Children in their final year of primary school are most at risk of suffering some form of online abuse at the hands of other youngsters, according to research out today (Wednesday 20 June 2018).
However, children as young as eight are experiencing online peer on peer abuse, such as sexting or coercion, teachers have reported.
Incidence of peer on peer abuse is most prevalent in Year 6 in England, or Primary 7 in Scotland, the year before children move up to secondary school, but even younger children are likely to have experienced it too, a national survey commissioned by the Marie Collins Foundation (MCF) and completed by more than 300 schools has found.
The charity worked with researchers at the University of Suffolk on the nationwide survey amid concern that the use of mobile devices among children was putting more at risk of online peer on peer sexual abuse
The results are being revealed at MCF's annual international conference in London today, which is due to be attended by the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability and Minister for Women, Victoria Atkins MP, as well as professionals across education, academia, social services, health, police and criminal justice, as well as charities working in child sexual abuse.
Marie Collins Foundation (MCF), a charity based in North Yorkshire, is believed to be the only organisation that directly supports children who have been sexually abused online, and their families, to recover.
Professor Tink Palmer MBE, founder and CEO of MCF, said: "Whilst we have been aware - anecdotally through our work with schools and the wider children's workforce, and via our direct work with children - that online peer on peer abuse is a growing problem among children and young people this study is the first of its kind to try to measure the scale of the problem in schools and how they deal with it.
"It is important because it helps us to get a clearer picture of the scale of the issue, the actual experience of schools and headteachers' confidence in dealing with it.
"The results do not say that peer on peer abuse doesn't happen after Year 6 - we know it does - it's just that it's not being reported to headteachers to the same level. We believe Year 6 is the age when many children get their first mobile phone and, at this age and younger, parents are perhaps more likely to be monitoring their child's online activity."
In Scotland, 95 per cent of schools that took part reported having had an incident of peer on peer abuse, with 23 per cent of reports resulting in formal legal proceedings. In England, 85 per cent of respondents reported having an incident, with 13 per cent leading to police involvement.
Online peer-on-peer abuse is any form of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, and coercive control, exercised between children and within children's relationships (both intimate and non-intimate) with a digital element.
It includes sexting, online abuse, coercion and exploitation, peer on peer grooming, threatening language delivered via online platforms, distribution of sexualised content and harassment.
The results show it is a growing problem, with 83 per cent of respondents confirming that the number of reports had gone up in the last three years. At least one incident is happening per term in nearly half of English schools that took part.
The online survey was made available to headteachers and safeguarding leads in primary and secondary schools, state and independent. In England, 153 responded while there were 174 responses from Scottish schools.
The research found that most education around the topic is delivered before Year 4 or during Year 7 and the equivalent in Scotland, after which it reduces dramatically across both countries.
On the number of incidents leading to formal legal proceedings, Prof Palmer added: "The fact that the number is low in both England and Scotland is a positive thing. We don't want children to be criminalised and it may mean that schools feel able to deal with these matters themselves.
"However, we are concerned about the growth of the problem, the regularity of incidents and the lack of nationally-coordinated, formal training and policies around these issues, which need careful and informed handling.
"In its worst forms, online sexual abuse can have devastating, even lifelong effects. It's critical that our colleagues in education are equipped with the right skills to deal with it, not just from the point of view of victim recovery but also regarding the implications and support for the abuser and the legal issues.”
The survey asked headteachers if they felt that current guidance on dealing with peer on peer abuse from the Department for Education or their local authority was adequate – 61 per cent said they did not receive sufficient guidance and support.
Only 48 per cent of survey respondents suggest training in online peer on peer abuse is available to all members of staff, with the training most likely to be in-house.
Prof Palmer added: “Given the potentially life changing impact of such abuse on both victim and abuser we are concerned that schools are being left to address these problems in an ad hoc manner.
“We would like to see far more joined up thinking around these issues so schools are confident they are addressing the problems effectively and students are receiving accurate and informed education around online peer on peer abuse.”
The research is the second survey the University of Suffolk has carried out for MCF - the first in 2014 revealed a shocking black hole in the knowledge and capabilities of frontline professionals in health, education and social services in dealing with online sexual abuse.
More than 96 per cent of those surveyed said they would value training in online risk assessment and 81 per cent revealed they had never had training in helping children recover from online abuse.
For a full copy of the report click here
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