Exposure to sexual harm and explicit images a 'normal part' of life for children

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Children and young people are coming to accept that exposure to online sexual harm and receiving and being asked for explicit images is now a part of everyday life, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has warned. Pete Henshaw takes a look

“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.” Female pupil, aged 14.

Many children now accept the risk of being exposed to sexual harm as a “normal part” of being online – with girls particularly accustomed to receiving explicit images.

The disturbing finding comes in new research published as part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

It highlights the danger of an online “approval culture” – exacerbated by celebrities and the media – which can encourage young people to ignore privacy settings in order to increase their audience.

It also warns that young people are becoming desensitised to being asked for or sent sexual images and see it as part of everyday life rather than something to report.

The report – Learning about online sexual harm – involves analysis of the views of more than 260 students aged 10 to 18 in England and Wales as well as nine young people who have experienced online sexual harm.

It has been compiled by researchers at the International Centre at the University of Bedfordshire on behalf of the inquiry, which itself was established in 2015 to consider the extent to which state and non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse in England and Wales.

During the research, the issue of sexual images came up frequently among the young interviewees. The report states: “Many related personal experiences in which they, or others they knew, received unsolicited explicit sexual images, or requests or coercive messages to send such images to others. This was particularly apparent for female participants, a number of whom reflected on the ‘normality’ of this.

“Participants reflected on how repeated exposure to such experiences could lead to desensitisation, which meant such incidents became accepted as an everyday part of life rather than something harmful to be acted on.”

Another concern was that most of the young people felt it was their own responsibility to keep themselves safe online. The worry is that this attitude stops children from seeking help when necessary and support or leads to them blaming themselves in the event of abuse.

The young people identified a number of issues on which they said schools should be educating pupils, including the range of ways online sexual harm occurs, harmful sexual behaviours by peers, and links to broader issues of relationships and consent.

Some of the older pupils warned that they had received these kinds of lessons too late in the day. One 14-year-old boy told researchers: “There’s no point in learning about a situation after the situation has actually goddamned happened.”

The young people said that education about online sexual harm should start in primary school before children begin using social media, and continue regularly throughout their schooling.

The report comes at a time when many schools are revamping their relationships and sex education (RSE) ahead of the implementation of a new statutory curriculum in September. The statutory guidance for RSE covers a number of these issues, but many of them only at secondary level. At primary level schools are only required to deliver relationships education, with sex education lessons being left to schools’ discretion (SecEd, 2019; HTU, 2019; DfE, 2019).

Principal researcher Laura Pope said: “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.”

Dr Helen Beckett, co-author of the report, added: “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.”

  • Learning about online sexual harm, Beckett, Warrington & Montgomery Devlin, Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, November 2019: http://bit.ly/32Z0eMa
  • DfE pledges £6m support fund for RSE and health education, SecEd, March 2019: http://bit.ly/2qpWfen
  • Revised guidance unveiled for Relationships and health education, Headteacher Update, March 2019: http://bit.ly/341mWog
  • Relationships (and sex) education and health education (updated statutory guidance and consultation outcomes), DfE, February 2019: http://bit.ly/2OZCqBf
  • Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education: FAQs, DfE, April 2019: http://bit.ly/2V6CyWA


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