Easy access to increasingly hardcore pornography and the sexualisation of childhood are being blamed for a rise in the number of children sexually abusing each other.
Growing numbers of children and teenagers are committing acts of sexual abuse against other children every year, with some as young as 11 being prosecuted for sexual offences.
Experts are calling for compulsory cyber-education programmes in all schools from primary level to stem the impact of explicit material.
Ministry of Justice figures received under the Official Information Act show that, since 2008, there have been 1299 prosecutions for sexual offences brought against young people under the age of 18.
This has risen steadily over the past five years, with 314 prosecutions last year compared to 204 in 2008. These are for offences ranging from rape to indecent assault and sexual grooming, with victims, both male and female, under the age of 16.
The youngest offender was 11. Only one of the offenders was a girl. Police say the jump in prosecutions was due to better knowledge and increased reporting of sexual abuse, rather than a rise in incidents.
Police child protection co-ordinator Detective Sergeant Fleur de Bes said police worked much more closely with agencies such as Child, Youth and Family, social workers and schools to identify and address risky behaviour.
But the availability of explicit images online for young children to access undoubtedly had some impact, with the growth of "sexting" a real concern, she said.
Child Matters chief executive Anthea Simcock said the findings were in line with overseas research, which showed an increasing number of young people abusing others.
A lot of the young abusers were victims themselves, often came from broken homes, and had an unstable and often "heartbreaking" upbringing. But the way sex was depicted on television and on the internet was a real problem, with sexualised music videos and easy access to online porn making images easy to find and share, she said.
"Children don't think about their bodies the way adults do, so someone has had to have put that idea in their head. This online porn can make some children think it's just the way you behave."
Netsafe chief technology officer Sean Lyons said parents could put filters on their home computers or children's smartphones, but access could never be completely restricted. Not all searches were sinister, with porn fairly easy to come across accidentally.
"You type ‘kiwi chicks' into Google and the images that come back won't be small feathered birds."
It was important to speak to children about the possibility of coming across these images and their meaning.
In May, a British study found a clear link between exposure to extreme images at a young age and a rise in "risky behaviours". Auckland University expert in clinical and forensic psychology Ian Lambie said more research was needed on the impact on Kiwi children.
- The Dominion Post
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