The widespread grooming of children online and via technology platforms is extremely worrying for parents and teachers.
Online grooming is not new but it’s been on the rise, in part due to excessive screentime and gaming during Covid-19. As a direct result children and young people have been spending much more time online.
According to figures from the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) between April 2020 – March 2021, 196 offenses were recorded of Online Grooming – an increase of 139%. Of the 196 – 78% were female ‘with the youngest victim only 5 years old’.
These figures are no doubt worrying and concerning for parents and teachers, remember these are the tip of the iceberg as most will go unreported. Therefore in reality these crimes against children are much higher.
We’re yet to see the impact that excessive screentime during lockdowns and school closures has had. These incidences are very distressing for families and the children themselves. It’s important to remember that help and support is available.
How Grooming can blend online with offline.
We now know that children and young people can meet people in online spaces who are not who they say they are.
Sexual grooming in particular refers to grooming in which an offender intends to sexually abuse.
Online Sexual abuse – Children and young people being tricked and/or coerced into sexual activity over chat, video or photos. This can take place on the internet, on popular social media platforms, when gaming or via messaging or chat app.
In some cases the initial contact offence may happen online but could also move into the physical world in order for the offender to continue persuading children and young people to meet them face to face.
Risk does not always mean Harm.
Parents need to be involved in their childrens’ online spaces and both parents and young people need to have the right information to assess risk and develop practical skills to critically assess risk online. Developing confidence online to arm children to protect themselves is key as it is highly likely they will come across risk.
As a parent/carer/teacher, ask yourself:
Are they confident enough to report danger/inappropriate content, adults who are opportunistic?.
Can they recognise manipulative techniques?
Are they resilient enough to cope with the pressures of social media and its’ risks?
Do they have someone they trust who they can talk to, without fear of device removal?.
Do they spend their time online productively and responsibly to minimise risk?
Do they have the practical knowledge to implement privacy settings, reporting, screen grabbing etc and where to go for help.
Have regular open & honest conversations about online safety in the home
Our children are spending much more time online and on devices than ever before. Whenever smartphones, social media or the internet are being used see this as a teachable moment and as a way to bring up the topic of online protection and careful consideration of connections.
Familiarise your family with protective tools
On some of the popular social media and messaging apps it’s not always easy to find the tools which enable reporting/blocking of content, message or other users. Sit down with your children or class and become familiar with these tools and how they might be able to help.
When playing games
Recently a father said ‘She’s not on social media, she’s just gaming’. Online grooming can and does take place on gaming platforms – popular games for Xbox and PS all offer in-game chat and this can be unmoderated. Opportunistic adults congregate on these platforms. Tell children to keep game chat about the game. As with social media apps, become familiar with reporting tools and the ability to block users.
Make use of parental controls
There are a myriad of different parental controls available. But it’s not a one size fits all. Parental controls will allow parents and carers to set boundaries on devices including the ability to block certain apps or games, filtering to help reduce adult content and screen time boundaries. When it comes to parental controls many parents can struggle as they feel they can be difficult to set up. Check out our blog on ‘5 Parental Control Myths Busted’ for more information.
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