Children as young as five are increasingly “perpetrating sexual abuse” because of what they are seeing online and in social media, a charity has warned.
Increasing numbers of primary school pupils are exhibiting “harmful sexual behaviour” as a result of the internet – with others groomed in their bedrooms in live broadcasts online, they said.
The charity Barnardo’s said children were increasingly becoming perpetrators as well as victims with an increasing number of reports of children touching others’ genitals or forcing others to watch pornography.
Their evidence to MPs also highlights growing evidence of an explosion of “live grooming” – with parents oblivious that children were sharing explicit content from their bedrooms.
Emily Cherry, assistant director of policy and public affairs at Barnardo’s, said young primary school children are coming across games and pornography online, which can lead to them carrying out “harmful sexual behaviour” in real life.
She said examples of this behaviour include inappropriate touching, “so touching another child’s genitals, asking another child to touch their genitals”, as well as taking compromising photos of themselves or another child or watching pornography online during playdates.
For most of the children displaying sexualise behaviour, Cheery believes there is “some form of abuse or exploitation in their own childhood”. She urged families with concerns over abuse to contact the charity for support. However, it is evident that this type of abuse is not simply limited to children who have grown up as victims of abuse. Children from what have been described as “loving, stable homes” have been reported to Barnardo’s services due to sexualised behaviour.
Cherry said the charity is particularly worried about grooming and the fact “vast numbers of children are able to have contact with strangers online, sometimes being coerced or manipulated into sharing images”.
There are also worries over children seeing inappropriate content. “We know that younger children will stumble first across pornography and then start to actively seek that out to educate themselves about sex and relationships behaviour,” she explained.
The ease in which children can live-stream themselves online was also flagged as an issue. “It’s effectively taking a TV crew into their bedroom with them and being able to broadcast to people that don’t know them,” Cherry continued. “We know that can have an effect on their emotional health and wellbeing, and mental health, as well as the ability for grooming and abuse.”
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