Sarah Champion is seeking compulsory relationship education to protect children online. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
A Labour MP who has led campaigning for victims of sexual exploitation has called for the government to do more to educate children and parents on the risks of online abuse and grooming, ahead of a parliamentary debate on the issue.
Sarah Champion, who represents Rotherham and has been at the centre of the response to the abuse scandal in the South Yorkshire town, is calling for ministers to “finally get a grip” on the issue.
Champion, who is leading a Westminster Hall debate on the issue on Wednesday afternoon, is seeking compulsory and age-appropriate relationship and resilience education, to begin as soon as children start school. She also wants better online and face-to-face support on the subject for parents and teachers.
The MP, who won her seat in a 2012 byelection and has helped lead the local response to the revelation of years of child abuse and sexual exploitation in Rotherham, said online grooming made the issue potentially even more serious now.
“In the past, if you were a paedophile, for maybe a couple of years you’d maybe be grooming one or two children,” she said. “A paedophile now can fire off a thousand messages over a couple of days and see which child will get caught on the hook. The process of grooming is so much faster and so much broader now.
“It’s basically recognising that this is a very new and rampant crime. Pretty much every parent won’t be aware of the complete submersion their children have in this 24/7 social media world.”
Champion said she became aware of the issue after a woman asked her for help when she learned her 12-year-old daughter had uploaded indecent videos and images of herself after being groomed via a private chat site by a man posing as a boy of her age. Police and social services said initially there was nothing they could do, Champion said.
She argues that the Department for Education’s compulsory teaching on the subject centres more on privacy and general e-safety, while relationship teaching has too little focus on risks and consent.
Champion said she had been told by girls that boys’ attitudes to them and sex began to change at about 11, when they first began to see pornography. “For me, unless we’ve given a foundation to all children before 11, it’s then almost too late,” she said.
She wants some sort of relationship lessons to begin as soon as youngsters start school, modelled on the “Pants” campaign by the NSPCC children’s charity, which helps parents and carers advise children on what is inappropriate behaviour, and that they can say no to adults.
“It has to start early, because most child abuse does start quite early,” Champion said. “What we want are children who are resilient to that, and if they find themselves in a situation where they’re not comfortable, they know they can tell someone and that person is meant to listen.”
Opening the debate, Champion is to urge swift action from ministers, saying: “So far the government has done nowhere near enough to protect our children from online abuse. It is time that they got a grip. They need to act now to reduce the threat of online child abuse.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said teaching about sex and relationships was compulsory in all maintained schools, and that the government expected academies, which have more overall freedom with their curriculum, to teach it.
She said: “High quality sex and relationship education is a vital part of preparing young people for life in modern Britain – helping them make informed choices, stay safe and learn to respect themselves and others. Our guidance is clear that young people need to feel that sex and relationships education is relevant to them and sensitive to their needs.”
Young people had “a right to feel safe” with the internet and social media, the spokeswoman said. She added: “We want to make sure young people are educated on this issue which is why we are making sure children are taught about internet safety in school and why we created guides on social media. In addition, we’ve funded services such as ParentInfo, which means parents and teachers can find tools to promote internet safety so that children are able to safely enjoy all that new technologies have to offer.”
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