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5 November 2015

“Stranger Danger” made children safer on the streets. We need a new campaign for the Web

A new report lays bare the vulnerabilities of children on the Internet. 

By javed Khan

As a father I worry about the dangers facing my children online. While the internet is a fantastic resource, it’s also home to potential offenders searching for young victims. With devices such as smart phones, webcams, laptops and gaming consoles a part of most children’s lives, it’s never been easier for perpetrators to contact them.

So it’s concerning to hear that a new poll for Barnardo’s reveals that half of young people surveyed admitted that their parents don’t really know what they do online, while one in 11 said their parents know nothing.

The same survey says a third of young people find it easier to show their real personality on the internet than with people face-to-face.

It’s essential that parents and professionals understand the technology children are using and who they’re talking to online, so we can protect them from abusers pretending to be their friends.

Our new “Digital Dangers” report published jointly with the Marie Collins Foundation, examines the impact of the digital revolution on the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people. It explores how children are vulnerable to being groomed and sexually exploited on the internet via mobile technology.

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The author interviewed staff, parents and service users at Barnardo’s specialist child sexual exploitations services. They revealed a number of disturbing findings about the young victims they support who are at risk of, or have been sexually exploited.

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Many said that child victims don’t necessarily fit a vulnerable or “at risk” stereotype – such as coming from a troubled background, going missing from home, or failing to attend school – which means they could be anyone’s child. They’re also less inhibited online and say that using highly sexualised language and sending naked images of themselves to strangers is normal. As one project worker put it, “We’re fighting a culture where young people think it’s normal to send a picture of their breasts.” Another worker described how a girl had forwarded explicit pictures of herself to online friends she had never met in person. “She had no understanding of the risk she was putting herself in from predatory people online, or the law. She saw it as ‘just a laugh’ and ‘something they all did.’”

Online victims can be younger than those exploited and groomed offline. Shockingly, one Barnardo’s project worker even recalled an eight year old who did naked roly-polys in a chatroom for one perpetrator.

It’s also of deep concern that these children rarely tell anyone that they’re being groomed or abused online for fear of the shame. The report shows that a number of parents had no idea that their child was being harmed online until they were contacted by the police. One mother said. “I can remember just staring at him (the police officer) and thinking to myself that this wasn’t really happening. I love my daughter and would never intentionally let anyone hurt her and they did it right under my very nose.”

Barnardo’s works hard to keep children and young people safe by making them aware of the risks online. Clearly, there are lessons for all of us in this report. Parents and professionals need to be more aware of the technologies children use and talk to them about what they’re doing online. The government, industry and voluntary sector need to implement measures to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation happening online. And collectively we need to give children vital sex education and healthy relationship lessons, so they’re aware of the risks online.

The internet and mobile technology has changed everything. One parent whose child was exploited online and offline by dozens of men remembered. “When I was a child I was warned not to speak to strangers.  It was simple because they were the ones lurking by the school gates or park swings. But access to the internet has rapidly grown and it’s so easy for paedophiles to hide behind a text, or emails, or a website to find vulnerable young targets.”

Today one of the biggest dangers facing our children is the one we can’t see. The most important question we should be asking our children is, “what’s happening online?”