As National Child Protection Week draws to a close, we must face our failure to keep children safe from pornography exposure and on-line predators.
By Daniel Principe
During National Child Protection Week I have been reflecting on the personal accounts students share with Melinda and I – students who are becoming increasingly younger. It’s distressing enough when senior high school girls approach us to talk about sexual harassment as a daily experience – including at their school - to show us the dick pic they received that morning, to offload about hearing boys make sexual moaning noises. But when you hear these stories from girls who are much younger, it is even more disturbing.
But that’s the new reality – as reported just this week by the BBC: Dr Rebekah Eglinton, chief psychologist for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, said unwanted touching, as well as being pressured into sharing nude photos, had become a part of everyday life for children "to the point where they wouldn't bother reporting it". What children have said to us is that sexual violence is now completely normalised through social media platforms and through access to online pornography.
One particular story reveals just how bad things are – and will hopefully push us all to do more to address the issue of child safety.
After speaking to a group of Year 7-9 girls in a NSW school a couple of days before the NSW lockdown, we were approached by Katie (not her real name). She revealed she had been sent a video of a man masturbating in a shower, via Snapchat.
Amidst the hundreds of stories I've heard, this one stood out.
Katie was 12 when she was sent the video.
Her parents didn’t know.
This was the first time she had told anyone.
Before our talk she didn’t think there was anything she could do about it – she thought she just had to put up with it.
She said it was “pretty normal” online. It had happened to her friends as well.
How did we arrive at this point? Where a 12-year-old girl could receive a live video of a masturbating man, from a man she didn’t know – and think this was just how it is for girls like her?
Children like Katie are enduring these degrading and illegal intrusions because we, the adults, have allowed it. Even though it is now well known that predators no longer need to be in the same room, suburb, or even country to harm a child as the Australian Centre on Child Exploitation documents.
As we reflect on National Child Protection Week and our role as adults to place the safety and wellbeing of children first, we cannot be complacent about just how easy it is for predators to find them. Predators who are, according to cyber-safety expert and Collective Shout ambassador Susan McLean, easily approaching children online – through Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram (see our investigation here) and popular gaming sites.
Katie’s story lends urgency to a child safety issue which demands far more than a day or a week to address. However, we must use this moment to expose the ways COVID lockdowns and increased screen time has exacerbated pre-existing dangers.
As well as predators, more children have been exposed to explicit imagery. Currently in Australia there are no age verification protections to stop children being exposed to hardcore pornography (though the Federal Government is now at least looking into it).
Melinda and I with students in Albury earlier this year
Parents, teachers, carers need all the support they can get from advocacy organisations, politicians and corporations.
We can never allow the burden of responsibility to be placed on children, but we do need to equip and educate them to be aware of danger and predators, to know they will be cared for and supported if they experience any harms online and that they deserve to be respected (see here for some resources).
In spite of the challenges facing us all to keep children safe, what keeps up going is the words of these girls after our school sessions:
“I learnt how to say no to people even under peer pressure.” – girl, 12
“I learnt that girls are being taken advantage of and that we are portrayed as weak, helpless human beings. I also learnt that girls shouldn't be portrayed like this. We should stand for who we are!" – girl, 13
“No means no. We need to stand up for our selves and tell teachers or parents if something bad is happening to you or other people.” – girl,13
“That you don't have to be polite to rude behaviour, you don't have to laugh at rude jokes, you can tell/report to the police boys bad behaviour because it's unacceptable.” – girl, 12
If you’d like to explore having us in your school next year please email me: [email protected]
Daniel is a Collective Shout Educator and Youth Advocate.