After a disturbing report revealed sex gangs use social network sites to trawl for young girls, experts advise how to shield our young from harm. As a parent you imagine sexual offenders lurk in dark alleys and that inside the family home your children are safe from harm. But the publication of a shock new report into child sexual abuse has shown that as many as 45 children a day are at risk of rape, violence and sexual exploitation by gangs – often through social network sites.
Until now, many parents believed that grooming by sex gangs was an isolated problem in towns such as Rochdale after nine Asian men were jailed earlier this year for raping vulnerable white girls. But an in-depth study by children’s watchdog, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, has been described as ‘disturbing’ and ‘a wake-up call’ for everybody. It has found thousands of children are being abused every year by gangs of boys and men of all ages – as well as by men in their own homes, influenced by the easy availability of pornography and access to modern technology such as computers and mobile phones. Its makes for terrifying reading but as a parent, what can you do to protect your child from sexual predators, who use a variety of techniques, ranging from texting to social network sites to lure them?
Here, top child protection experts advise about how to keep your kids safe from exploitation.
ON THE STREET
Despite the focus of Asian sex gangs, the report says gangs of all ages and ethnic backgrounds are grooming children. Much of it is being done outside the home in places including public parks, schools and alleyways.
What you can do:
1. Teach your child what a healthy relationship is: Many girls who fall into the hands of gangs can’t tell the difference between a loving and an abusive relationship in the first place. For example, don’t let them think it’s romantic for their “boyfriend” to be texting 60 times a day. Child protection expert Jon Brown of the NSPCC says: “Teach your child what a healthy relationship is – and show them the warning signs of more controlling behaviour.”
2. Get to know your child’s friends: One of the best ways to protect your child is get to know the people they hang around with. Jim Gamble, former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre says: “Encourage your child to feel comfortable bringing their friends home so you can get to know them, and the sort of people they hang around with.”
3. Watch for the warning signs: “Be vigilant in looking for tell-tale changes in your child’s appearance and behaviour,” says Jon Brown.
“Do they suddenly look dishevelled or do they have physical marks they can’t explain? Do they come home with gifts or money they can’t account for? Every parent should acquaint themselves with the signs.”
INSIDE THE HOME
It’s not just in the outside world where children are at risk, says the report. In a quarter of cases, the abuse is happening in the family, often by members of extended families.
What you can do:
1. Reassure them: “When children are being abused, one of the reasons they often don’t tell their mums is because they worry they won’t be believed,” says Jon Brown. “They also live in fear that social services will intervene and remove them from the home.” Jon adds: “Reassure them action will be taken but it won’t necessarily mean they will be sent into care.”
2. Tell them how to report abuse: If children are worried that a relationship is not right, they may feel more comfortable discussing it with someone outside the family. Jim Gamble says: “Let them know that Childline is there if they ever need to talk through their concerns.”
3. Understand how abuse works: Explain family boundaries to your child – and what each adult’s role is within the family. Kids should know that if a male member of the family asks them to keep a secret from you, that is not appropriate. Jon says: “The Jimmy Savile inquiry has shown how little we still understand about how abuse works. Protect them by explaining from the outset what their rights are as a child.”
ON SOCIAL NETWORKS
Social networks are a major way to groom children, according to the OCCE study. It describes groups of males, ranging between 17 to 70, trawling social networking sites to link up before taking their victims to organised sex parties.
What you can do:
1. Talk to your children about their online image: According to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the sexier girls look in their profile pictures the more likely they are to be targeted. Grooming often starts when men ask girls to live up to the raunchy image they project online by acting out sex acts. Talk to your child about what image they are portraying online – and get her to think about how it might be seen.
2. Join up: The only way to understand how social networks work is to join one. You don’t have to participate but you need to be present. At the start, tell your child that one of the conditions of signing up is that they make you a friend. If they want to block you, ask why. If it’s because they are embarrassed by you being there, offer to go on under a different name. Be open about your involvement, your child needs to maintain her trust in you.
3. Turn on the security settings: Facebook has a team of investigators to stamp out child exploitation on its site and Jim Gamble says there are many security features that parents can use to make Facebook safer. He says: “Get to know them – and set them on high. Show children how to report and block images that disturb them.”
Abusers often flatter young people into using their mobiles to send increasingly revealing shots of themselves – and they use the pictures to blackmail them into performing sexually explicit acts. For this reason, it’s essential parents warn children about the dangers of sexting (sex-texting) as soon as they give them mobile phones.
What you can do:
1. Talk about sex-texting: Even if it seems early, start the conversation sooner rather than later – because sexting is a natural by-product of their curiosity as they go through puberty. From the outset, explain they should never post or send pictures without consent that are likely to make others uncomfortable. Online parenting guru Monica Vila, author of a new smartphone guide called Generation Smartphone, a Guide for Parents of Tweens and Teens, says: “Make them see it’s not just you – by showing examples in the news of what can happen when it goes wrong.”
2. Teach them what to do if someone sends them explicit images: Although kids may be shocked at first, many will not reveal what they have seen because they feel it’s their fault. As they get older and more used to seeing explicit texts, they may come to see it as “normal”. Nip it in the bud by telling your child to delete the photo and block the number. If someone asks your child to send a “sext,” make sure they are trained to say no.
3. Look out for secrecy around texting: If your child suddenly starts getting a lot of texts and leaving the house to deal with them – or to meet friends, it could be a sign they are in an abusive relationship, says Jim Gamble. Show them educational videos that dramatise the issue and consequences they may have.
Source: Mirror UK