No loving parent would dream of opening their doors to a sex offender hell-bent on manipulating and exploiting their child but with the increasing availability and use of modern technology, a parents' ignorance could inadvertently do just that. It is easier than ever to keep in touch and children and young people are more likely than ever to have their own mobile telephone and their own computer equipment or relatively free access to a computer within the home. Gone are the booming days of public message boards and chat rooms where the lion's share of a conversation was visible by the masses and hello are the days of semi-private communication platforms allowing users to talk to each other in relative privacy.
Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Kik and BBM are popular online platforms which allow people to set up public profiles, share information with the world and make new friends, but predators are taking to the ether in order to befriend children and young people in order to exploit them and its often not apparent until a young person finds themselves in the midst. 'Grooming' is the name used to describe the process used by predators to befriend a child or young person and usually involves various stages calculated to gain a young person's trust and to cement their 'friendship' before meeting them. Many predators will target vulnerable young people who have emotional problems, family problems or young people who are being bullied and will give them gifts and pay them complements etc. in order to forge a relationship of trust and dependence. Parents of children who are exploited often do not notice the warning signs and chalk them up to emotional disturbances typically experienced through puberty; with predators playing on this ignorance and encouraging young people to confide in them instead of their parents.
Young people in 2013 are much more sexually aware than when I was a youngster in the 90's and the craze of 'sexting' corroborates this. Young people will be young people and sadly some of them do not see the problem or the harm in sending personal pictures to their boyfriend or their girlfriend; pictures you wouldn't like to land on your mother's lap. The problem is, young people with their emotions all over the place may make a decision to send such a picture to their boyfriend or girlfriend only to find out that the picture is shared with someone it shouldn't or makes its way onto the internet. That is a game changer! I am not advocating teenagers engaging in this type of behaviour, far from it, I am simply saying it happens and young people often fail to appreciate just how serious it is and how it has the potential to haunt them for many, many years.
Education is the key and a number of projects exist which raise the issue of 'sexting' with young people in order to highlight the real and present danger of participating. As a parent it is something you should bring up with your child to ensure they make the right choice and you can find information about 'sexting' and how to raise it with your child on the NSPCC's website here.
The UK's specialist policing unit responsible for protecting children online, the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre (CEOP) report that between 2012-13 they received 18,887 reports of child sexual exploitation and arrested 192 suspects. It doesn't take Einstein to known that the figures quoted are a drop in the ocean; it is estimated that there are 8 to 10 billion devices connected to the internet and the figures from CEOP relate only to the UK.
To Catch a Predator was a US television hidden camera show which centred on investigators impersonating young people in order to catch predators looking to engage in sexual conversations and or meet the young person they believed they were speaking to. The show regularly featured adult predators who attended a house fitted with hidden cameras on the pretence of having sex with a child only to be arrested by the local police. In the three years the show was running it conducted 12 'investigations' and central to the programme was an online group called Perverted Justice, likened to a vigilante group, which sets up sting operations by posing as children online and publishing details of sexual conversations and requests to meet by predators.
In the UK, a group calling itself Letzgo Hunting have attracted media attention by employing similar tactics to Perverted Justice and setting up sting operations online in order to catch those looking to meet children for sex. The group identifies a number of individuals on their website who they allege have been attempting to groom and meet children and have video footage of group members chasing and challenging suspects.
While I am abhorred by the actions of those committed to exploiting and abusing young people, vigilantism doesn't sit well with me. I am all for citizen journalism and empowering people to take direct action to improve the world we live in, but I cannot endorse members of the public engaging in operations online or otherwise which are dangerous, the legality of which is unclear and which may hinder the work of the police in investigating and bringing those to justice who exploit and abuse our children. You only have to press a few keys on any search engine to find reams of websites dedicated to naming and shaming and outing those suspected of being child abusers or paedophiles and in America, maps which will take you to their front door. It is scary, it is dangerous and it isn't helpful. In order to protect our children we don't need squads of Hi-Viz clad concerned parents running around with Argos budget camcorders and clipboards; we need to educate our children on how to safely use the internet and to create and foster a relationship of trust where children can approach their parents with concerns and get help when they need it.
The media archives are sadly littered with young people who have found themselves caught up in a predators web and have had their life turned upside down, and in the case of 17 year old Daniel Perry who took his own life after he was blackmailed following his exchange of pictures and video chats with someone he believed to be around his own age.
In order to better educate parents on this ever changing landscape, the NSPCC have a campaign focussed on keeping children safe online and you can find out more information at http://j.mp/16vmPlO
Free downloadable tools for parents and guardians
Browser Safety Tools from CEOP - http://j.mp/16EEr7S
Windows Family Safety - http://j.mp/1bKVehE
Free online information resources for parents and guardians
NSPCC - Keeping your child safe online - http://j.mp/16vmPlO
Childline - http://j.mp/1auGbVw
Get Safe Online - http://j.mp/16EFqVU
Chat Danger - http://j.mp/1auHbcg