The conversation we are Not having about online sexual abuse

Today, on Safer Internet Day, yet another case of online sexual grooming makes it into the headline news. A boy, age 8 is targeted through online gaming by a depraved sexual predator posing as a young girl and lured into sharing naked images via snapchat.

I imagine for him and his mother who tells the story, today the internet and social media feels like a dark place and most certainly not safer than it was yesterday. I also imagine that the hurt of the violation of this young boys innocence feels very real – despite it happening in what we might refer to as a virtual space.

Unlike in the offline world, the target of online sexual grooming for the predator is not necessarily an in-person encounter but rather the process of grooming and the sharing of sexual content often is the objective. But does that make it less “real” or damaging?

In the context of a world where for children, the online world feels as real as the offline world, should we not talk about what happened here (and in too many similar cases) as sexual abuse?

For us adults who grew up in a different world, it’s perhaps strange to think that someone can abuse another without physical contact – but perhaps only because we have always thought about it in a physical context.

I used to think that way too, without even realising – until one day when a distraught mother contacted me looking for help because her 11 year old daughter was being emotionally abused online. I know, the popular term is cyber bulling, but witnessing the devastation it had caused for the child and the family, believe me, the only way to verbalise it is abuse. And it was real. Very real. There was nothing cyber about that pain.

And to add disappointment to situations like these, we also lose control over abusive/sexual content once it is online – particularly if it finds its way into the dark web and into the hands of pedophiles, just like it happened to a 12 year old girl from Cork who was duped into sending naked images of herself to another boy who then sent the images to hundreds of others including her friends at school.

For kids today, it’s one world with different social platforms, both on- and offline – be it the school ground, Snapchat, Instagram, the playground or online gaming. In an always-online world, these spaces merge, conversations and social interactions seamlessly continue from in-person to online.

When I speak to children during online safety workshops, it is clear that the hurt they encounter and the fears they have online are real. As real as a crossing the road or talking to a stranger.

Perhaps if we started thinking and talking of online abuse in the same way as offline abuse, it might force us to act and to protect our kids as fiercely online as we do out and about.

Online, our kids are not alone, ever. Social media and online games are populated by friendly children right alongside the vilest sexual predators. They play side by side…without having any way of reliably knowing who is who.

We are mistaken thinking our kids don’t need us holding their hand exploring the wonders of the digital wold (and I agree, the benefits the internet and digital devices provide are immense) – yes, they’ll figure out how to navigate through a digital device quicker than you can pick it up, but they are as unequipped at using it safely as you are, unless together, you learn how.

When I was six, I nearly drowned because I slipped away from my dad’s hand and stepped too close to the edge of pier and fell in between 2 boats. My dad’s quick reflex saved my life as he managed to grab me before I disappeared in the muddy water – but that is not how I learnt to swim. I learnt to swim wearing armbands for a while, deflating them bit by bit until I didn’t need them anymore - with my parents by my side.

The 8 year old boy’s mother was vigilant about his online gaming, and still, just like I managed to slip away from my dad’s hand, he got away for but a moment and was confronted with the worst in our society. Her vigilance avoided further devastation, hurt and possible sextortion.

But what hope of learning to be safe and stay safe does a child have who gets handed a smartphone or tablet and left to learn to swim or drown on their own? Do not mistake the ability to use something with the ability to use it safely.

If you want to teach your child how to swim safely, you must learn yourself. If you want to teach them how to ride a bike safely, you must learn yourself. If you want them to be safe and smart online, both of you must learn together. I understand that a lot of you have no interest in social media or online gaming, but you cannot expect your kids to navigate a landscape safely unless you know it yourself.
I’m no different - I have no interest in Snapchat, I always found it a bit pointless. But I argue that if you explore these spaces together and learn from one another, you might not only help your child stay safe and take care of themselves online, but you may learn something about your child’s relationship with technology and social media and gain a better understanding of their new, blended world.

Start the conversation with something as simple as: “what apps do you like using”? “why do you like using them”? “what do you worry about online”? Start somewhere. Today.