Challenging Victim Blaming Language and Behaviours
Victim blaming is any language or action that implies that a person is partially or wholly responsible for abuse that has happened to them. It is harmful and can wrongfully place responsibility, shame or blame onto a victim.
The SBNI Online Safety Committee in conjunction with the UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) have published Guidance for professionals on how to challenge victim blaming language and behaviours when dealing with the online experiences of children and young people.
The guidance helps professionals to understand that children can never be expected to predict, pre-empt or protect themselves from abuse, and irrespective of the content or circumstance, the responsibility always lies with the person who abused the child or young person. The guidance also offers practical steps to help professionals practice and advocate for an anti-victim blaming approach, in a constructive and supportive way.
Victim blaming is any language or action that implies (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that a person is partially or wholly responsible for abuse that has happened to them. It is harmful and can wrongfully place responsibility, shame or blame onto a victim, making them feel that they are complicit or responsible for the harm they have experienced. People of all ages can display victim blaming attitudes and it can happen both online and offline.
Technology is a big part of everyday life, bringing endless educational and social benefits and opportunities, for adults, children and young people. However, there are potential harms children and young people may encounter when online, including online child abuse, bullying, harassment or criminal exploitation. The consequences and impact of online child abuse can be just as severe as abuse experienced offline. For more information see NSPCC’s 2017 report Everyone deserves to be happy and safe.
Blaming children and young people for their own abuse is never acceptable. Professionals should clearly understand that children can never be expected to predict, pre-empt or protect themselves from abuse. Irrespective of the context or circumstance, the responsibility always lies with the person who abused the child or young person
Children and young people may feel they are to blame
One of the greatest barriers to a child or young person seeking help and reporting online abuse, is feeling they are to blame for something that has happened to them. When professionals working with the child or young person speak or behave in such a way that reinforces this feeling of self-blame, the impact of the abuse the child or young person has already experienced may be greater, leading to a longer recovery.
In contrast, positive responses (where victim blaming attitudes are not present) can reduce feelings of post-traumatic stress, depression and health issues (Campbell, 2001) which a young person may experience as a result of abuse occurring. They can also encourage other children and young people to report their online experiences.
Children and young people’s experiences may not be treated as a safeguarding concern
When victim blaming occurs, there is a risk of diminishing the child or young person’s experiences, leading to a lack of, or an inappropriate, safeguarding response. This could be by professionals initially dealing with an incident or by those involved subsequently.
This can have a devastating impact for the child or young person who has experienced abuse and make it less likely that they, or their peers, will have the confidence to disclose abuse in the future. In addition, victim blaming attitudes can prevent families, friends and wider society from recognising certain behaviours as abuse.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, our use of both written and verbal language and the way in which something is described, can have a big impact on how it is perceived and people’s attitudes as a result. Language and behaviour that implies that a child or young person is complicit in, or responsible in some way, for any harm or abuse they’ve experienced or may experience is victim blaming.
Direct victim blaming
Direct victim blaming happens when a child or young person is explicitly held responsible for what has happened to them. Here are some examples of direct victim blaming:
● In the context of non-consensual nude image sharing, professionals may blame the child or young person for sharing the image in the first place, and say what’s happening to them is their fault because they sent the image.
● After receiving an abusive message online, a professional may say it’s the child or young person’s fault for accepting a friend request from someone they didn’t know on social media.
● After being bullied through an online game, a professional decides not to take any action because they think the child or young person is partly to blame for playing an online game with a minimum age requirement that is older than they are.
● In the context of online blackmail, a professional tells a child or young person they should not have responded, but blocked and reported the person as soon as they started sending threatening messages.
Indirect victim blaming
Indirect or unintentional victim blaming can be harder to identify. It often happens when a person is trying to help a child or young person after something has happened to them. However, that ‘help’ reinforces the idea that the child or young person has done something wrong or is responsible for what has happened to them. Here are some examples of indirect victim blaming:
● Taking away the child or young person’s device or banning them from using an online platform, app or game as a consequence.
● Delivering online safety education to a child or young person immediately after a disclosure, which highlights what they should have done to keep themselves safe.
● Inferring or suggesting that a child or young person should take responsibility for keeping themselves safe online. For example, saying a child or young person ‘shouldn’t place themselves in danger’ or ‘put themselves at risk’ by doing x or using y.
● When speaking to the child or young person after a disclosure, telling them what they should have done differently in that situation in order to keep themselves safe.
It can be difficult to know what to say and do when a child speaks out about abuse. The NSPCC have produced an animation and resources that include simple tips to ensure children always feel listened to.