Call to act over online abuse cases
Child victims of online sexual abuse may not be getting the right protection or support because training for those who work with children has not kept pace with technological advances, according to university academics.
A survey of health, education and children's services workers across England revealed a black hole in the knowledge and capabilities of professionals charged with assisting children who have been abused through the internet.
It added that while perpetrators have become more ingenious in their use of technology to engage with vulnerable children, the training available to professionals has not kept up.
The study was carried out by researchers at Plymouth University and University Campus Suffolk for the Marie Collins Foundation, a pioneering charity dedicated to improving services for children abused online.
It revealed cases where a mother had offered her 11-year-old daughter for sexual services to attract men for herself, countless cases of young teenage girls being abused by men they had agreed to meet after making contact online, boys and girls as young as nine using chat rooms to find a boyfriend or girlfriend, and girls being encouraged to perform sexual acts for 'friends' which are filmed then distributed.
Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, said: "This shocking research demonstrates that while the internet has become a positive influence on many people's lives, there are still those who use it in a negative and sinister fashion.
"The fast pace of its development has in many cases left the authorities playing catch-up and while some now have policies in place, a huge amount of work is required to ensure those affected by online abuse receive the correct support."
Professionals who took part in the survey included school nurses, health visitors and paediatricians, social workers, child protection advisers, family and education welfare officers, teachers and learning support assistants.
More than half of the 692 people who responded said they did not currently feel confident about helping children who had experienced harm or abuse online.
The results also showed 70% of those respondents stated they had not received training in online risk assessment, with 95.5% saying they would value such training.
In addition, 81.1% of the respondents said they had never had any training in helping children in their recovery from online abuse, with 94% adding they would value such training.
Tink Palmer, founder and chief executive of Marie Collins Foundation, said: "The results of this research have confirmed our fears: that there is a dearth of understanding and professional expertise in relation to the recovery needs and future safeguarding of children abused online.
"In the UK and internationally the response to the needs of children and their families is, at best, ad hoc.
"Professionals lack confidence in assisting children in their recovery and it is apparent that this is due to a lack of adequate training.
"Currently, many professionals are attempting to deal with cases for which they are not equipped."
The Marie Collins Foundation - launched two years ago and named after a survivor of sexual abuse - is now calling for a national programme of professional development and specialist training to meet the needs of children who have suffered harm via digital technologies.
Jon Brown, the NSPCC lead on tackling sexual abuse, added: "Training to protect children from online abuse is an absolute must for those in social work, health, education and law. It won't necessarily make them experts but will help them stay in touch with a rapidly changing technological world which poses a variety of risks for the young."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "There is nothing more important than protecting children from harm.
"Our new, sharpened guidance on child protection makes clear what is expected of schools, health professionals, councils and agencies if they suspect that a child has suffered or may have suffered harm - including online abuse.
"We have also asked Sir Martin Narey to review the training and education of social workers so we can be clearer about what our social workers need to know and understand in this challenging career.
"We are continuing with social work reforms, cutting red tape and spending £400 million on bursaries and training schemes to attract the very best into the profession."