Nine out of 10 school pupils believe it is their own responsibility to keep themselves safe online, according to new research on behalf of the independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
This belief can lead to harmful feelings of guilt and self-blame in the event of abuse, and also stop children from seeking the help and support they need, the research found.
Principal researcher Laura Pope said: “By speaking directly to children and young people, we have been able to get a much deeper understanding of the issues they face when going online.
“It is clear that overly simplistic and negative messages around online safety are unhelpful, and conflict with the realities of children’s online lives.
“Instead, they need more support and education from schools before they start spending time online, as well as parents, carers and the online industry, so they no longer feel that it is their responsibility to protect themselves from online sexual harm," she added.
The ‘Learning about online sexual harm’ report analyses the views of more than 260 children aged 11-18 from primary and secondary schools across England and Wales.
Researchers interviewed nine young people who had experienced online sexual harm in a bid to ascertain what more could be done to protect others from experiencing abuse.
The report, by researchers at The International Centre at the University of Bedfordshire on behalf of the Inquiry, and forms part of the Internet investigation, found that many children tend to accept the risk of being exposed to sexual harm as a ‘normal part’ of being online, with girls particularly accustomed to receiving explicit images.
One female pupil aged 14 said; "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."
The research also found the existence of an online ‘approval culture’, exacerbated by celebrities and the media, which can lead young people to ignore privacy settings in order to increase their audience. Nine per cent of pupils said that they had learnt about online sexual harm from personal experience.
Eighty three percent of secondary school pupils said online sites need to do more to keep children safe. Furthermore,participants said that schools should be educating pupils on the range of ways online sexual harm occurs, harmful sexual behaviours by peers and links to broader issues of relationships and consent.
Some pupils felt that education about online sexual harm should start in primary school before they begin using social media, and continue regularly throughout their schooling.
Dr Helen Beckett from the University of Bedfordshire said: “Rather than providing them with a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’, we need to properly engage with children and young people to understand the realities of their online lives and how we can better protect them.
“Educating children about online sexual harm is only part of the solution. We need to challenge the harmful social norms and normalisation of sexual violence that allow such harm to flourish.
“It also means holding the online industry to account around the promotion of safety within their sites, and their responsibilities to protect the children and young people who use them," she concluded.
Learning about online sexual harm