01/03/2018 16:27 GMT | Updated 01/03/2018 16:27 GMT

For Our Children, Growing Up Online Means Growing Up Fast

We shouldn’t delude ourselves that the online world is any safer than real life

Parenting is a minefield. It always has been, especially when it comes to teenagers.

To be the parent of a teenager is to worry. I know – as the father of four daughters I’ve been there. Are they doing well at school? Are they where they say they will be? Who are their friends and are they trustworthy?

With rapid advances in technology, today’s parents will be asking themselves that last question far earlier in their children’s lives than previous generations had to.

Before the internet, children would have been sheltered from much of the outside world until they had the nous to deal with it, normally when they were teenagers. But in 2018 digital childhoods mean the world is coming for them much earlier than before - whether they’re ready for it or not.

Our children are more connected to the world than ever and, of course, that presents fantastic opportunities for them to grow and learn. But danger does lurk on the internet and sadly too many children are groomed, abused and exploited.

The Times reported earlier this month that there had been 1,300 offences under a new grooming law in just six months.

It’s clear that while we know a lot more about it now than we used to, online grooming isn’t a problem that is going away and that apps directly aimed at young children like Facebook’s proposed Messenger Kids service could provide even more opportunity for abusers to target them, exploit their vulnerability and sexually abuse them.

Facebook is trialling Messenger Kids in the US and plans to release it in the UK. It is aimed at under 13s, with children as young as six being able to use the service.

The video calling and messaging app is designed for young children to connect with parent-approved friends and family from their tablet or smartphone. Group or one-on-one video calls feature interactive masks, reactions and sound effects.

But new research by Barnardo’s has found 90% of UK parents have concerns about Facebook Messenger Kids and three-fifths (61%) would be worried that strangers could use it to pose as their children’s friends.

Polling conducted for Barnardo’s by YouGov shows that more than half (52%) are concerned security features on the app would not be strict enough to protect their children online and half (51%) are worried children could use Messenger Kids to share inappropriate or explicit images when it launches in the UK.

Messenger Kids has already drawn criticism in America where almost 100 child health experts recently wrote to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to raise concerns about its potential risks to children and calling for its withdrawal.

The rise of smartphone and tablet use means that children’s relationships are now increasingly conducted online, often unchaperoned and hidden from view, so anything aimed at facilitating this kind of communication for young children needs to have very stringent security settings in place and be monitored extremely carefully.

At Barnardo’s we are particularly concerned that young children will be expected to navigate online relationships with peers and older children – or even adults posing as children - at a developmental stage when they simply don’t have the capacity to keep themselves safe.

When I was young we were taught not to talk to strangers. That meant being careful if people you didn’t recognise approached you in the street or at the park. In the online world it’s just not that simple. When someone sends a message you can’t see what they look like. You can’t know for sure if the photo they use is of them or someone else entirely. And the technology now in children’s hands allows complete strangers directly into their bedrooms.

In an online setting, children are isolated from protective networks that would intervene and support in the physical world, and unhealthy relationships can be normalised. These can then harm their self-esteem, meaning children become more vulnerable as they grow older as they start to explore other online platforms.

We know from research with our child sexual exploitation services that children are very susceptible to being groomed and potentially exploited and abused online as well as in the physical world. They are children, after all, with developing social skills and, feeling safe in their bedrooms at home, they make friends very quickly with people they meet online and don’t regard them as strangers, or see the risks they might pose.

And at Barnardo’s we are only too aware of the devastation grooming, sexual abuse and exploitation can cause.

Maisie’s abuser preyed upon her when she was at her most vulnerable, winning her trust and affection before raping her.

She was just 13 when she was groomed online by a man in his 30s who convinced her to meet him in person so he could abuse her. He spent months winning her trust online and convincing her that he loved her before he struck.

She was supported by Barnardo’s child sexual exploitation services who helped her understand what had happened to her and to learn about healthy relationships.

Sadly there are far too many children like Maisie - children who have been threatened, lied to, coerced, drained of their spirit, raped, abused and traumatised.

While the internet has opened up a whole world of possibility and there is undoubtedly some wonderful content available for children, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the online world is any safer than real life.

Any child can become a victim of abuse like Maisie, regardless of where they live or their background and Barnardo’s will always strive to help protect them and help them to recover.

Visit find out about our work or to make a donation to help us help children like Maisie with our child sexual exploitation services.