WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Children taught about sexual abuse in school are better able to recognize signs of abuse and do more to protect themselves, researchers said on Wednesday.
But these children may also become more anxious and fearful of strangers as a result of this education, an analysis of 15 different studies from the United States and Canada showed.
“The important issue is whether in a real-life situation a child could utilize this knowledge,” researcher Karen Zwi of Sydney Children’s Hospital in Australia said in a statement.
Sexual abuse is defined broadly, from direct bodily contact to sexual behavior in a child’s presence.
One in 12 U.S. children between the ages of two and 17 have been victims, according to a 2005 national study from the University of New Hampshire.
This figure has sharply declined over the past thirty years, but it is hard to tell how much the programs have contributed to this progress, said Joan Duffell, director of partnership development for Seattle’s Committee for Children.
Zwi and colleagues analyzed a range of studies on this subject from the past 21 years. They published their findings in the Cochrane Library, which reviews healthcare research.
School programs included puppet shows, coloring books and role-playing to teach children about the difference between good and bad touching and where to turn if they recognize abuse.
Pooling results from nine of these studies, Zwi’s team found that prevention education armed kids with significantly more knowledge than their untrained classmates.
They were also more likely to act on this knowledge, according to several of the studies.
One study found that students in the program were less than half as likely to accompany a simulated abductor as peers who were not enrolled: 21.5 percent of them went, compared to 47.6 percent of the untrained children.
The studies followed the children no longer than a year after the programs ended, however. And there are other limitations that come with studying such a sensitive topic.
As for youngsters who felt more anxiety after these programs, they are the same ones who get anxious about any number of prevention programs, said Duffell, who was not involved in the analysis. “The same kids reported they were glad to go through the program,” she added.
It is still not clear how best to teach kids to protect themselves, and at what age, the researchers wrote.