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“Preventing and responding to online sexual harm is everyone’s business”

Last updated:
6th December 2019

New research has revealed that young people need more support and education to feel and stay safe online, as Laura Pope explains…

Being online is an integral part of life for most children growing up in England and Wales. Recent Ofcom figures show that 99 percent of 12-15-year-olds go online for more than 20 hours per week, while 83 percent have their own smartphone. In our report, ‘Learning about online sexual harm’, we find most primary school pupils spend an average of up to three hours online per day, while most secondary school pupils go online for at least four hours.

It is clear to see just how likely children and young people are to be exposed to risks of online sexual harm.

We spoke directly to pupils at state schools across England and Wales about the risks of sexual harm they face when going online.

One 14-year-old girl highlighted the distinct risks online compared to face-to-face interaction. She said: “If I saw a creepy man walking down the road, I’d walk the other way, while if a person messaged me, they had no profile picture and then they seemed normal, I’d engage in conversation because, you know, they seem normal, they don’t look dangerous or harmful.”

Negative messages

The most common type of online sexual harm we heard about was the receiving of unsolicited explicit sexual images, or being pressured into sending them. This was a particular issue for girls, who said it happened so often that they had stopped recognising it as harmful, and instead it has become a “normal part” of going online.

They also spoke of the wider impact of harmful ‘gender norms’, including myths around boys not experiencing sexual harm and an expectation that they should ‘laugh it off’ if it did occur.

While children and young people do recognise some of the dangers of being online, many felt negative or avoidance-based messaging from adults and schools is not helpful. They want more support to help them avoid and deal with online sexual harm, rather than being told to simply stay offline.

One boy said: “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 no real risk and everyone’s making it up.”

Shared responsibility

A serious concern was the degree to which participants felt it was ultimately their responsibility to keep themselves safe online. This strong sense of personal responsibility can stop children seeking support if they do experience abuse, and can lead to harmful feelings of guilt and self-blame, ultimately making it harder to recover. It is clear that parents, carers and schools need to do more to support children and reinforce the message that the responsibility for preventing online sexual harm does not lie with them.

Some participants said they were not taught about online sexual harm at school until they had already been exposed to it. “There’s no point in learning about a situation after the situation has actually goddamned happened,” said one 14-year-old boy.

Many felt it is vital that primary schools educate children about online sexual harm before they start using social media and other online platforms, with on-going lessons throughout their schooling.

They identified ways in which school-based education could be improved. This included teaching young people about how their own online behaviour could be harmful, such as spreading explicit pictures, as well as the best ways to respond to and report concerns.

Children and young people also highlighted the role of the internet industry and said online giants and social media platforms should be working harder to keep them safe. They suggested a range of improvements, from more accessible reporting options to embedded warnings and advice.

Time for change

Finally, participants expressed a need for wider societal change in order to tackle online sexual harm. This includes the influence of an online ‘approval culture’ exacerbated by celebrities and the media. Children and young people are likely to overlook privacy settings in order to reach a wider audience with their posts and pictures, thus potentially increasing their exposure to people who could harm them.

From speaking first-hand to pupils about the issues they face, it is clear that schools can do more to educate them about online sexual harm from a younger age and educational messages need to be clear that they are never responsible if it happens.

But this goes wider than schools. Parents, carers, the internet industry and society as a whole need to play their part. Preventing and responding to online sexual harm is everyone’s business.

Laura Pope is the principal researcher at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).