87% of primary age children are already using the internet on a regular basis, and 42% of children aged 8-11 have shared a photo online. However, sometimes they don’t perceive the risks in talking to strangers they meet online, which is leading to a perfect storm of conditions for child sex abuse cases. Last year more than 132,000 webpages were found to have images or videos of child sex abuse on them, and nearly a third of those (29%) were ‘self-generated’ - made by children themselves, without an abuser in the same room.
To get a sense of how teachers feel when faced with these stark figures, we talked to Anita Diaz, Head of PSHE (Year 7-13) at an independent girls’ school in south-east England.
Do you believe schools are equipped to teach children about the dangers of grooming and sexual abuse online?
I think that schools are more aware of their duty in this regard as safeguarding has become more focused. The main problem is the lack of PSHE-trained teachers. These are sensitive and difficult topics that need to be taught so that students are engaged, not just lectured at. This tends to switch them off.
Sharing sexual images, for example, is very common and the challenge for teachers is to raise pupils’ awareness of the risks and how to protect themselves (by making images anonymous, getting an awareness of risks and learning skills to resist peer pressure). Of particular concern currently is erotic choking, sometimes called “breath play”. Young people seem to have quite a blasé attitude to the risks inherent in this (both in heterosexual and same-sex relationships). I would also cover the rough sex defence when looking at consent - one can’t consent to one’s own murder.
I want to have frank and open conversations, responding to young people’s questions and concerns but always respecting them and not imposing a particular viewpoint - though safeguarding must always come first. However, I am not sure these kinds of conversations are going on in all schools, and I know some schools do not prioritise them because of other academic pressures.
92% of the victims of child sex abuse found in the report were girls, but are there unique challenges that come with dealing with issues involving boys?
As I am teaching in a girls’ school I always talk about boys’ attitudes, and the influence of porn on young men's attitudes too; like the story of the “wank bank” that a group of young men created and hid on the dark web so that they could share the sexual images they solicited from girls. Of course, we point out the legality of that situation (sharing sexual images), but the main focus is on consent, and developing a strong sense of self to show resilience.
I don’t teach boys, but my impression is that many of them are also vulnerable to online pressures and ideas. Porn perpetuates notions of “toxic masculinity”, giving boys false ideas about consent and unrealistic ideas about everything from relationships to penis sizes. Vulnerable boys are just as easily groomed, and need information and education to help them develop the skills and resilience to keep themselves safe.
Informing and educating our young people so that they are resilient and savvy users of the Internet is essential.
How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your ability to have conversations about safeguarding with your pupils?
The kind of conversations I discussed earlier would be impossible to have via remote teaching, and my line manager actually removed PSHE from the online timetable as a result. We were still encouraged to report any concerns to our safeguarding lead, but I am sure that in general many pupils have not had as much support as before. This is definitely something we will be looking at when school reopens as part of ‘Build Back Better
’ and students we may be concerned about will be offered additional support.
What’s the biggest mistake that schools are making when it comes to tackling these issues?
This is a hard question to answer, but I think the biggest issues are fear, combined with not training or valuing PSHE teachers. When all the focus is on academic results (despite the evidence that shows good PSHE supports achievement
), then PSHE can often feel like a token subject. Fortunately, Ofsted is now very supportive and is looking for the kind of impact PSHE can have in a school, which is a start. But until more teachers are trained and experienced, dealing with these sensitive topics can be a hot potato.
One has to be prepared to win over parents. I try to involve and inform parents as much as possible and I would say the majority are very happy with the knowledge their daughters are receiving. They often say “I wish we had had these kinds of conversations when I was at school.”
For those who are anxious or opposed, we point out that we can no longer shield our children from everything that is out there (especially online) and that being informed can protect their daughters from being pressured into sexual activity they are not ready for. For those who are concerned about LGBTQ issues, we refer them to the Equality Act.
What do you see as the most pressing issue when it comes to keeping children safe online?
Informing and educating our young people so that they are resilient and savvy users of the Internet is essential. Pandora’s Box is already open, so giving children the skills to deal with online bullying and harassment, so they know what to do in these kinds of situations and where to get help, has to be a priority. We need reliable resources to support inexperienced or non-expert teachers in delivering these topics safely.
What can parents do to make conversations at home easier and more productive?
This is a tricky one, as many young people really feel embarrassed about having these conversations with their parents. I think the best strategy is being open and listening to young people; bringing up a topic with an open question like “What do you think about….?” There is evidence that ‘sideways conversations
’ (for example, in the car) work really well. Try to be open minded - explore what the young person thinks, and try to only intervene if there is a real safeguarding concern. The most important thing is to listen!
I would recommend CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection)
as a useful and reliable resource when discussing these matters. They also provide support and information, and you can report abuse or online harassment on their website.
A graduate of Homerton College, Cambridge, Anita has taught children aged 2-18 in the UK and Spain in a career spanning more than 40 years. For the last 15 years she has taught in a small independent school for girls aged 11-18.