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Rise in child sexting daunting mental health professionals

News, 11 July 2017

Two in five mental health and other care professionals lack confidence in dealing directly with children demonstrating harmful sexual behaviour (HSB).

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Two in five mental health and other care professionals lack confidence in dealing directly with children demonstrating harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) such as sexting and publishing 'revenge porn', new research from the National Children's Bureau and Research in Practice has found.

While three quarters of professionals said they had the skills and knowledge necessary to identify children displaying HSB, considerable "worry" was identified in working directly with these children by two thirds of respondents.

HSB is characterised as inappropriate to children's age or stage of development, and may be harmful to themselves or others.

A mental health worker, psychologist or counsellor may be called upon to give expert advice, or to support a young person that is displaying HSB.

Schools or social workers will often turn to mental health services to source counsellors to help children and young people understand and address their behaviour.

'Sometimes victims themselves'

Decisions as to whether to exclude a child from school in order to protect other children from harm are among the most difficult that experienced professionals say they have to make.

Children displaying HSB are often vulnerable, sometimes victims of abuse and neglect, and have a range of needs that makes the work more complex.

589 staff working with children in six local authority areas, including mental health professionals, social workers, teachers and foster carers took part in the research.

Of those who had worked with six or more children displaying HSB, 43 percent said most or all of these children had suffered neglect, and nearly a quarter (23 percent) of staff said that most or all of the children had been sexually abused by others.

Smaller sample reports rise in HSB

More in-depth research was conducted with a smaller group of professionals in two local authority areas.

62 per cent of this group said they had seen an increase in the number of cases of HSB involving the use of technology, social media and the internet.

Specialists reported they had the skills and training to identify when children were accessing or sharing harmful content on the internet or through social media, but not the confidence to reconcile activity involving instant messaging or mobile apps such as SnapChat.


"We must listen carefully to professionals who are warning of an increase in harmful sexual behaviour and the new forms emerging, based on social media and the internet," said Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau. 

"Children displaying harmful sexual behaviour need the best possible support so they can recover from past experiences and lead healthy adult lives."

Dez Holmes, Director of Research in Practice, added: "We know of course that correlation does not imply causation. A child who has experienced abuse will not necessarily go on to develop harmful behaviours and a child who is displaying HSB has not necessarily experienced abuse or neglect."

The report calls for local authorities to create opportunities for mental health and other professionals to learn how best to support children and reconcile HSB through provision of case clinics within or between agencies.

How does this story make you feel? Join our Twitter chat on protecting children from harmful sexual behaviour at 12pm today, Wednesday July 12, using the hashtag #mhtchat