A quarter of all child sexual abuse cases involve another child, new research reveals, with much of the behaviour being learnt on the internet.
The research, released by charity Act For Kids during Child Protection Week, has brought to light the fact that the abuse is often undetected given that parents assume their child is safe around other children.
Doctor Katrina Lines, executive director of services with Act for Kids, said the research was undertaken as the charity had noticed an increase in referrals of peer-on-peer sexual abuse in the past decade.
This was also noted in the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which reported that 23.4 per cent of the 7981 survivors indicated that they were sexually abused by another child.
Dr Lines said it was a complex problem and often stemmed from domestic and family violence or the child being sexually abused themselves. Despite that, three quarters of those interviewed in the study blamed access to sexually explicit material online, in games or in films for the problematic sexual behaviours.
Problematic sexual behaviours is not normal exploration or curiosity, but that which involves coercion and force.
"Children don't even have to think about accessing the material," Dr Lines said.
Shireen Gunn, operations director at the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault, said child-to-child sexual abuse and sibling sexual abuse were now being more widely reported.
"There is more awareness of sexual abuse in general," she said.
We would say there has always been this type of sexual abuse but the reporting of it is higher.Shireen Gunn, Ballarat CASA
Ms Gunn said that an exposure to pornography, which is easily and often accidentally accessed, had seen an increase in child-to-child abuse, with the child acting out what they have viewed on siblings or other children.
CASA is funded to work with children up to the age of 10 in regards to problem sexual behaviours and up to the age of 18 regarding sexually abusive behaviours.
Of these children and young people, Ms Gunn said about 60 per cent were there for sibling sexual abuse.
Ms Gunn said there had always been a general unawareness that the problem of child-to-child abuse was so prevalent and that much of it had been uncovered during the royal commission.
"The majority of abuse occurs, whether they are children or adults, by someone very close or well-known to the child or the victim survivor and who often is within the family, the extended family or within their social group," she said.
Ms Gunn said a victim may exhibit changes in behaviour and concentration at school or may have trouble regulating their emotions.
There are now government funded programs, delivered by CASA, to turn around problem sexual behaviour.
"It's now recognised that it's a behavioural problem that can be changed," Ms Gunn said. "It's not seen as a mental illness and as soon as you can work with those young children to turn that behaviour around, the more successful it will be."
Dr Lines said sexual development was a normal part of a child's development and that children were naturally curious.
As the internet is a readily available resource, children are turning to it for information, where they are finding extremely sexually explicit content.
The charity is urging parents to take steps to protect their children online.There are three things parents can do.
The first is for parents to secure their own devices, as the research revealed that two thirds of parents did not have a password for their computer, phone or tablet.
The second is to supervise children's internet usage, to be interested in what they are looking at and to have a conversation with them about it.
Thirdly, Dr Lines said it was important to have an open conversation about normal sexual development and the sexually explicit material they may come across online.
"Child protection is everyone's business. Having open and honest conversations with kids about sexual development and helping them learn without having to go to the internet is a really easy thing that parents can do to help to keep their kids safe."Dr Katrina Lines, Act for Kids
If this story has affected you or for more information, contact the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault on 5320 3933 or call 1800 RESPECT.
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