Children should be taught about online safety and digital citizenship “as soon as they pick up a device”, according to a leader researcher on an international study which indicated some vulnerable young people can fall prey to online predators.
The report on online child sexual abuse by a team at Middlesex University London incorporated input from gardai and from young Irish adults. It also looked at data from the UK, Italy, and the Netherlands and found that while young people are engaging online as never before and police forces are struggling to catch up with the challenges that arise.
Overall, the study found the vast majority of respondents ‘never’ had to deal with sexually explicit online requests, while a minority of around 16% of those surveyed said they had received such requests ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’.
Of respondents who had been sexually solicited online, the UK sample came out highest, with over half saying that, when they were between 12 and 16 years of age they were invited to act sexually online. This included being asked for sexual information, photos, or videos, or asked to meet to engage in sexual activities.
All respondents were found to have engaged in some form of risky online behaviour. Some 344 women and 185 men from Ireland, average age of 20, contributed views to the large online survey of more than 1,100 people which also included responses from Italy and the UK.
Looking back on their teenage years, 44% of respondents in Ireland said they had never been sexually solicited online, compared with 53% of respondents in the UK and 39% of respondents in Italy. Of those who had received online sexual messages between the age of 12 and 16, respondents in Italy were more likely to talk to someone about it than those in Ireland. Girls were more likely to be solicited online whereas boys were more likely to engage in risky behaviour such as sexting.
With the vast majority using their phones as their main internet access point, the parents of the UK respondents were significantly more likely to control their youth’s internet access by blocking or filtering.
The report also highlighted concerns over gaps in the law in areas such as grooming, and also conducted qualitative research involving gardaí.
One said: “It’s very difficult to get in gardaí who are anyway qualified in computers, you need somebody who did a computer degree before they joined the job or something like that.”
Julia Davidson of Middlesex University said society needed to tackle the issue of “digital citizenship” and “the work should start almost as soon as they pick up a device”. She added that it should also be an “integral part” of any school curriculum.
The report, ‘Enhancing Police and Industry Practice’ can be accessed at mdx.ac.uk
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