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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

The parent protection factor: how talking openly can help with negative online experiences

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Results from interviews, focus groups and surveys with young people aged 10 to 20 by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse show that parents can play an important role in protecting children from online sexual harm – which they define as: “anything sexual that is abusive or makes you feel upset or uncomfortable”.

The way forward for parents is to talk openly with their children about the risks of online sexual harm. Young people who had experienced open conversations appreciated them; those who hadn’t expressed a desire for them.

For some young people, feeling close to their family is a strong protective factor – their parents can help manage risk or be supportive after a harmful incident. For other young people, being close to their family ironically makes it hard to tell them about negative experiences or concerns.

Young people primarily feel it is their personal responsibility to keep themselves safe – which can mean that they feel guilt and self-blame.

Parents, as young people acknowledge, need information and support. Young people also feel that while parents should be aware of what their kids – particularly young children – get up to online, it’s hard to know how much surveillance they should put in place or how much they should monitor their kids. Working out issues around privacy, trust and independence is a hard balancing act…

• “I feel like they [parents] always know things a couple of years after, so something could be going on right now which is really harmful to children and they wouldn’t know” 14- to 16-year-old female focus-group participant

• “Tell [parents] what happens… If my mum would have told me ‘Oh yeah, if you send this person a picture of your body, there’s a chance they might post it everywhere and a chance they might show people you love’… I reckon I wouldn’t have done anything” female, age 14

• “My parents have Instagram and Facebook, whatever, but the experience that they have on it as adults, even if they try and put that experience into the mind of a young person, it’s not the same as actually being a young person being brought up around this sort of social media culture” 14- to 16-year-old female focus-group participant

• “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, age 14

• As well as teaching young people about online safety they should actually teach young adults, adults [and] parents, because then they can warn their own children about it. Because honestly, I wish that my mum and dad spoke to me about it, and it would have saved me a lot of stress” female, age 16

• “Teachers might understand a little bit more than parents, because they’re sort of surrounded by people who are invested in the social media culture… If you feel like a teacher would understand you, you can go see them. So, at school there’s more [young] teachers, so it’s a bit easier [to talk to them] than parents. And… at home you see your parents all the time, you love them so much [so it’s hard to tell them]” 14- to 16-year-old female focus-group participant

• “Don’t allow [kids] to have a phone without their parents watching them” female, age 11

• “Parents, whatever they do, they shouldn’t be going through children and young people’s phones. That isn’t the best thing. That would be my advice for parents – obviously it’s important to monitor what your child is doing, but not want to lose children and young people’s trust” female, age 13

• “Parents need to check their children’s social media accounts… Parents need to keep on it. They should go through children’s friends and followers lists. When I used to have Insta there were 30- and 40-year-olds on there following me” female, age 17

• “To always have [sex and relationships] as a topic that you’re able to talk about and try and make people feel comfortable and that there’s no shame… There are parents who are in a protective bubble and don’t want anything to happen, but by not talking about things it just creates a barrier and you can’t talk about it” female, age 20

• “I sometimes think that adults get too scared to let their children online – in my opinion the rewards outweigh the risks” male, age 14

• “It’s like quite good that they do obviously worry about your safety, but I think sometimes parents forget about the good things that come from social media, like being able to see parts of the world you never see or share things with your friend”

“Talk to people you’ve never experienced before”

“Exactly. So I think sometimes they need to focus more on the positives instead of jumping to all the conclusions” 14- to 16-year-old female focus-group participants

• “It depends on how aware parents are with social media, and also what your relationship is with your parents. I can tell my mum anything, but some kids can’t tell their mums or dads anything” female, age 15

From New research explores children and young people’s views on online sexual harm (Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse, 14/11/19)

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