'He asked my son where he lived and if he would meet him on Saturday'
Irish boy (8) was groomed by online predator
Published 09/02/2016 | 14:57
Jeff Kernan (47) has told of the terrifying moment he realised his eight-year-son had unwittingly been communicating with a dangerous man online, who had been posing as a young friend.
Jeff said that when his son Matthew - who is now 11 - turned eight, he received an X-box 360 as his present.
"We did a lot of research, researching games, to see what kind were suitable for his age, and we got him a game called Minecraft, which was about building. It is a great game, so we got him that," Jeff told the Herald.
His son's birthday was in November, and then at Christmas, he asked if he could have X-Box Live, to enable him to talk to his friends while playing.
"We thought it was just his friends. So I put a piece of paper beside the TV and I said write down all your friends' names and all the 'handles' - the name codes - they have. He wrote down six or seven of them," said Jeff.
The dad-of-three looked over the names to be satisfied he recognised them.
However, one day, he went into the room where Matthew was playing and asked him who he was talking to.
"He said 'my friend up in Derry'. He had the headphones still on.
"I said 'Matthew, let me just hear his voice and ask him where he lives.' I put my ear up to his ear.
"I could hear the sound of this voice and it sounded a lot more mature than an eight year old. I said 'how old is this boy?'"
Matthew told his Dad that his friend was 14, and his name was 'Ryan', and he was a friend of another one of his online friend's.
Jeff subsequently told Matthew to take the headphones off and put 'Ryan' on speaker.
"He put him on speaker and he sounded like a mature teenager.
"I asked him had he been corresponding with him in any other way? He said 'yes, by text'."
These are the messages that come up on screen.
"You can have a conversation with somebody, and talk to them and play a game at the same time," said Jeff.
Jeff asked to see the text messages and found out that the text message correspondence had gone on for two months solid.
"This 'Ryan' by the looks of it was onto my son every day," he said.
To his horror, Jeff discovered that 'Ryan' had asked his son where he lived, and if there was a shop near him.
Young Matthew told the man he lived in Lucan and there was a shop five minutes down the road.
"Ryan said, 'Will you meet me there? I can come down on Saturday'.
"This was on the Thursday. Talk about cutting it fine. I said to Matthew, would you have gone there? He said 'I would have gone with my two other friends'.
"I said you know you are not allowed near the shops at all.
He goes, 'I know, but I am only meeting my friend from Derry'."
The fact that the man could have met his son two days later was an horrific thought.
"It was way too close for comfort, way too close. It was really scary," said Jeff.
He said that the man ended up being 29, and a known groomer and child pornography down-loader.
Jeff said he had taken a screen shot of the text messages on the iPad, some of which were very creepy and reported the matter to gardai.
They took a note of everything, including the man's name, and on their advice the man was blocked and deleted.
Matthew was taken off X-box Live for a year afterwards.
"We only allow him to play with people that have been vetted by ourselves, and we know the boys he plays with," said Jeff.
"He is very, very aware that I would walk into the room and literally take the headphones off him, and put them on myself and talk to the other fella and say, 'hey what's your name? How are you getting on?"
"I will be honest with you. I did actually cry, my wife cried. It was just too close. We couldn't fathom the fact that we were way too close," he said.
"We asked him why he hadn't told us, and he said 'Ryan' told him that it was their secret that all gamers have secrets.
"He had only been on the X-Box two or three months at this stage so he hadn't a clue about secrets," he said.
Jeff said that he doesn't know if 'Ryan' was ever charged, but he said that gardai told him he was known to the police in Northern Ireland, and he had been reported to them.
"We were absolutely shocked," he said.
Jeff had no idea something like this could happen.
"I thought everything was safe online," he said. "It was a big wake-up call."
He said that he hadn't realised prior to this happening, that you could become friends with anybody by just accepting their request.
He said that the text messages had started off very normal, before becoming more creepy.
"'Ryan' would say things like 'Ask your daddy for a camera. Can you get yourself Skype?"
However, he said that his son - who was only eight - knew nothing about Skype three years ago.
The man was also telling him to ask Santa for an iPad for Christmas, but Matthew had already got a present, so that didn't happen.
Jeff contacted the The Ryan Tubridy Show on RTE Radio 1 last week to alert other parents to the dangers that are lurking online, which many are simply not aware of.
If parents are going to give children any gadgets that allow them to communicate outside of the home, they have to have their password, and check on them nightly, he told the Herald.
"My advice to parents would be to understand how technology works, and don't allow your child to decide they are going to have it in their bedroom at 11 or 12 at night.
"Take it away from the dinner table. Dinner is where the family get to talk," said Jeff, who is an engineer by trade, and a full-time artist.