Families need to have the 'sex talk' when children are still in primary school, warns cyber expert
Parents need to start broaching the subjects of relationships, sexuality and consent while their children are still in primary school to ensure they don't become misinformed about sex, according to a cyber expert.
This week, Education Minister Richard Bruton identified consent as a priority and said all second-level pupils are to get classes in the subject.
It is the biggest shake-up to the sexual education system in two decades.
Alex Cooney, CEO of CyberSafeIreland, says these discussions must start in the home before children begin secondary education and preferably before they have access to the internet.
Nowadays, children from the age of eight have access to smartphones, tablets, and smart watches. Some are even using their Holy Communion money to purchase these devices.
As a result, very young children can watch videos and read articles online that could cause them to become misinformed about sex.
Ms Cooney recommends discussing relationships, body awareness and consent in a staggered manner from early childhood.
"Parents must lead the way. You cannot rely on the education system alone, this must start at home," she said.
Ms Cooney advises adopting an "age and stage" approach to teaching children, using language they can easily process.
"These are sensitive issues and you can't freak kids out," she said. "It has to be discussed in a way they can connect and understand."
She cites the UK's NSPCC's introduction of cartoon character 'Pantosaurus' as an example of how to inform young children about complex issues in a non-frightening manner.
The colourful animation launched in 2016 with educational dinosaur Pantosaurus advising children on what constitutes sexual abuse and ways to tell their parents.
"It's better to gradually introduce complicated issues in a relaxed way, so your children know these lines of communication are open and feel comfortable talking to you," she said.
"It really is essential to start discussing these issues no matter how awkward it initially feels."
Withholding information about sex or restricting children's internet usage will not keep them safe, Ms Cooney said. It could increase the risk of them absorbing incorrect information from classmates whose parents may have a more lax attitude to internet access.
Speaking about the review of sexual education at a secondary school level, Ms Cooney said she welcomed it.
"It does surprise me that it has taken this long," she said. "The world has dramatically changed in the 20 years since the last curriculum review.
"It is essential that it is updated to reflect this changed reality and provide the tools children need to navigate through their online and offline lives in safe, smart and responsible way."