Online sexual abuse: Safeguarding leads brace for rise in disclosures

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

Safeguarding leads in schools are on alert for disclosures of online sexual abuse after a surge in reported incidents following the Covid-19 lockdown.

Children feeling lonely during the Covid-19 lockdown were at heightened risk of online grooming and sexual abuse.

A briefing from the NSPCC published last month (NSPCC, 2020) reports that Childline has seen an 11 per cent increase in counselling sessions about online sexual abuse – from an average of 207 a month before lockdown to 230 a month now.

The NSPCC helpline also saw a 60 per cent increase in contacts from people with concerns about children experiencing online sexual abuse, from an average of 117 per month before lockdown to an average of 187 per month since lockdown. The charity warns that lonely children sought company and support online during lockdown, often from people they did not know. For many children, it was the first time they had ventured onto some of these online platforms.

The briefing states: “Some children and young people told Childline that the conditions created by the pandemic made them feel lonely and disconnected from their usual support networks. This led to some of them using online platforms to meet new people, get company and seek support from people they hadn’t met face-to-face.”

The concerning rise in cases has significant implications for safeguarding work in schools, with teachers and pastoral staff on the look-out for potential disclosures this term.

Cases reported to Childline include children being offered money or e-gift cards in exchange for online sexual activity and children being talking into sending explicit images, often by perpetrators posing as young people themselves.

The briefing adds: “Some children and young people told our Childline counsellors that their experience of being sexually abused online had left them feeling scared, embarrassed, ashamed and questioning their self-worth. Others turned to Childline because they were struggling with issues around eating and sleeping following the abuse.

“Some young people spoke about having difficulties trusting other people and forming healthy relationships after what had happened to them. And some were having suicidal thoughts as a result of the abuse.”

Perpetrators used multiple channels to maintain communication with their victims, according to the briefing, and would try to quickly move conversations from public to private spaces online.

The platforms used included social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, instant messaging such as Discord, Kik and WhatsApp, live streaming platforms such as Twitch and Yubo, and chat functions in online games such as Fortnite Battle Royale.

The NSPCC briefing adds: “It can be difficult for children and young people to speak out about online sexual abuse. Some children and young people told Childline they were finding it difficult to ask for help. Some felt ashamed or to blame for what happened to them. Others felt that there was no point in asking for help, as no action would be taken.”

The NSPCC’s warnings come as new research has raised concerns about a lack of counselling services being offered to children returning to school this term.

The study from the IPPR think-tank (Quilter-Pinner & Vainker, 2020) finds that only 48 per cent of almost 7,000 teachers polled said their schools were offering on-site counselling, with private and more affluent state schools more likely to have such services.

The report calls for the government to ensure on-site mental health support and social work in every school. The report’s lead author, Harry Quilter Pinner, said: “Many schools are unable to provide the support young people need to thrive. Without urgent government action to ensure every school can provide vital services such as counselling and after-school clubs there is a profound risk that the legacy of the pandemic will be even bigger educational and health inequalities. The government has started to put in place some support for young people in the wake of the national lockdown. But it can and should go further.”


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