Keeping Children and Young People Safe Online; Challenging the Narrative around Sexual Violence
Earlier in April, initial research into the impact of COVID-19 on young people by UK Youth highlighted that young people are worried about an increase in sexual exploitation, grooming and other types of sexual violence and abuse that might be perpetrated against them online. Many parents and organisations supporting children and young people share these same worries. And their concerns are valid.
In recent weeks we’ve seen reports in the UK of students posting extreme pornography in online lectures, a surge in the number of people contacting the National Revenge Porn Helpline and calls for action over the expected rise in child sexual abuse during pandemic.
Recent reports from the National Crime Agency revealed that early on during the Covid-19 crisis perpetrators were discussing opportunities to abuse children over online chat forums, whilst Europol said it had seen an ‘increase in online activity by those seeking child abuse material’.
Sexual violence being targeted and perpetrated against children and young people online as well as in person is nothing new. Experiences of all kinds of sexual violence including rape, sexual abuse within families and what is often referred to as ‘image-based sexual abuse’ have been a lived reality for women and girls around the world long before COVID-19 began. Girls aged between 12 and 18 frequently tell us that they receive sexual requests, comments and images of, for example, unsolicited ‘dick pics’ also called ‘cyber-flashing’ almost every single day, mainly from boys and men, who are known and unknown to them.
After decades of working frontline with survivors of sexual violence, we know all too well that the different kinds of sexual violence that girls and young women endure and survive are not isolated – they overlap across a continuum and within a framework of violence against women and girls. So when we talk about the sexual abuse of children and young people online, we need to connect this with the reality that two-thirds of all sexual abuse is perpetrated against children by someone within their own family, which often includes sexual abuse that is also perpetrated online.
As children and young people are spending more time than ever online, there has been an increasing focus around online sexual abuse and how children and young people can ‘keep themselves safe’. The language we use when talking about sexual violence matters, and we know that any safety messaging which places the responsibility with children, young people and adults to prevent someone else sexually abusing them, doesn’t work. This is because sexual violence isn’t rooted in the carelessness of survivors, it happens because of the decision-making of those who perpetrate.
So instead of messaging which suggests children spending more time online make them more vulnerable to abuse, let’s change this to perpetrators targeting children and young people online make them vulnerable to abuse! And instead of focussing on the so-called “heightened risk-taking such as sending sexualized images” let’s acknowledge and talk about the prevalence of grooming, coercion and manipulation that girls disproportionately experience to create and send sexual images.
It’s subtle, yet language matters and the narrative on all types of sexual violence and abuse against women and girls so often shirks away from naming and challenging the harmful choices perpetrators make.
Messaging which focusses on what children and young people can do to ‘protect themselves’ often colludes with the myth that men who sexually abuse children (particularly online) are usually strangers, which completely ignores that for many young and adult survivors, the person who abused them was someone they knew, who they were often close to and who they trusted. That this could be a friend, an intimate partner, family member or neighbour gets lost.
This avoidance to name and hold perpetrators accountable often means that the tools and platforms perpetrators use, such as the internet, and survivors of all ages are the ones being held responsible. This needs to change.
Whilst we as support services, parents and youth workers work to prevent online sexual abuse, it is vital that any advice we give to children and young people around keeping safe online reassures them that any abuse they experience is not their fault, or has happened because they have ‘failed’ at following our advice.
This might feel obvious, but many girls and young women tell us that they would not feel able to tell anyone if they were being pressured to do something sexual online, or if their sexual images were shared without their consent. This is because they feel like the blame will be placed with them, or that they will be in trouble.
In our prevention workshops it is common for young people to exclaim that ‘everyone knows it’s stupid to send nudes’ as a justification for holding survivors responsible for preventing sexual violence rather than perpetrators. In response to the constant requests that girls receive to send sexual images, they are often told to message back and ‘just say no’ or ‘block them’. These messages come from a place of wanting to keep someone safe but they miss the reality of grooming and coercion which inherently limit someone’s freedom and choice.
The result is that across the UK, girls particularly are being bullied, shamed and blamed for their experience of sexual violence, such as image based sexual abuse, whilst those who pressure, coerce and share their images without consent are rarely held responsible. When we give messages about preventing sexual violence, we must stop and ask ourselves, “What does this say to survivors and what does this say to perpetrators?” and “if we believe this message, who are we likely to hold responsible for sexual violence?”
It was refreshing to see two recent campaigns from RESPECT and Police Scotland that have targeted violence and abuse prevention messaging during Covid-19 at the people who are responsible for abuse – those perpetrating. We need to see so much more of this.
With this in mind and inspired by Rape Crisis Scotland, we’ve created our own ‘10 top tips for keeping children and young people safe from online sexual abuse’.
- Practice safe browsing and don’t pressure anyone to send you sexual photos of themselves.
- Think before you post, and don’t share sexual images of somebody else online.
- Click smart and don’t send someone else pornography they haven’t asked to see.
- Surf-savvy and don’t make sexual comments, start sexual conversations or ask someone to do sexual things online without explicit consent. For extra savvy points: Not sure if you have consent? Ask. Still not sure? Stop.
- Be selective with what you share, by never giving out an unsolicited picture of your genitals. Especially not to a child.
- Be on the ball and don’t pretend to be someone you are not.
- If you are struggling with being limited to your home, keep children and young people safe by not using the internet to sexually abuse them.
- Make sure your antivirus software is up-to-dateand then don’t make plans to groom and gain the trust of a child or young person.
- Anyone can own a computer and make the choice not to use it to sexual abuse a young person. If you won’t make this choice, then take a deep breath, disconnect your internet, throw away your computer, and keep children and young people safe whilst you stay at home.
- Don’t rape or sexually abuse children and young people – or anyone at all – ever.
If you are worried about your own behaviour, support is available from Stop it Now
If you are worried about someone else’s behaviour and want some advice, you can contact NSPCC
Whilst ultimately the only way to keep children and young people safe from abuse is for people not to abuse, we are not powerless in the face of their actions. We can work together against a victim-blaming culture which silences survivors of abuse, by challenging abusive behaviour, believing survivors and providing non-judgemental support instead.
Specialist Support for Survivors of any kind of Sexual Violence
- For women and girls aged 13 and over; our free and confidential National Rape Crisis Helpline is open every day, for survivors and their supporters providing support around any type of sexual behaviour online or offline, which has left them feeling scared, frightened or uncomfortable.
- For men and boys aged 13 and over; support is available from Survivors UK
- For anyone who is LGBTQ+ aged 13 and over; support is available from Galop
- For children and young people aged under 18; support is available from Childline
Whether the abuse you’ve survived happened yesterday or 50 years ago, we are still here.
- For non-abusing parents and carers of child survivors of sexual violence, support is available from Mosac
- For further information on speaking to children about their rights to be treated safely online; support is available from NSPCC
Information and support for reporting sexual violence and abuse seen online
- Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP)
- UK Safer Internet Centre
- Internet Watch Foundation
Sexual Violence Training and Prevention
We also know how important it is that young people are empowered with knowledge about the reality of sexual violence so that someone can adjust their own abusive behaviour, and/or be reassured that anything which makes them feel scared, uncomfortable or frightened is not okay.
If you are a youth worker or teacher and would like to find out more about our training for professionals or our prevention workshops with young people please contact firstname.lastname@example.org