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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Learning about online sexual harm

Improving tone and messaging

Participants repeatedly highlighted the limited effectiveness of overly negative or simplistic messaging, noting that such messages conflicted with the complex realities of their online lives. Participants’ responses suggested that education needs to:

1. Acknowledge the positives as well as the negatives of the internet: there was a strong message from the majority of participants that education about online sexual harm needs to present risk proportionately. This means acknowledging the positive aspects of the internet alongside messaging about the potential risks. Participants emphasised the necessity of this for both educators’ credibility and students’ engagement with their messaging. As one 16-year-old female interviewee who had experienced online sexual harm explained:

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 interviewee

2. Consider the balance between informing and scaring: The vast majority of participants highlighted the need for education to strike a balance between presenting the risks of online sexual harm and avoiding overly fearful or alarmist messaging. The one notable exception to this message came from some of the interviewees who had experienced online sexual harm. They advocated presenting ‘worst-case scenarios’ and evoking fear, noting this to be driven by a desire to protect others from experiencing what they had experienced.

If they don’t know, they won’t know until it’s too late. It can destroy your life.

16-year-old female interviewee

3. Avoid simplistic avoidance-based messaging: Participants expressed a need for education to go beyond the directive, avoidance-based messages that had been typical of their experiences of online sexual harm education. They remarked on the limited effectiveness, and sometimes counter-productivity, of messaging that simply told people to do or not do something. This includes advice such as ‘increase your privacy settings’, ‘avoid communication with “strangers” online’ or ‘avoid sending any messages of a sexual nature’.

If you just get taught never talk to anyone on the internet, stay off it, you just think, ‘Oh well, I’m going to ignore that’, and then you don’t actually know what the warning signs are, which means you go on thinking that there’s not real risk and everyone’s making it up.

14–16-year-old male focus group participant

Focus group and interview participants further observed that such messages sat uncomfortably with other pressures and their aspirations for popularity, status and belonging, and therefore felt unrealistic to follow.

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.

16-year-old female interviewee


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