The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children (NSPCC) has warned parents that the internet can be a playground for paedophiles. The warning comes after it was revealed that counselling sessions for young people worried about online sexual abuse rose by 24% to 3,716 in 2015-16.
Most children who had contacted the helpline were aged between 12-15 years and more than half were girls. Such warnings strike fear into the hearts of parents, who struggle to monitor the online activity of their children now that smart phone and tablets are such a ubiquitous part of everyday life.
So who are these groomers? Who are they targeting and what are their ultimate intentions?
The profile of an online predator
Gone are the days when a sexual predator was a person hanging around the school gate in a trench coat looking strange. With the anonymity that the internet provides, online sexual predators can be respected members of society, a person who you would never dream would be a danger to your child. They often use their position in society to throw off any suspicion that they may be engaging in online child grooming. Most are male, but women can and do use the internet to exploit children for sexual purposes .
One thing all online sexual predators have in common is they are master manipulators, not only of children, but of parents too. They deliberately target children who are emotionally vulnerable, either because of problems occurring at home or bullying at school and use these issues to befriend the child and empathise with them. They deliberately build trust and confidence by suggesting a parent is being too strict if the child confesses to being upset over a particular occurrence of punishment or that a teacher who gives a bad mark on a test just, ‘doesn’t understand’ the child.
Teenagers crave verification of their feelings. Online sexual predators provide this in spades. This is the very definition of ‘grooming’.
Once a predator has sent an Instant Message (IM) and initiated a Chat with a victim, gaining their trust, they often send pornographic pictures via IM or e-mail and sometimes gifts through the mail. They might even have a toll-free phone number for the victim to call or mail a cell phone so it will not show up on their parent's phone bill. Often the new ‘friend’ will ask the child to send nude photos of themselves, just as a game. If the victim tries to cut off communication, predators will often threaten to tell their parents what they have been up to online, thereby scaring them into continuing the relationship.
And suddenly a paedophile is in complete control of your child.
The warning signs that your child is being groomed
There are certain signs parents can watch out for that may indicate your child’s new online ‘friend’ is a sexual predator. These include:
- Your child suddenly becomes secretive about internet activity and quickly flicking between screens if you enter the room
- Unexplained appearance of new gifts – especially cell phones, jewellery, or expensive items
- Appearance of pornography, especially child pornography, on their phone or computer
- Strange names in their social networking “friends list”
- Suspicious new contact information in their cell phone
- Skipping school and meeting people in strange places
- New risky behaviour (drugs, smoking, alcohol, etc.)
- Sudden interest in or knowledge of sexual or age-inappropriate topics
- Loss of interest in real-life friends or distance from family
- Mood swings
If your child has been manipulated into sending photos or performing sexual acts for the abuser, they may feel extremely ashamed and scared. This only strengthens the level of control the predator has over your child and make it extremely difficult to get them to open up to you.
How to keep your child safe online
Keeping your child safe online may seem like a daunting task. There are things you can teach them, to ensure they themselves know the signs that may indicate that their new ‘friend’ is, in fact, a paedophile and most importantly that they know to come and tell you if they feel uncomfortable, regardless of what the abuser has asked them to do.
One of the most popular acronyms for online safety is the Childnet SMART Rules. You can talk about these with you children:
S - Safe – Don’t give out personal information online to anyone you do not know. This can include email addresses and mobile phone numbers.
M- Meeting – Never meet someone new you have met online unless you have a parent with you.
A – Accepting – Do not open or accept email attachments, IM or other files from strangers.
R – Reliable – People do not always tell the truth about themselves online - information from the internet is not always reliable.
T- Tell – If someone online is making you feel uncomfortable, tell you parents, teacher, carer or another adult you trust.
Reporting abuse and exploitation to the authorities
A Home Office spokeswoman has confirmed that the National Crime Agency was working closely with social media companies and police in the UK and overseas to identify offenders and their victims.
In a statement she told the BBC, "The sexual exploitation of children is a heinous crime and this government will do whatever it takes to tackle offenders and prevent abuse wherever it takes place,".
Sometimes, authorities do fail to protect our children. If this has happened, and you believe that school, local authority or police negligence resulted in your child being harmed by an online sexual predator, then you may be able to claim for compensation.
At IBB Claims, our child abuse, human trafficking and personal injury team, led by Malcolm Underhill, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you wish to make a claim following recent or historic abuse . To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in our contact form. Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence.