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Peer-on-peer abuse is an increasing problem in the UK. This is in correlation with how increasingly online our world has become. Inappropriate online content has been a large contributor to peer-on-peer abuse.
Research by the Children’s Commissioner found that the type of content that children watch and interact with shapes their attitude and beliefs, which then influences them to mirror that behaviour. For example, they found that over half of 11 – 13 year olds had been exposed to pornography before at some point in their childhood. This exposure increases further as children progress through puberty, with two thirds of children of this age seeing pornography.
This can often include violence and degrading behaviour, as well as inappropriate sexual behaviour; causing children to get a false impression of relationships.
What is peer-on-peer abuse?
Peer-on-peer abuse can also be known as child-on-child abuse. It is when a child places harm or abuse on another child. This can be a very difficult form of abuse to address because the abuse is harmful to both the perpetrator (the child committing the abuse) and the victim (the child being abused).
Peer-on-peer abuse can include any form of abuse including:
- Physical abuse – This includes punching, kicking, hitting, slapping, pushing, hair pulling, spitting, burning or scalding, scratching, pinching, biting, shaking, suffocating, and throwing things at a person.
- Sexual abuse – Being forced into sexual activity (rape or sexual assault), being exposed to sexual content, being exposed to private body parts, being pressured to share sexual content of yourself, being sent sexual content, being spoken to using sexualised language, being blackmailed to do something sexual, and doing anything sexual without your consent.
- Emotional abuse – This includes name calling, degrading behaviour, tormenting, communicating by shouting, forcing responsibility onto another person, peer pressure, forcing a child to do something they are uncomfortable with, being put in dangerous situations, preventing contact with other friends, being put down, gaslighting, being ignored, and being made fun of.
- Financial abuse – This includes being forced to steal, being forced to give money to another child, preventing access to money, and being forced to use bank card details online.
- Coercive control – This includes being forced to do anything. This can be anything that makes a child feel uncomfortable but they are forced to do it. It causes a child to feel not entitled to their own opinion and feel controlled by another child.
Peer-on-peer abuse can occur on the grounds of many factors that are all unacceptable. Some motivations of peer-on-peer abuse include sexual orientation, disability, age, race, gender, religion and class. If a child is experiencing peer-on-peer abuse, it can be a significantly isolating and traumatic time for them; leaving them feeling scared and intimidated.
The importance of addressing peer-on-peer abuse
The difficulty with peer-on-peer abuse is that the perpetrator is also a child, so they are also vulnerable in the situation. The perpetrator of the abuse can often downplay their behaviour, calling it banter, or just a joke. However, this is because they are still children themselves and have not been told that this behaviour is a form of abuse. This is why it is crucial for any adult to discuss the importance of the consequences of their action and explain why it is wrong. By not doing so can cause these child perpetrators of abuse to grow up displaying these behaviours in their adult life, with a risk of causing greater harm. They could continue throughout life holding these negative attitudes and lacking empathy for others.
It is also extremely important to put a stop to peer-on-peer abuse for the victim of the abuse. As well as preventing them from further harm and getting them access to support to recover from the abuse, it teaches the child victims that the abuse they have been suffering from is not normal. If a victim of abuse does not realise that the behaviour they have been the victim of is not normal, it can lead them to normalising abuse; putting them at risk of harm throughout their life. This could cause the child not to come forward to report abuse. If you are worried about a child or would like further advice about children at risk of abuse and harm, you can contact the NSPCC.
Where does peer-on-peer abuse happen?
As peer-on-peer abuse relates to children, it is most likely for the abuse to happen in educational establishments (such as schools or colleges). This can be because it is a time when children can spend time together without always having adults around (such as at break times, and the commute to and from school).
However, with the increasing use of the internet and social media, the abuse can also happen online at any time. Most children have mobile phones in contemporary society, so it enables child perpetrators to have access to the victim of their abuse 24/7.
Even when the child victim of abuse is in the safety of their own home, they could be sent abusive messages and content during the night or when having dinner with their family. This is why it is crucial to check your child’s social media use as all of these apps create a risk of harm to a child. Some popular social media apps that children use are Instagram, TikTok and Facebook.
What are the signs of peer-on-peer abuse?
There are many signs of peer-on-peer abuse but these can differ depending on the type of peer-on-peer abuse that has occurred. However, some of these signs and symptoms can also overlap. Please see below to learn about how to identify peer-on-peer abuse.
Signs of peer-on-peer abuse:
- Behaviour changes such as a child turning more frightened or anxious, becoming angry, appearing depressed, or spending more time on their own than usual.
- Attempts of self-harm.
- Feeling embarrassed or guilty.
- Attempts of running away or a child missing school.
- Low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness.
- Trouble sleeping.
- A change in a child’s grades at school (they may be unable to concentrate due to worry).
Can peer-on-peer abuse be prevented?
If a child is a victim of peer-on-peer abuse, it can have a detrimental effect on the rest of their life if it is not addressed. It is an extremely traumatic experience and can lead to long-lasting issues with attachment, relationships, self-esteem and confidence. There is also a high risk of the perpetrator continuing to inflict abuse onto more children, and adults in their adult life.
There are many ways that peer-on-peer abuse can be prevented which can prevent situations from getting worse for a child. The faster the peer-on-peer abuse is addressed, the greater chance you can reduce the impact it has had on their life. Prolonged abuse can worsen the effects of abuse and make it harder to recover from. This can have a lasting impact on a child’s life – even through to their adult life.
Here is a list of factors that can help to prevent peer-on-peer abuse from happening in schools and colleges:
- Regular staff training about how to identify signs and symptoms of abuse, how to report concerns for a child, how to respond to abuse disclosures, and how to offer child support.
- Challenge inappropriate behaviours as soon as they arise. This can stop the abuse in its tracks which can minimise peer-on-peer abuse from happening. It can include zero-tolerance policies on sexual behaviour and any form of harassment disguised as banter.
- Ensure the curriculum includes prevention tactics that are associated with peer-on-peer abuse. This can include classes on how to stay safe online, relationships, equality and diversity, body image, confidence, prejudice and sexual harassment (more on this below).
- Multidisciplinary practice with all organisations that are associated with providing care for a child. By having clear record keeping, information sharing and communication routes with other agencies, patterns of behaviour can be identified that could be an indicator of peer-on-peer abuse occurring. GDPR compliance should not prevent information sharing in children’s services, as this could be putting a child at risk of harm.
- Involving parents in the prevention of peer-on-peer abuse can help spot signs of abuse happening sooner. Parents may require education on the signs and symptoms of peer-on-peer abuse so that they can share concerns with the school or college. They can also monitor and safeguard their child’s use of social media and the internet at home.
What should schools be doing about peer-on-peer abuse?
All schools and colleges have safeguarding responsibilities to their students. This is outlined in the keeping children safe in education guidance (which was recently updated in September 2022). Schools have a responsibility, using a child-centred approach, to promote a child’s welfare and intervene straight away to prevent concerns from escalating. One method included in this is to teach children about healthy relationships.
Friendships become more and more important as children grow up. In their teenage years, they become increasingly socially dependent, whilst they explore their own identity, sexuality and relationships. Due to this, children can become more aware of what each other does, and can be easily influenced by other children’s behaviour (either as a way to fit in or be accepted by a social group).
Children are increasingly influenced by online content, so ensuring that children understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate content can help them not to imitate or be influenced by abusive content.
Promoting healthy relationships is a key factor that can prevent bullying, harassment and victimisation. Schools should explore content in the modern world rather than be naive to children accessing any inappropriate information. School can talk about relationships that are displayed in films or the media to help them engage in an important topic.
Children can be asked to explore factors that they may be exposed to online and explain what is healthy or unhealthy about them. If the children are older, conversations and teaching should also include topics surrounding sex, consent and staying safe.
Schools should also be a place to promote confidence and self-esteem so that children feel comfortable and confident to speak up if there is something bothering them. Having a low self-esteem can lead to a low self-worth, which may cause a child to blame themselves for abuse or think that they deserve it. By tackling feelings of hopelessness, children can feel a greater sense of identity and spot negative behaviour.
Children with disabilities
Children with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable children who could be susceptible to abuse.
This is because of the following:
- They may spend more time away from home than other children (in support or respite services).
- There are more support services required which can complicate communication. Services may be poorly co-ordinated which could lead to child isolation.
- Abusive behaviour may be disregarded due to the behaviour traits of a particular health condition.
- Impaired capacity of some children with disabilities can make it harder for them to avoid abuse or seek help for abuse. They may have communication difficulties that make it harder to raise issues with others.
- They can be more vulnerable to bullying by other children due to stereotypes.
Parents and education staff should work with children with disabilities and learning difficulties such as dyslexia and Down’s syndrome, using a person-centred approach to ensure that signs and symptoms of peer-on-peer abuse can be identified in disabled children. Many disabled children require greater levels of advocacy and so rely on adults to voice their concerns. This is the same for all children, but adults should be particularly aware of the added factors that disability brings.
There is a high risk that peer-on-peer abuse goes unseen by adults as it is often hidden online or in the playground. However, for the child victim, the abuse is always at the forefront of their mind and causes great distress. Schools should address concerns as soon as they arise to both protect and support the child victim, whilst also supporting and teaching the child perpetrator about how their behaviour is wrong.
The perpetrator should not be neglected in the situation, as due to them being a child themselves, they may have inappropriately been exposed to such behaviour and require support to recover from abuse or harm that they may have experienced too.