The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published their research with young people concerning their views and experiences of online risks and sexual harm. The small-scale research included 213 young people aged 10–18, which means it is not representative of the perspectives of all young people. However, the results are similar to previous and ongoing research done by the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) network.
The five main themes from the study are:
- Children and young people are exposed to online risks and sexual harm from a young age
Young people feel pressured by gender norms, normalisation of sexual violence and the demands of ‘approval cultures’ (where online friends, followers, likes etc. are seen as central to self-presentation and peer recognition). This often leads to talking to strangers online and not taking safety advice/precautions concerning privacy settings.
There is room for development in online safety education, a need for a comprehensive approach to different sources of online sexual harm, as well as recognition of the extent of young people's online experience.
- Spending time online
50% of 16–18 year-olds spend more than six hours a day online, while over 80% of 10–11 year-olds spend less than three hours a day online. 32% of primary school students and 11% of secondary school students don't know how much time they spend online a day and were surprised when they checked screen time on their phones. This shows a need for a holistic approach to safeguarding young people online and off.
- Children value online opportunities and find negative and avoidance-based safety messages unhelpful
Participants engaged in a 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' thought of spending time online in more positive than negative terms. They acknowledge the frequency of exposure to sexual harm, but they want adults to acknowledge the positive aspects of being online as well. Young people are positively biased towards online environments. This positive bias, on the one hand, lets them explore, experiment, learn and innovate online, while on the other hand, it minimises their perception of risks. Furthermore, frequent exposure to sexual harm and online risks normalises people to diffusion responsibility, which is a social-psychological phenomenon whereby individuals are less likely to take responsibility for their action or inaction in group settings. This shows that there is a desperate need for a more positive, evidence and strength-based approach to online safeguarding with the inclusion of victims of online harm.
- Reporting concerns
Most participants said they would tell someone if they were worried or concerned about something online, but number decreased as age increased: from 80% of 12–13-year-olds, to 46% of 16–18-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.
Most children learn from their parents about online risks and safety. Although most children report concerns to family members and carers, some would not do so because of shame and guilt, the severity of the situation, contextual factors and other issues. For these reasons, school-based education on such issues should be emphasized.
- Education and discussion should ensure that children do not believe responsibility for preventing online sexual harm lies with them
While children acknowledge the role of family, school, the tech industry and wider society in addressing online sexual harm, they also feel responsible for preventing the occurrence of sexual harm. Taking such responsibility on themselves can be positive and empowering, however, it can be a slippery slope towards guilt and self-blame. These feelings can be damaging and can prevent people from seeking help or reporting concerns, which is why a sensitive, restorative and child-centred approach should be emphasized.
Young people spend a significant part of their time online, which has a great impact on their lives and development. Educating them about online risks and creating a safe environment for them is the way to ensure their safety, development and well-being. Taking it a step further, young people should be educated about dealing with the psychological impact of such risks and experiences.