What can we learn from young people’s views on online sexual harm?

Peter Buzzi identifies key messages for safeguarding practice from recent research by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

teenagers on mobile phones
Photo: Shintartanya/Adobestock

By Dr Peter Buzzi, director of Research and Management Consultancy Centre and national research lead for the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) network’s online safeguarding research and practice development project

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse recently published the results of research with young people into their views and experience of online risks and sexual harm.

The research was small-scale (213 young people aged 10–18 responded to a survey and the researchers also carried out focus groups and one-to-one interviews) and therefore cannot be taken as representative of the perspectives of all young people. However, the findings chime with previous evidence and ongoing research the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) network is undertaking into online safeguarding generally, and provide valuable insight into how young people view online activities and relationships, as well as risks.

Here are five key themes from the study with implications for social care practice:

  1. Children and young people are exposed to online risks and online sexual harm from a young age

    This study confirms evidence that children can be exposed to online risks and sexual harm from early age. Young people describe the frequency and regularity of exposure to sexual solicitation as being a “normal part” of their online experience:“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 … I’ve been in conversations [online] like, ‘Hi. Hi. Nudes?’ I’m like, ‘No’ … yeah, it literally happens that quickly. Like, ‘What’s your age?’ And you’ll say how old you are, you’re underage, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh OK’, and then they’ll ask for pictures.” (14-year-old girl)

    Young people described feeling pressurised by harmful gender norms and normalisation of sexual violence. They also talked about the demands of “approval cultures” (where number of online friends, followers, ‘likes’ and so on is seen as central to self-presentation and peer recognition) that often led to behaviour contrary to safety advice about privacy settings and not communicating with strangers.

    “When you first get social media you’re a bit overwhelmed. You’re like ‘Oh my gosh, this person is adding me’, like ‘hi’ … It’s your first year at secondary school, that’s where all the pressure really comes in – who’s got the most friends, who’s got the most followers, who can take better pictures – that’s where it all starts really.” (16-year-old interviewee)

    Awareness of risks?

    Almost all secondary school and a majority of primary school participants had knowledge of online sexual harm. However the researchers found that while they were well aware of “potential dangers from adult strangers, there was limited understanding of the potential for harm from peers or others within their social networks.”

    This highlights a gap in online safety education and the need for a comprehensive approach that includes different sources of online sexual harm as well as explicitly and mindfully recognise the extent of young people’s online experience.

  2. Spending time online

    In this study, 50% of 16-18-year olds said they spend more than six hours a day online. In general, age influenced amount of time online – over 80% of 10-11 year olds spent less than three hours a day online. But more importantly, 32% of primary school participants and 11% of secondary school participants did not know how much time they spent online every day and were surprised in group discussions when checking ‘screen time’ on their phones to note the amount of time.

    This echoes research Claudia Megele and I undertook which indicated that young people move between online and offline experiences in a seamless manner, rather than identifying them as discrete experiences. This underscores the need for a holistic approach to safeguarding young people on and offline, and how we think about communication and direct work.

  3. Children value online opportunities and find negative and avoidance-based safety messages unhelpful

    Participants engaged in range of activities online including playing online games (87%), doing homework (79%), watching YouTube videos (79%), chatting to others (74%) and watching films and TV programmes (55%).

    Most participants’ perceptions of spending time online were more positive than negative. Many expressed the idea that the internet was neither wholly bad not wholly good. They acknowledged the frequency of exposure to potential sexual harm, but wanted adults to also acknowledge the positives of being online. This held true for those who had experienced online sexual harm – they placed greater emphasis on online risks than other young people but continued to use online spaces and highlighted the positive aspects of this.

    ‘Diffusion of responsibility’ is a sociopsychological phenomenon whereby individuals are less likely to take responsibility for their action or inaction in group settings.  For example, most people have not personally read or checked the terms of service and privacy for most of the websites or apps that they use. This is partly due to the implicit assumption that the given that so many other people have accepted the same terms of service and privacy then they should be ok. In practice this can blindsight the individual to possible risks and their implications.

    In our own research, we have found that young people view the online environment as a “friend” and this leads to a positive bias. This positive framing can enhance young people’s resilience as it allows them to explore, experiment, learn and innovate online. However, it also minimises their perception of online risks and limits a more critical consideration of their impact.

    Furthermore, the frequency of exposure to sexual solicitations and other online risks normalises them and ‘diffusion of responsibility’ online (see box) limits reflective consideration of risks. These and other factors combined with young people’s natural curiosity and propensity to seek activities that generate heighten emotional experiences can lead to greater risk-taking behaviour online.

    This highlights the need for more positive, evidence and strength-based rather than avoidance-based approaches to online risks and online safeguarding. Young people find overly negative or simplistic messages unhelpful and incompatible with the complexities of their online lives, which could sometimes make them counterproductive:

    “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.” (participant in the 14–16-year-old male focus group)

    They want safety messages to be more relevant, proportionate and understanding of the positive role the internet plays in their lives.

    Young people suggested that education about online harm should include inviting young people who have experienced online harm to share their experience as this would make it “a lot more real” and would enable them to “connect on a more personal level than [learning from] an older person who doesn’t know the internet as well as a younger person.” They also emphasised creating a safe learning environment with zero tolerance for all forms of abuse where young people can safely learn about online risks and online sexual harm.

  4. Reporting concerns
    Most participants indicated they would tell someone if they were worried or concerned about something online, but this reduced as children got older from 80% of 12 to 13-year-olds to 46% of 16 to 18-year-olds. Among primary school participants, 85% of girls said they would report concerns, versus 55% of boys. There was no significant gender difference for secondary school participants.

    Young people gave a variety of reasons why they would or wouldn’t report an experience or concern: “I’m not a snitch”, “It’s my problem”, “Awkward”, “It rarely makes situations better, and gets more people involved”, “Depends on how severe the situation is”, and so on. These views underscore the need for parents, carers and those working with the children to take a non-judgemental and age-appropriate approach to online safeguarding and sexual harm and have accepting, relevant and reassuring conversations with young people.Most participants identified parents, carers and family members as the main source of learning about online risks and safety. Also, most participants said they would share their concern with parents, carers or family members due to “closeness” of those relationships.

    However, some participants felt that such closeness made it difficult to report their experiences or concerns. Feelings of shame and guilt, the severity of the situation, contextual factors, specific familial relationships were some of the other factors influencing young people’s decisions to disclose or report incidents.

    This highlights the need to educate and equip parents and carers with evidence-based approaches to online safeguarding, as well as supporting them to maintain open and validating relationships with appropriate balance between parental monitoring and control versus privacy, trust and independence of the young person.

    Young people also emphasised the importance of school-based education and thought this should include potential harmful sexual behaviour by young people, general context of sex and relationships and other forms of harm, the impact of online sexual harm, and how to respond to and report concerns.

  5. Education and discussions should ensure children do not believe responsibility for preventing online sexual harm lies with them.

    While recognising the role of parents and carers, schools, the technology industry and wider society in addressing online sexual harm, young people in this study ultimately saw themselves as being responsible for preventing the occurrence of sexual harm. Although taking responsibility for their own safety can be positive and empowering, emphasis on personal responsibility can also lead to feelings of guilt and self-blame for those who experience sexual harm. This can be deeply damaging and prevent the young person from seeking help or reporting incidents.This highlights the need for a sensitive, restorative and child-centre approach to online sexual harm and online safeguarding education.

‘Tell us how to deal with it mentally’

Young people spend considerable amounts of their time online and this has significant influence on their lives and development. Therefore, it is essential that we listen and learn from to their experiences and views and that we are able to systematically, and in partnership with young people, assess the relevant risks and ensure their online safety, development and wellbeing in a restorative and child-centred manner. In the words of one of the young people:

“I think that they should teach us about how we should deal with these sexual harm problems. Like they tell us about it, but not how to deal with these problems…And not just telling a teacher or a mate. Just tell us how to deal with it mentally.” (participant in the 14 to 16-year-old female focus group)

Get involved in developing practice around online sexual harm and safeguarding

The Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) network is running a national research and practice development project on online safeguarding and digital professionalism for social workers.

You can take part in this practitioner-led project to shape practice guidance in this are by completing the survey here.

There will be a Twitter chat about online sexual harm by @MHChat and @PCFSWNetwork and @CommunityCare on the 4 December 2019 at 8:00 PM.

Further guidance

Research previously undertaken by Peter Buzzi and Claudia Megele, national chair of the PCFSW network and author of Safeguarding Children and Young People Online has led to the development of an online safeguarding framework – ‘the 10 Cs’ – to assess online risk and resilience as part of holistic assessment of a child’s needs, family and environmental factors and parenting, which is currently being piloted by a number of local authorities.

Use of 10 Cs helps local authorities embed the above learnings in practice as explained by Jenny Coles, director of children’s services at Hertfordshire: “This research is showing how important it is for social work and indeed the wider children’s workforce to consider both the positive and enabling aspects of young people’s digital and online world and being able to assess the safeguarding risks. In Hertfordshire this is also informing the contact and training programme of our child protection school liaison officers with schools.”

A guide to using the framework and to support social workers in making online safeguarding a core part of their practice will be published soon on Community Care Inform.

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