Internet grooming: Why parents have to be more vigilant
When Barnardo's held a conference on internet child grooming in London this week, many of the stories were harrowing. It's a growing issue that Irish parents have to be aware of, as John Meagher reports. Another report, published by UNICEF, revealed statistics on teenage sex in Ireland. Kim Bielenberg asks a top psychologist whether parents should worry about the findings
Michael's parents had little cause for alarm. Although something of a loner, their well-mannered 13-year-old son hadn't attracted the attention of the school bullies and seemed to be doing well academically.
He would arrive home from school at the appointed time each evening and, after downing his dinner, he went to his bedroom to study and, he told them, play online video games when he had finished his homework.
His mother and father were glad to have time alone together to catch up, and they thought there was little harm in his spending up to three hours a night on the laptop.
They were grateful that their son had, as yet, shown no desire to hang out with the young boys who gathered every day at the green park in the Dublin estate where they lived.
But unbeknown to them, Michael (not his real name) was getting himself into a lot of trouble on the laptop. The problem started shortly after he set up his own social media account and started to accept "friends" he did not know.
One of them, who called himself David, took a keen interest in Michael's life and after a few weeks of emails and instant messaging, Michael's new friend asked him to meet.
David had told him that he was in his early 20s but had had a childhood much the same as Michael's and told him that he could identify with his troubles.
Although Michael had reservations about meeting David, he was flattered that someone had shown interest in his life. He'd often felt invisible at school and his parents seemed happy to have him out of the way.
Michael and David met in a city centre park and managed to hit it off. Few passersby thought there was anything strange about a man in his 20s and a young teen strolling along together.
It was only after they had met four times that David started touching Michael inappropriately for the first time. The young boy recoiled at the touch, but David persisted.
When Michael suggested they no longer meet, David's attitude became menacing. He told Michael he would hurt him if he told anyone about their encounters and that he would make trouble for his parents if he went to them for help.
For two weeks, Michael was petrified that David would materialise at his door. He stopped answering his phone calls and the scores of abusive texts and emails that had come through.
It was only when Michael plucked up the courage to call a charity helpline number he had heard advertised that his ordeal started to come to an end -- and his parents learnt, to their horror, what had begun behind the closed door of their child's bedroom.
Although some details of this account have been changed to protect identities, it is the sort of case that Irish care professionals are coming across more frequently.
Each year around 500,000 calls are made to the ISPCC's Childline -- and an increasing number are citing internet concerns as the reason for their call.
"The phenomenon of child groomers is something we are very concerned about," says Margie Roe, director of Childline. "They have been very clever about the way they have utilised the internet to meet children, whether it's through chatrooms or social networking sites. Sometimes they will pretend to be children themselves.
"Paedophiles have had to be more resourceful lately because they can find it much more difficult to access children through coaching roles or other authority positions due to garda vetting. The internet allows them the anonymity they crave.
"What we've found is that these groomers slowly build up trust with their young victim. They often seek out children who show their vulnerabilities in chat rooms. It's a very cynical, methodological approach."
An ISPCC survey on children's use of the internet makes for sobering reading. Of the 18,000 Irish children surveyed between 10 and 18, some 2,000 have physically met someone they had befriended online. Most will have been innocent encounters -- but some more sinister.
Furthermore, the findings, published last month, show that one in 10 children has given out their real name and mobile phone number to strangers.
"With the best will in the world, I don't know if all parents are being as vigilant as they should be," says Roe.
ISPCC research shows that children as young as 10 are spending three hours online every day.
"While the internet can be a wonderful resource, it is difficult to monitor children's usage if they're behind the closed door of their bedroom.
"We would advise parents to put the computer in the family room and limit the amount of time their child is on it. The advent of the smartphone makes vigilance even more difficult. It allows children online access 24/7."
Norah Gibbons, advocacy director of Barnardo's Ireland, says there are no immediate plans to roll out a similar campaign to its UK counterpart's Cut Them Free scheme. "Regrettably, we just don't have the money to launch a campaign of that scale," she says. "It takes considerable funds to do it properly and there's no doubt that a campaign like this would be very worthwhile.
"From what I've heard anecdotally, Irish children are being groomed online. But nobody seems to know the extent of the problem in this country.
"Something that's of grave concern to us is a loophole in the legislation where it is not an offence to groom children. In the UK, there's no grey area -- grooming is a criminal offence there. That legislation needs to be changed."
Barnardo's advises parents to be vigilant about their children's online habits. "It can be difficult when the child is often much more technically savvy than they are," Norah Gibbons says, "but parents need to keep themselves informed.
"Schools are also very well placed to advise children about online privacy and how important it is not to be giving out names and phone numbers.
"Although some of the social networking sites don't allow children under the age of 13 to sign up, we know that much younger children are setting up accounts anyway."
Simon Grehan, the Awareness Coordinator of the National Centre for Technology in Education, believes children are far more aware of privacy concerns online than they are given credit for.
"While there are valid concerns about child welfare online, the situation shouldn't be blown out of proportion," he says.
"International research shows that Irish children are much more careful about divulging private information than their European counterparts -- 99.9 of people will never encounter grooming, so it's important that children aren't overly restricted from using the internet because of fear.
"Ultimately, it boils down to old-fashioned parenting and a healthy relationship exists where the child feels comfortable talking about their problems or fears, and doesn't feel like they have to reach out to someone online."