THE BLOG
09/02/2016 05:20 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Putting the Spotlight on Internet Safety

The internet is a great source of information and a place for children to learn, develop new skills and play fun games. However, we also know from our report 'Digital Dangers', that the increase in internet use and new technologies brings risks for children and young people.

These include cyberbullying, inappropriate content, online grooming and communicating with strangers who may be searching for young victims.

Like other parents, I worry about the dangers facing my children online. With devices such as smart phones, webcams, laptops and gaming consoles a part of most children's lives, it's never been easier for someone to contact them - friends as well as potential foes. As the number of ways our children can be contacted increases, so do the risks they could be duped by someone hiding behind a false persona.

To help build awareness and promote safer surfing, the UK Safer Internet Centre launches its Safer Internet Day on Tuesday (9 February) and this year the theme is Play your part for a better internet.

Hundreds of organisations, including Barnardo's, are getting involved to promote the safe, responsible and positive use of digital technology for children and young people.

It's essential that we all strive to make the internet a safer place and it's crucial 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 '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 exploitation services. They revealed a number of disturbing findings about the young victims they support who have been, or are at risk of, being sexually exploited online.

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.'"

Children and young people are never to blame for the abuse they suffer. Barnardo's strives to enable them to recognise the warning signs of sexual exploitation so they can help to keep themselves safe.

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.

Barnardo's works hard to keep children and young people safe by making them aware of the risks online. 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 put into place measures to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation happening online. And all schools should give children vital sex and healthy relationships lessons, so they're aware of the risks online.

The Safer Internet Centre has produced lots of resources to support Safer Internet Day. Those working with children should check out the links to get ideas about what they can do. For example, there's a series of videos for SID TV, aimed at under 11s and for 11 to 18 year olds. These films focus on how young people can play their part for a better internet and are designed to work alongside the activities within the Safer Internet Day Education Packs.

You can also visit the Safer Internet Day website for all the information and available downloads, and get involved in the #shareaheart campaign to help inspire kindness online.