Why teaching children about porn and sexting is a step in the right direction

Research shows that parents and the police are often unaware of the majority of cases of online sexual abuse. shutterstock

Given that the large majority of UK adults think children should be taught about pornography and sexting in the classroom, the news that sex and relationship education is to be made compulsory in English secondary schools will be welcomed by many parents.

The decision will see relationships education added to the national curriculum, with primary school children also expected to have lessons on modern relationships. The curriculum is expected to include issues such as online safety, sexting and consent. It will also tackle domestic abuse and sexual harassment.

And it sounds like this move can’t come soon enough, with recent research by the universities of Bath and Birmingham in collaboration with the NSPCC finding high rates of sexting among young people.

The research found that 55% of those involved in sexting were below the age of 16. The research also showed that two-thirds of these young people felt forced to send images to the other person – and that in more than half of cases this was to someone over the age of 18.

But alongside sexting and pornography, there have also been calls for children to learn more about the risks associated with the internet. Because while it is widely acknowledged that the internet has many positive aspects, it can also be used by some individuals to engage in illegal behaviour.

Inappropriate chats

Of course, the sexual molestation and abuse of children existed long before the emergence of the internet. But there are features that are unique to the online environment – such as anonymity, accessibility and affordability – which means that sexually inappropriate communication with children can take place more easily.

Offenders often access internet communication platforms that are popular with young people – such as chat rooms, gaming and social networking sites. Young people are then approached on these platforms, and can end up having regular conversations with potential abusers.

These online interactions also have the potential to develop into physical meetings. Shutterstock

The conversations can then develop into interactions of a sexual nature. And as part of these interactions, offenders may groom and then sexually abuse a young person via a variety of different technologies – including mobile phones and web cameras.

Offenders may also request sexual images of the young person, or for them to expose themselves via their web camera and engage in sexually explicit acts.

These interactions also have the potential to develop into physical meetings and offline sexual abuse.

Putting the abuse in context

While this type of offending behaviour constitutes a very small proportion in comparison to sexual offences overall, there has been an increase in the number of reports of negative experiences by young people online. And in a recent UK study of 354 school children, 33% of the 13- to 14-year-olds said they had been approached sexually online.

And this figure may well be the tip of the iceberg, given that online abuse is not something people want to talk about. Not one of the 13- to 14 year-olds in the school study had previously spoken about their experiences, and previous research has found that only 10% of these types of sexual approaches tend to be reported to authorities.

Offenders may request sexual images of the young person. Shutterstock

These low numbers are a huge concern given the impact these experiences can have on young people. In the same study, 25% of the young people who had received unwanted sexual approaches reported high levels of distress as a result of the contact. Symptoms reported by these young people included stress, fear, anxiety and depression, along with post traumatic stress disorder.

It became apparent that the risk of distress was associated with certain factors. This included the child being of a younger age (10 to 13 years) and having received more aggressive sexual approaches.

These aggressive approaches can include an adult attempting to establish offline contact with a young person, and can often take various forms. It can involve anything from a physical meeting to phone calls or emails and even sending money or gifts.

Impact of abuse

It can take years for victims to come to terms with the abuse before they feel able to access professional help. This involves a long-term process that hopefully helps them overcome – or at least learn to live with – what has happened to them.

This process can be very difficult for victims of online sexual abuse and it can sometimes be the unexpected and “decontextualised” nature of certain behaviours – such as offenders’ exposure via web camera – that can be particularly harmful and distressing to young people.

Quite often, because the computer’s location is in their own home, many victims can also feel like their safe space has been violated. On top of this, offenders commonly distribute sexual images that may have been taken and exchanged as part of the online interaction with a victim, which then become permanently available on the internet.

It is clear then that the relationship young people have with the internet can be incredibly complex. And that monitoring or policing their online presence can only go so far in protecting them.

Instead, the focus now should also be on developing young people’s awareness of the risks involved. It should also equip them with general life skills that help build internal resilience, which will enable them to better manage threats encountered online in the future.

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