Children most at risk from peers, not abusers

Stranger danger and grooming by paedophiles are no longer the only cyber threats to children. Experts now say the most likely source of online sexual exploitation is a child’s own friends.

Child protection experts are now trying to prepare parents and schools to deal with the troubling realisation that their children may be not just be “at risk” but may be “a risk” because they are not only vulnerable to abuse but may be perpetuating it among their own peer group.

Anne-Marie McAlinden said ‘sexting’ — sending explicit images and messages by mobile — and the sharing of indecent images on social media was now so common, practiced by 40% of teenagers, that many saw no problem with it or how wrong it was to pressurise others to join in.

“Not every child is engaged in it but many of them are and there is a normalisation of practices such as sexting,” she said. “Many children regard it as only flirting — they actually see that as safer in many instances than contact forms of sexual interaction.”

Prof McAlinden, from Queens University Belfast, spoke at a conference on the sexual abuse of children in a cyber context jointly hosted by Temple Street and Our Lady’s children’s hospitals.

“The only answer is education,” she said. “Some schools are ahead of the game but many need to step up to the plate here and have more education programmes that are not just about stranger danger and online safety in terms of the older man coming to groom you.

“Programmes need to have a wider recognition of online safety in terms of what can happen between peers and to frame that not just in terms of dangers online but in terms of privacy, healthy relationships, respect for yourself, respect for others, safeguarding your image online and broader life skills.”

Parents also need to educate themselves, she said.

“It’s hugely difficult for parents,” she said. “What is normal for children, or what is the new normal, changes daily and us adults are the catch-up generation.

“It’s about educating yourself about what your children are doing, how they’re spending their time online, who they’re talking to and who they’re interacting with. That’s not to say be a helicopter parent either, because they do need some level of autonomy as children exploring the world — but talking to them is very important.”

She said service providers also needed to be forced to improve their response.

“For example, if indecent images are posted on Facebook, that they’re made take those down,” she said. “That doesn’t always happen, or there’s a delay, and it’s gone viral and the damage has already been done.”