As a teacher in the 1990s, Kerryann Walsh had a lot of questions once controversy arose around school lessons designed to teach children to recognize, and strategies to avoid, sexual abuse. The lessons taught elementary-school students things like how to distinguish between good and bad touches, and to cry and say "no" if an adult does something that makes them uncomfortable. But, some countered, might those programs have made children unnecessarily anxious? And did they even work?
Now, as a researcher, Walsh has some answers. "We're really certain that the programs increase children's knowledge and skills," says Walsh, who is a professor of education at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. "We're pretty sure that the programs don't cause harm. They didn't increase children's anxiety and fear." There's even some evidence that kids who undergo sexual abuse prevention programs are three times more likely to tell a trusted adult when abuse does occur.
Those results came from a meta-analysis of previous studies that Walsh and her colleagues performed for the Cochrane Collaboration, a group dedicated to publishing meta-analyses whose method for reviewing existing studies is considered the gold standard. Walsh's analysis, published yesterday, includes 24 studies of more than 5,800 children. Based on her research, Walsh thinks more schools should require such programs, "providing they're of the quality of the ones that were evaluated in the review." Meanwhile, schools that already have sex abuse-prevention ed can feel confident their efforts are worth it, she says.
"We're really certain that the programs increase children's knowledge and skills. They didn't increase children's anxiety and fear."
"It certainly creates the case for supporting education programs," says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center, in New Hampshire, who was not involved in Walsh's research.
Yet it seems that fewer American schools now run such programs, compared to the 1990s, Finkelhor says. "I think it's because of competing priorities: No Child Left Behind, other programs around bullying and Internet usage." One solution is a general victimization-prevention program that would cover both and more. "A lot of the skills for the different kinds of prevention efforts are the same. They involve refusal skills, disclosure skills, danger assessment," he says.
In terms of research, Walsh advocates for studies that follow children for more extensive periods of time. As it stands, researchers have analyzed abuse reporting rates 15 months after the end of education programs, but not longer. Finkelhor, for his part, wants to see studies that link education programs to how often children become victims of sexual abuse. "Reporting is a good thing," Finkelhor says, "but everyone would prefer for the victimization not to occur from the beginning."
Researchers estimate that, worldwide, 10 to 20 percent of girls, and five to 10 percent of boys, experience some kind sexual abuse before they turn 18. Several independent studies have found sexual abuse against children in the United States has declined since the 1990s. Researchers attribute the good news to a combination of factors, including education programs for kids, but the direct evidence that that's what's responsible is still missing.
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