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 poll for Barnardo’s reveals that half of young people surveyed admitted their parents don’t 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 online 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.
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.
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.’”
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.