Children as young as five are being exposed to R-rated internet content due to increasing levels of device use and unsupervised internet access, say parents and teachers.

A new poll has found that more than a third of children Year Three and older have been exposed to inappropriate content at school.

Those behind the investigation say it is “unacceptable” that this is occurring and many schools are failing in their duty of care to keep children physically and emotionally safe.

One family has decided to homeschool their Year 7 son for the rest of his education after he was shown pornographic videos on three occasions at school. A seven-year-old boy saw explicit images after a group of Year 3 children typed in ‘porn’ during an iPad session with a reliever. Meanwhile a Year 5 boy accidentally stumbled on an ultra-racist hate site while researching online in class.

The national survey of 100 families (King & Cullen, 2018, yet to be published) found that 36 per cent said their children (Year Three and up) had been exposed to content including sexual content, extreme hate sites or other similar rated content. Just under a third of parents (29 per cent) said they could not be sure that their children had not been exposed.

The poll was conducted in August as part of a preliminary investigation into the impact of device use in schools. The poll does not claim to be an academic study but was carried out to explore whether this issue occurs and if further research is warranted.

The pollsters say that it is “unacceptable that this is occurring, particularly to young children within school hours”. But, they add, they are “not at all” surprised by their findings.

“Many parents we have spoken to have had similar issues at a variety of primary schools. This involves R18 material, not just inappropriate device use for gaming, watching movie trailers and other non-learning tasks, which also takes place. Certainly it is occurring at all school levels, and teenagers we have spoken to have all said of course it happens.”

What they had not expected to find was that children even younger than Year Three were being exposed to R-rated material.

“Several parents asked why the poll was not open for their year 0 – 2 students, who also have this issue – that was a surprise.”

Exposure to violence or sexual material over the internet can cause significant brain changes in young people, says Wellington clinical psychologist and neuro-psychotherapist Eugenia Rodriguez.

Many adolescents and adults who have grown up using porn find they are unable to have normal sexual relationships.

“The latest research on neuroscience reveals that the brain is not fully developed until our mid-twenties. A young person may learn through internet porn that consent is not needed for sexual behavior and this is strengthened over and over again with each time they watch this type of conduct, in porn scenes.“

Rodriguez works with children aged between two and 17 who have exhibited inappropriate sexual behaviour. Some of these kids have suffered sexual violence against them but she estimates about 40 per cent of them have seen something inappropriate, either in real life or on the internet.

Ollie* was 11 and had just started Year 7 when he was taken into an empty classroom by a 13-year-old and shown a pornographic version of Frozen.

His parents removed him from the school but when he was cyber-bullied and physically bullied at his new intermediate, he returned to the original school in term three.

His family believed IT safety had improved at the school – a Year 7 to 13 institution – after a group of parents took their concerns about devices in the school and the lack of safeguards to the principal and board.

At that stage the school’s digital network platform was filtered by Network for Learning (N4L), the Crown-owned company endorsed by the Ministry of Education (MoE).

The parents had asked for LineWize internet filtering, which is used by more than 300 New Zealand schools and sends an alert whenever inappropriate material is accessed, to be installed but nothing had been implemented in response, says Jacqui.

But in Ollie’s first week back in August, he was taken aside by Year 8 boys on two separate occasions and shown explicit material including pornographic videos. One was at lunchtime – students at the school are allowed to be on their personal devices during breaks – and one was in his vertical form class.

Disturbed by what he had seen, Ollie, now 12, told his parents. His parents took him out of school and his mum, Jacqui*, went to meet the principal to discuss the seriousness of what had happened.

Instead, the principal tried to blame the family, Jacqui says.

He argued Ollie should have told a teacher immediately, in accordance with the school’s cyber-safety agreement. Jacqui says this an impractical – and that pornography is an adult issue, for grown-ups to discuss.

“[Ollie] didn’t go to his teacher and say ‘this boy just showed me that’. He is a 12 year old and didn’t know what to do. So he did what we’ve taught him, you tell your mum and dad.

“It’s our job as parents to help sort out this adult issue with the other adults at the school, senior management and the principal.”

He also criticised the family for refusing to name the perpetrators. But the issue is about the wider issue of IT safety, says Jacqui.

The boys are only 13 or 14 and are victims themselves, she adds. “They’ve probably been shown stuff by older boys, it’s like a wave. It’s a horrible way of sharing really nasty material and the school is not watching.”

It is thought that a third of teenagers have tried to use a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass their school’s internet filtering system.

But the survey investigators say that this is “certainly” occurring at primary school level, too, with teachers reporting that this is happening.

The pollsters also say they have talked to a number of teachers, including primary, who have had a child come across explicit material. Yet not one of those teachers has reported the incident to N4L.

N4L is currently rolling out an upgrade aimed at providing “schools with a safer, smarter online learning environment” due for completion by Term 4, 2019.

Nor can firewalls be fully relied on, a teacher of one of the students noted, admitting that this issue occurs frequently and cannot be fully controlled.

Children may come across material via links or when searching images without necessarily intentionally searching for R18 content.

This teacher now ensures children sit with tablets in his view when searching, but it is a small class. The boy’s mother, Helen*, says she “is not at all confident that he or his classmates will be safe from future exposure” once he moves to a larger class environment.

Rodriguez uses this article by US ‘cyber security’ company Webroot as a resource for parents and caregivers.

It points out that there are certain phrases that schoolchildren use to get around pornography filters, such as ‘breastfeeding’ and ‘childbirth’.

The article notes that there are fast-changing slang terms that filters may not have caught up with like “walking the dog,” which is a slang term for sex. If parents see odd search terms, they should give the sites a quick look.

Rodriguez also uses a book called ‘Good Pictures Bad Pictures’ with her clients, which teaches kids the risks of inappropriate material and how to keep safe.

Schools need to use “all the tools available” to create a safe online environment, says Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker. “We talk about the three Es – engineering, enforcement and education.”

Netsafe provides an online safety kit to schools and this year launched the Netsafe Schools Programme, aimed at helping schools establish, develop and promote online safety.

But nothing is “foolproof”, he admits. “You can’t enforce your way to safety, you can’t educate your way to safety and you can’t engineer your way to safety but you can get very close, if you do all of those things well.”

Schools must recognise that children need total supervision when using iPads and going online, argues the mother whose seven-year-old saw a number “quite explicit, very sexualised” images of women, while in class with a reliever.

A boy in the class had instigated a search for ‘porn’ on an iPad and invited others nearby to join in.

Ellen* says she found out about the incident the following week, via the teacher, after another classmate told his parents. Genitalia and nipples were covered yet the images were overtly sexual. The school supposedly had internet blocks set up, yet an obvious keyword like ‘porn’ still got through.

“This was my son’s first encounter with sexually explicit material, and sexually explicit images of women and he’s only seven years old.”

“What upset me was the specific search for porn – the fact it wasn’t an accidental knock of the keys and that it wasn’t blocked. In addition, the reliever teacher was completely unaware.”

Ellen says there is very restricted internet access in the family home. As a mother of three she is simply too busy to supervise her young kids properly online, she says.

“The moment we sit at the computer my toddler and preschooler become glued to the screen… I’m a liberal person but I want my children to have a childhood.”

So it was particularly troubling, she says, that this happened at school.

“I was so upset because I had made such a big effort at home, and I knew that it was really difficult to manage and supervise, and they’re just too young at the moment to hand the keys over so to speak.”

Her son’s teacher was “distressed” by what had happened and admitted to Ellen personally that they hadn’t kept her son safe. The teacher now ensures that children do all internet searches with her beside them.

In contrast, she says, the principal was dismissive. “She just kept on giving me fluff, educational phrases.”

It’s very difficult for schools to monitor iPads, particularly when there are large groups of kids using them, says Ellen, who has a background in education.

“They’re flat, they’re mobile, kids can be secretive with them. If you have a reliever coming in, don’t get them out – use work sheets.”

Schools talk a lot about being responsible digital citizens. But the agreement that it’s a tool for learning purposes only is unrealistic, says Ellen. “In an ideal world, we’d sign up and we’d follow the rules but we all know children don’t follow the rules, in fact they constantly push boundaries, some more than others.”

She believes the school did not expect this to happen. “Yet if you are introducing iPads into the classroom, you cannot always rely on those firewalls and you need to have appropriate supervision.”

Those behind the poll say that the Ministry of Education needs to “recognise and accept that the issue is occurring for significant numbers of students at all levels, despite safety measures.”

Ellen’s immediate concern now is how it will affect her young son. “Is there going to be a curiosity sparked there? Is there going to be a shame associated with those sorts of images? I just didn’t want to have that conversation with my seven year old, it’s not that I don’t want to have that conversation, he’s just not ready.”

Netsafe’s Cocker believes that, if a young person is exposed to pornography, the incident “can be managed so there’s no harm” provided the adults react appropriately. It is critical, he says, that teachers and parents are understanding and stay calm.

“Ideally children should report anything they come across which is confronting, [if they know] that they won’t be punished for seeing that stuff and finding it, but supported… they’ll be more likely to disclose it.”

Ellen says all the talk about children being ‘digital natives’, and growing up in a time of unprecedented technological change, simply does not translate “to them knowing or being ready to navigate this digital environment where anything is at your finger tips. Yet here we are”.

Her children are not digital natives, she says, and she’s sick of hearing the phrase.

“I haven’t been able to give them the keys because I can’t supervise them effectively while simultaneously meeting the needs of their younger siblings.”

It’s not acceptable that any child gets exposed to inappropriate images, says Cocker, “but that’s the current equation. We want young people to have the opportunities that technology provides and we can’t create a 100 per cent safe environment at the moment, not with the tools and technologies that are available to us.

“It’s certainly not acceptable to roll out technology with no consideration, or limited consideration, for safety.

“But, if you are actively thinking about safety and security while you are rolling out that technology then it is acceptable and it is understandable that things might go wrong but you are well positioned to manage them when they do.”

Ollie, the 12-year-old who was shown porn by older boys, was so affected by what he had viewed that he developed a tremor in his leg that lasted for a week. The family GP said it was due to the stress and adrenaline around the situation.

He is now being home schooled and is “doing really well” says his mum, Jacqui. “He’s unplugged – he’s off everything, such as Instagram and Fortnite, and he’s got back to old school living which has been really wonderful for him and healing.”

Jacqui says she’s thankful her son is open and communicative. “I think there’s a lot of kids who would be a bit too embarrassed to tell mum or dad what they might have seen at school that day, and there’s probably lots of kids who have seen stuff and their parents don’t even know.”

*Names change been changed to protect privacy

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