We know that children as young as 14 are sexting and watching pornography online, and we may not be doing enough to keep them safe.
That’s the frank words of criminologist Dr Claire Meehan from the University of Auckland’s School of Sociology.
According to Meehan, there have been several high profile cases of young people committing suicide as a result of online bullying or ending up severely depressed and anxious, and these are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The internet is like a plate of spaghetti, there are so many strands, it’s very hard to keep up with it and we always seem to be two steps behind,” she explains.
With the web so vast and ever expanding, and mobile phones the must-have accessory for every teenager, Meehan is asking what can realistically be done.
“Understand, educate and inform,” Meehan says.
“We need to get much further ahead of the problem and put clear strategies in place to deal with it. And to do that, we need to understand it better,” she explains.
Meehan is currently conducting a two-year research project into online sexual harm and ethics, focusing on children between 14 and 15. She previously completed PhD research on young people’s use of legal highs in Northern Ireland, and how those teenagers engaged with online drugs forums.
“I’m interested in finding out what young people do online, what sites they visit, their views on pornography (including revenge pornography) and sexting (sending explicit images or messages via mobile phones) and in finding out if anyone has approached them online or made them feel uncomfortable,” Meehan says.
She also wants to know what schools are doing to keep their students safe.
“In the case of a sexually explicit image that has been passed around a group of people, the media is often about blaming the person who has taken the image of themselves in the first place, the victim,” says Meehan.
“But what about the person (or people) who has passed on that image? Why did they do that? What do young people think of this?”
As well as a selected group of young people, she will talking to teachers, stakeholders like the police and a reference group of experts on the issue, based in the UK and Australia.
The end result, she hopes, will be better strategies and skills to make young people safer in cyberspace.
Meehan has received $23,000 from the Faculty Research and Development Fund (FRDF) within the Faculty of Arts to carry out her research.
Courses in criminology are currently the most popular in the faculty, with students coming from a variety of backgrounds including law, the police and the probation service.
But unlike courses that essentially train students to operate in New Zealand’s legal system, the University’s courses take a critical approach.
“We aim to develop students with a critical conscience,” says Meehan.
“We look at structures, at problems with those structures and at notions of power relations and equality. We ask our students to question, to engage and debate. We want to make people think.”