KEEPING OUR KIDS SAFE
While most of us would like to pretend that child sexual assault doesn't happen, recent high-profile events have brought the issue uncomfortably close to home. Last month reports surfaced of a shocking case at a Northern Beaches primary school where a six-year-old girl was assaulted by two 12-year-old students on school grounds.
And prior to that it was widely reported that 70 schools across Australia, including several locally, were involved in an international porn ring with nude photos of underage girls being shared online.
"Child sexual assault and abuse are subjects that most people don't want to think about - but ignoring the problem does nothing to protect your children," says Jason Oxenbridge from children's charity Bravehearts. "The fact is that every child is potentially at risk. But by educating and empowering your children, you can minimise their risk of harm."
Kate Power, Newport mum and author of successful book My Underpants Rule! Agrees. "I always say to parents the first thing they need to do is educate them. To be aware that it's actually going on and that offenders are usually people we know.
"They can be kids, they can be within the family or the community - they're usually not strangers. Most importantly we need to be having a conversation with our kids. So using My Underpants Rule! or another book or just having a conversation - that's how we can start."
But how do you teach young children about the dangers of abuse without terrifying them? Kate recommends that however you do it, approach it in a really engaging way. "We don't want to scare kids, we want them to feel proud of their bodies and we want to make them feel confident about the world," says Kate, a former NSW police officer.
Conversations about sexual assault can be a part of the safety conversations you're already having, adds Kate. The key is to start these conversations from a young age - her book is aimed at three to eight-year-olds - and have them often.
"Let children know that it is an important issue - our private parts need to be protected because they're important to our bodies, just like putting on a helmet when you're riding a bike.
Your kids don't need to know about dark and scary stuff, they just need to know that it's important. And you really need to be clear about what is appropriate and not appropriate behaviour. People don't touch your private parts, people don't see your private parts and you don't touch or see anyone else's private parts."
Leonie Smith is a cyber safety expert who regularly speaks at schools on the Peninsula and all around the country and she agrees that these safety conversations don't have to be as tricky as many parents fear.
"My opinion is we need to protect children for as long as possible. When they get to an age where you can allow them more freedom, then you do that - the same as you would for every other aspect of being a parent," she says.
"You wouldn't let kids walk to the corner store by themselves when they're very young, and you have to do the same thing online. But unfortunately what a lot of parents do is respond to peer pressure and agree to allow their children far more access to the Internet when they're younger than they should - and then have to clean up the mess later."
With children getting their own smartphones at a younger age and more and more schools introducing BYO iPad programs, the danger is that they will be exposed to adult content earlier. According to Leonie, adult filters for less than 13s is non-negotiable and you should only ever allow younger children to use internet-connected devices with you nearby.
"Parents have been under the impression they wouldn't really have to start thinking about this stuff until their kids were in high school and all of a sudden they're faced with an unexpected challenge," she says. "I've had parents say to me, 'I'm on Facebook, I never see porn. No paedophile ever contacts me.' So they actually believe that Facebook and Instagram are OK for a nine-year-old. They're not."
One of her key concerns is the amount of exposure young children are getting to pornography now and what they have access to online. "Education is absolutely vital. One of the things I say to parents is you can't outwit your child - you can't block them at every turn, it's just not possible," she says. "And good communication between parents, child and school is crucial. If your child can come to you and say something is upsetting them then you can do something about it. We've got to be a safety zone for them so they feel that they can talk to someone without getting in trouble. "I compare it to other situations like drugs and alcohol for instance. It's about having those early conversations -explaining to them why you're taking it slowly, why they're not allowed to do certain things until they're old enough. No parent can be with their child 24/7. All you can do is give them boundaries when they're younger, and when they're older and allowed to have a bit more freedom, keep an eye out. That's all you can do. And you deal with these issues as they come up and hopefully it's not something that's irreversible."
But there could at least be one good thing to come out, of all this, says Kate, who witnessed many distressing cases involving children during her 15 years with the police force.
"This has been going on for a very long time and the statistics are pretty horrible. But offenders really only get away with this stuff because of the silence around it so it's actually a good thing that people are talking about this issue now. Once parents know about it, it's so much harder for kids to be manipulated. Because we're having conversations like this we can really change a lot of what's been going on. In a positive light, the social change will lead to greater protection."