properly understand children’s use of the internet. They noted that many parents grew up without the internet and, even those who did use it, did so under very different conditions to young people.

“My parents have Instagram and Facebook, whatever, but the experience that they have on it as adults, even if they try and put that experience into the mind of a young person, it’s not the same as actually being a young person being brought up around this sort of social media culture. (14–16-year-old female)”[22]

57. Educating children about the need to stay safe online is an important part of the response to tackling online-facilitated child sexual abuse and exploitation. There is a balance to be struck between the need to educate children about the potential dangers of online sexual harm and the desire by children to use the internet as part of their normal, everyday lives. As one 16-year-old interviewee said:

“With school and stuff, people say, ‘Have your account on private’, but then, it’s all about likes and followers and views nowadays … if your account’s on private, then only the people that follow you can like your things … people don’t really follow the privacy rules because then it don’t really benefit them in lots of ways.”[23]

58. Children need to understand how the internet is misused by those intent on sexually abusing children, including by adults masquerading as children. The ‘Learning about online sexual harm’ research highlights the need for teachers and parents to convey messages about staying safe online in different ways. The ‘Relationships Education’ and ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ lessons are therefore important parts of the curriculum that will help prevent children being harmed online.

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