Dispelling myths around child grooming
Recent episodes of 'Coronation Street' have shocked viewers but child welfare agencies say it raises public awareness of the issue
It is the ultimate fear of parents of teenage girls under the age of 17. Will their daughter be lured into an abusive sexual relationship by an older man?
The issue of child grooming has come to the fore after it cropped up in a storyline in Coronation Street. The TV3 soap currently features a 16-year-old character, Bethany Platt, who is groomed by an older man, Nathan Curtis, and ends up in bed with him.
While the episodes have shocked and disturbed many viewers, child welfare agencies have praised the writers of the soap for raising the issue and presenting an accurate portrait of how abusers groom their victims.
Mary Flaherty, chief executive of CARI, which counsels Irish child abuse victims, says: "I think it is good that an issue like this is featured on Coronation Street, because it raises public awareness of an issue that is often hidden from view."
Ms Flaherty says the programme can help to dispel some of the myths around child grooming.
In the past, people tended to think of the perpetrator as a much older man, the uncle-type character in a shabby raincoat. In practice, many men who lure girls into exploitative relationships are in their twenties.
Before making these episodes, the writers of Coronation Street consulted with the National Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in the UK.
They spoke to a woman called Lucie, who shared her experiences of sexual exploitation. Lucie met a man through social media when he began chatting to her about school and her life. This took a terrifying turn when she was just 12 and he began sexually abusing her.
According to the NSPCC, grooming occurs when a predatory individual builds an emotional connection with a child, with a view to gaining their trust for sexual purposes. The perpetrator can be a stranger or someone they know, and the grooming can happen online or in person.
Teenagers often do not understand that they have been groomed, or that what has happened is abuse.
The perpetrators may spend a long time gaining a child's trust. They may even win the trust of an entire family in order to be allowed time alone with a child. In a lot of cases, they build a rapport with the child by offering them praise and giving them presents.
In Coronation Street, Nathan brings Bethany under his control by showering her with gifts. In other cases, the groomers may develop a relationship with a child by posing as someone of a similar age. In a recent case before the Irish courts, a 26-year-old man was convicted of grooming a teenager online by posing as a 13-year-old girl.
The man, from Ballycullen, Co Dublin, set up a profile as a girl called 'Julie' on a website. After he started chatting to his 15-year-old victim, he introduced himself as Julie's older brother 'Adam', and paid for the girl to get a taxi to his house where they had sex.
Ellen O'Malley Dunlop, former chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says parents need to be up to speed on who their teenage children are contacting online.
She welcomed the fact that new legislation creates an offence targeting child sexual grooming on the internet.
Typically in cases that have come before the Irish courts, the defendants have been men in their twenties.
Once they have established trust, groomers will exploit the relationship by isolating the child from friends or family, and making the child feel dependent on them.Sometimes groomers blackmail the child, or make them feel ashamed or guilty, to stop them telling anyone about the abuse.
Ms Flaherty adds that the internet has bred a level of openness and risk that people would not dream of taking in the real world.
This was highlighted by a case outlined by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) to an Oireachtas committee last week.
It involved two 14-year-olds who sent pictures of themselves in underwear to a man they met online. The man threatened to make the photos public unless they sent more images. The pair did not want to tell anybody about it and were too terrified to go to gardai. They even contemplated suicide.
Ms Flaherty says parents can lessen the danger of grooming by keeping lines of communication open with their children.
"If they are watching Coronation Street and a topic like grooming comes up, that is an opportunity to have a conversation with your child about it," she says.
"You can warn them to be careful and treat what is happening online like the real world, but let them know that if they ever get into difficulty, they can talk about it."
8 Tips to help with raising teen girls
In her book Untangled, psychologist Lisa Damour offers advice to parents guiding their teenagers through the transition to adulthood.
1. It’s not about you
So often, parents feel that adolescence is something their daughter is doing to them. Teenagers become more private, obsessed with their friends and fairly emotional. If parents don’t take all these changes personally, things go much better.
2. Be present
Teenagers want their parents around physically but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to interact with them. Don’t underestimate the value of simply being present.
3. Pick up unhappy signals
Girls will not always say directly that they are being bullied. They might say there is a drama in the class, and may even reject help. Often just complaining to a parent gives teenagers the relief they need.
4. Help define popularity
Teenagers use the word ‘popular’ to describe two different types of peers. They use it for people who are pleasant and kind but also to describe those who garner social power. Encourage friendship with the first type of girl.
5. Let them bounce back
Teenage girls can become overwhelmed and frustrated. The first thing is not to over-react. Help them to fall back on their coping mechanisms. It could just be taking a shower or watching their favourite movie.
6. Digital downtime
It is too easy to say that teenagers are obsessed with their phones. At the same time we have to help them to create some downtime. You could insist on no phones after 9pm.
7. Create social media literacy
As girls are looking at carefully-crafted selfies that their peers are putting up, it is helpful to ask questions. Encourage them to think about how much time someone they know took over a picture and ask what they were trying to accomplish.
8. Be a role model
What we do has so much more influence than what we say when it comes to drink and drugs. Conversations around drinking and drugs should centre around the idea of self care, rather than talking about rules and laws.