Protecting students from online sexual exploitation and abuse

Written by: Elizabeth Rose | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Horrifying recent figures show the extent to which online sexual exploitation and abuse has proliferated since Covid lockdowns – and much of this material is being self-generated by the victims themselves. Elizabeth Rose explains what schools should be doing to protect children

In January, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF, 2023) published data showing that sexual abuse imagery of primary-aged children is 1,000% worse since the Covid-19 lockdowns.

The statistics for the numbers of children harmed through online sexual abuse – and the number of images and videos removed by the IWF – has been growing steadily across all age ranges over recent years and these latest figures are horrifying.

The IWF report that it has seen a 1,058% increase in the numbers of children aged 7 to 10 who have been recorded, “via an internet-connected device, often by a predator that has contacted them online”.

Furthermore, in 2022, the IWF investigated a total of 375,230 reports across all age ranges suspected to contain child sexual abuse imagery – an increase of 4% on 2021. Of these, 63,050 related to imagery which had been created of children aged 7 to 10. This is a 129% increase on 2021 and a 1,058% increase on 2019 when the number was 5,443.

Almost two-thirds of the material analysed was “self-generated”, where a child was groomed, coerced, tricked, or blackmailed into performing a sexual act in front of a camera. This material is then shared on.

Around 14% of the photos or videos involving children aged 7 to 10 was deemed to be “Category A” – showing the most extreme form of abuse.

Many of the longer term, lasting impacts of the period of national lockdown during the pandemic are only now beginning to emerge, but it is clear from the statistics published by the IWF in 2020, 2021 and now 2022 that the increased time spent at home on internet-connected devices has meant that children are more at risk and are suffering more online sexual abuse than ever before.

The focus in these latest figures is on primary-age children but IWF figures last year raised the same concerns regarding secondary-age children, especially warning that sexual abuse imagery of children aged 11 to 13 was the most prevalent, accounting for almost 70% of the cases in 2021 (IWF, 2022).

And of course, the advice in this article is of course relevant to both primary and secondary school safeguarding work.

What do schools need to do?

The guidance for schools on online safety becomes more detailed year on year. Keeping children safe in education (DfE, 2022) outlines school responsibilities in detail, with updates and additions in each latest version, as risks emerge. It is clear that the designated safeguarding lead (DSL) should take lead responsibility for safeguarding and child protection – including online safety. There are several key points to be aware of to ensure that you are complying with the statutory guidance. Schools need to:

  • Make sure that online safety is integrated into all areas of school life and is an integral part of all safeguarding policies and procedures.
  • Ensure that the DSL and all staff have had an appropriate level of training in the issue of online safety – at induction and regularly thereafter.
  • Ensure governors have had appropriate training to provide support and challenge around this issue – this was a new addition to the guidance in September 2022.
  • Include online safety and references to any standalone online safety policies in the child protection policy.
  • Ensure that children are taught about online safety in an age-appropriate and robust way. This should be integrated across the curriculum.
  • Ensure that parents are provided with regular information about online safety, including what the school is asking children to do online and if they will be communicating with anyone from the school online.
  • Have a clear policy on children’s use of mobile technology and devices while on the school site.
  • Ensure there are robust filters and monitors in place on all school devices – including staff devices.
  • Use the Prevent risk assessment when deciding on the appropriateness of filtering and monitoring of school devices.
  • Ensure that school systems are protected from possible incidents of cyber-crime.
  • Carry out an annual review of online safety policy, procedures, and practice to establish if there are any areas for improvement.

Translating this into practice

The above list is based on the requirements of Keeping children safe in education (DfE, 2022) and while it provides the backbone of what needs to be in place, with such complex, changing, and ever-present risks from the online world it can be hard to determine the most effective practical ways to protect children.

Online sexual abuse is often a form of extra-familial harm (reflected in the statistics above), where parents and carers are unknowingly allowing strangers to access their children when they think they are safe and alone in their bedrooms upstairs. As such, work with parents is key, alongside upskilling other stakeholders in your school community. Consider the following:

  • Do parents and carers know the risks to children? Do they understand how many children are harmed and that this is increasingly impacting younger and younger children? Think about creative ways to impress this message onto parents and teach them what to do. You may wish to invite them to a presentation during parents’ evening, for example, to secure as many attendees as possible.
  • Do staff know the risks? Do they all know to talk to all children about online safety whenever curriculum opportunities allow – not just in PSHE or tutor time?
  • Do you deliver protective behaviours work to all children, whatever their age or stage – from early years all the way up to 18? Does this cover protective behaviours in the online world?
  • Have governors got the right knowledge to provide support and challenge around this issue? They may find the guidance for senior leaders, Online safety in schools: Questions from the governing board from the UK Council for Internet Safety (2016) helpful in structuring their questioning.
  • Have you considered how to differentiate your online safety education to meet the needs of children with additional needs or disabilities? Consider the vulnerabilities of your children and assess if your curriculum fully supports them.
  • Do you keep up-to-date with the latest risks? It is important to do this using national newsletters or training courses, but also by sharing information between schools and within local authorities as necessary, as those working in schools will be responding to emerging risks all the time.
  • Think more broadly than single-issue responses. It may be helpful to respond to concerns with a spotlight session or resources – such as a tutor time discussion about Andrew Tate, for example (see BBC, 2022) – but think about how to build digital resilience and critical thinking skills in children so that they can approach any online situation with confidence and in a safe way.

Final thoughts

There is no single answer to this issue. There are wider discussions happening around how to keep internet users safe – including the Online Safety Bill – and how companies can work to improve safety on platforms, but schools, like parents, have little influence over the wider workings of some of the contexts in which their children live and interact.

As well as responding when a child is at risk of harm, our role is one of prevention and education – to do everything we can to teach and prepare children for the risks they will face online and educate and warn parents so that they are better equipped with skills to prevent abusers reaching children in the first place.

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