The police have received almost 30,000 reports of children sexually assaulting other children in the past four years, figures have revealed.
Reports of “peer on peer” abuse have increased by 71%, with 4,603 cases reported in 2013 compared to 7,866 in 2016, according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) investigation by BBC Panorama.
The figures come after research revealed children as young as five are being excluded from school for sexual misconduct. The data, obtained via a FOI by the Press Association, showed 754 children from 15 local authorities had been expelled or temporarily excluded as a result of sexual misconduct in the past four years.
They believe parents, alongside schools, must play a role in educating children about sexual conduct from a young age.
Another recent study from the University of Buckingham, has also suggested that watching pornography at a young age makes children more likely adopt “unhealthy sexual habits”.
Laura Hannah, education and wellbeing lead for sexual health charity Brook believes recent technological developments - the fact the internet has grown exponentially over the last decade, and kids from age five own a smartphone, - have played a large part in shaping children’s “unhealthy sexual behaviour”.
“They have easy access to sexual images and online pornography as well as being put at risk of complex issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem, trolling, online bullying and grooming,” she said.
“While this can feel daunting for parents and educators who may not understand the way young people communicate online, it’s important that we start to have open conversations from an early age to help young people build the resilience and skills they need to navigate these challenges.”
Hannah said the key to educating young children about sexual behaviour is a collaborative approach between parents and schools.
On the Government’s website, it states that as part of the 2019 overhaul of sex education, primary school children will learn about “healthy relationships” and, as children get older, they will “develop their understanding of healthy adult relationships in more depth, with sex education delivered in that context”.
But as Stower believes many of the topics surrounding consent and sexual conduct may not begin to be taught until secondary school.
“Waiting until age 11 is clearly much too late,” Stower said.
“Arming children with the right information about sexuality, consent, risks and protection means sexual misconduct can be prevented, because they know how to treat others and know when something is not right.”
Hannah agrees that conversations should start from an early age to help normalise sex, making it something that is not embarrassing or taboo.
“Drip feeding information to children about friendships [at an early age] can then lead on to relationships at the appropriate stage in their development,” Hannah said.
“Talking about respect, boundaries and consent when they’re young can help to shape healthy attitudes and values and reduce the risk of sexual misconduct.”
Leah Cowan, from the End Violence Against Women Coalition, feels that these conversations could start as early as when children are in nursery.
“With very young children, even going to nursery and to primary school, it’s good to talk clearly about the names of all our body parts, and about privacy, and that no one is allowed to do things to us that we don’t want them to,” she said.
“As children get older, parents, as well as the school, can guide and be part of the ongoing conversation about respecting others’ boundaries, about how all parts of the media including porn often portray people and bodies in a way that is not true to life.”
So how can parents broach this conversation with their kids and what’s the best way to do it to get children to open up comfortably and honestly?
1. Look for things your child can relate to.
Hannah advises looking out for stories in the media or storylines in TV dramas, so you can start conversations around them.
“An example is Bethany Platt’s grooming storyline in ‘Coronation Street’, - a very sensitive and important issue,” she explained.
“Using fictional characters to talk about real life issues allows parents and young people to talk more openly about healthy relationships and staying safe, without it becoming too personal.”
Arming children with the right information about sexuality, consent, risks and protection means sexual misconduct can be prevented." NSPCC’s public affairs manager, Tony Stower
2. Don’t judge your child.
Hannah said parents should always try to approach these sensitive conversations without judgement, in order to build trust and ensure their children feel comfortable to turn to them for advice and support.
3. Have conversations little and often.
“Don’t view conversations as a one-off,” the NSPCC states on their website. “It’s much better to have conversations little and often.
“This will help you reinforce the key points, and adapt the message as your child gets older.”
One way to do this, they advise, is to weave simple conversations about sexual conduct into the daily routine to stop it feeling like a “lecture”.
4. Make use of online resources to kickstart conversations.
“Parents worried about this kind of behaviour in schools can start conversations with their children using NSPCC online resources such as the animated Pantosaurus, who teaches children that what is in their pants is private,” said Stower.
The resource uses the word ‘PANTS’ to stand for: “Privates are privates”, “Always remember your body belongs to you”, “No means no”, “Talk about secrets that upset you” and “Speak up, someone can help”.
As an introduction, the Pantosaurus video enlists the help of dinosaurs to tackle the sensitive subject of sexual conduct and abuse.
It teaches children to speak out if anyone acts inappropriately around them, but can also help teach them what behaviour others may not like them to do.
The resource includes online videos and activity packs that parents can go through with their children.
5. Work with the school.
Where possible, parents should always be open with school staff if they are worried about the behaviour of their children, explained Hannah.
“Young people spend the majority of their time at school and if they are vulnerable then the school needs to be made aware,” she said.
“Additionally it is really important to keep open communication between schools and parents in order to make informed decisions when dealing with issues and to protect other pupils from harmful sexual behaviour.”
Cowan said in an ideal world, parents should be able to approach their kids’ school and bring up these concerns, however she said schools are not always ready to have these conversations.
“This is why it is important that we continue to push the government and school leaders to bring in the best possible sex/relationships education (‘RSE’),” she said.
“When schools do prevention work and teach consent well, they involve parents - for example by holding a parents evening at the beginning of term to show parents what materials they are going to use, and what kinds of discussions they will have. This helps to give families the language and confidence to do the same at home.”
A Department of Education spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “As announced in March 2017, all primary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education and all secondary schools will have to teach Relationships and Sex Education in the future.
“We want to help all schools deliver these lessons so that young people are equipped to have healthy relationships and treat each other with respect.”