Lucie James* was just 10 when she received a friend request on her favourite music website from someone she believed to be a teenager.
Despite a comfortable upbringing, she had struggled to make friends, so turned to a social networking site to connect with children of a similar age interested in the same bands as her.
Innocently accepting the friend request, she had no way of knowing it had come from a man in his thirties; a man lurking anonymously in the shadows of the web.
He was patient. Over a year, he cultivated Lucie’s friendship while posing as a peer. “He would say he was interested in the same music as me, the same clothing brands. I genuinely did think he was a friend,” she says.
When she got her first mobile phone, aged 11, he quickly requested her number. “It progressed from talking about interests to wanting to speak about sexual things,” she recalled last week. “He had a phone with a camera and he wanted sexual photographs of me”.
He played on her schoolgirl insecurity. “When someone has your trust and is telling you you’re beautiful, you don’t really see a problem. When you are so young, you don’t understand you are being groomed. They are so clever in the way they do this. The police later told me I was not the only child he was grooming.”
A meeting was arranged in a local park. Lucie took a friend, whom he bullied into leaving. “He was telling me ‘if you tell your parents about this, you are going to be in so much trouble’”, she said. “He twisted it so that it was my fault.”
It was then he sexually assaulted her for the first time, in a secluded part of the park, beginning a controlling and abusive relationship that lasted several years. “Sometimes he made me feel like someone special, like he loved me. He’d tell me we’d get engaged and married - every little girl’s dream. But other times he was threatening and abusive. I was sexually assaulted and hurt many times.”
Lucie’s parents eventually found out about her abuser. And although he has been placed on the sex offenders’ register, it was judged there was insufficient hard evidence for a prosecution. Lucie, by contrast, has been left with post-traumatic stress syndrome and fears she’ll need medication for the rest of her life.
Wild west web
Cases like Lucie’s are statistically rare but far from uncommon, with police currently arresting six people a day grooming children via social media apps.
But grooming is only one threat posed to children by what the NSPCC refers to as the “wild west web”. Some 60% of parents are worried about the welfare of their children online – and 17% say they have had to deal with a specific threat to their children’s wellbeing, according to research by Internet Matters, a parental advice charity.
Across the country, countless childhoods are being disrupted and in some cases ruined by social media and gaming addiction. Sleep patterns are being disrupted, school work is suffering and children’s social development is being retarded.
Carolina Fernandez Fawaz from London is among the many parents to have watched as their child got hooked on social media. She first spotted the signs of addiction when her 13-year-old daughter, Sofia, “a great reader”, lost interest in books, ditched her violin lessons and reduced her sport. It came to a head when she returned home one day to find Sofia had done nothing for four hours but stay in her room, online.
“We decided to take drastic measures,” says Mrs Fawaz, who has submitted her story to the Commons science and technology committee investigating the impact of social media on children’s mental health.
In her evidence to the committee, Mrs Fawaz speaks for a generation of beleaguered parents when she declares that digital devices should come with an addiction warning. “Parental controls are a joke really, and also social media [firms] don't really block people from the sites once they have been reported,” she says.
With children now communicating across 142 digital platforms, parents frequently feel helpless - at a loss as to how to wrest back some control.
Turning off the internet at home is not an option for most as so much homework needs to be done online. Likewise, confiscating a child’s phone can present a risk as they will not be able to call for help if they get into trouble when out.
This is why The Daily Telegraph is today calling for a new statutory duty of care to be placed on social media and gaming companies - something that would force them to force them to take responsibility for protecting child users against known or foreseeable harms.
Mounting death toll
In the most extreme cases, children are being led to their deaths.
Breck Bednar, from Caterham in Surrey, was 14 when Lewis Daynes, an 18-year-old stranger, groomed him via an online gaming forum before luring him to his flat and slitting his throat in a fatal attack believed to be sexually motivated.
Kayleigh Haywood, from Measham in Leicestershire, was 15 when she was raped and murdered by Stephen Beadman, 29, after his friend Luke Harlow, 28, had groomed her via Facebook and SMS and lured her to his home.
And Felix Alexander, from Worcester, was 17 when he took his own life after suffering seven years of cyberbullying on social media.
As was once the case with tobacco and lung cancer, there is not yet enough accumulated evidence to prove a causal link between internet use and rising rates of mental ill health among the young. However, parents and children’s charities are right to demand that ministers act on the precautionary principle as hard academic evidence is beginning to mount.
One in five young people report that they wake up during the night to check messages on social media, making them three times more likely than their classmates to feel constantly tired at school, according to a Cardiff University study.
Some 27% of those online for more than three hours on a school day report high or very high scores for mental ill health, more than double those spending fewer than three hours on social media, says the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
And a University College London (UCL) study which tracked nearly 10,000 girls and boys from age 10 to 15 found girls who spent more than an hour a day on social media from the age of 10 were more likely to suffer social and emotional problems including depression.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is about to bring out a long-awaited report which will say there is “moderately-strong” evidence for an association between screen-time and depressive symptoms as well as obesity and poor diet at all ages.
Tanya Goodin, a tech pioneer who founded the campaign group Time to Log Off, mentions one teenage girl who told her she was so desperate to keep up her Snapchat “streaks” - online interactions with friends that must be repeated daily - that even when seriously ill in hospital she asked her mother to update them for her. Another girl declared she had maintained her streaks for a record-breaking 380 consecutive days.
“I have children come to me who think they have spent 24 hours a day online. As a consequence, their academic performance is suffering,” she says. “As someone who set up my digital marketing business three years before Google, I am part of a movement that now thinks we have gone too far. We have become unbalanced. We need to look again at this world we have created and decide if it’s fit for children and fit for purpose.”