New campaign highlights risks posed by social media
Social media and online forums can be "playgrounds for paedophiles" and are leading to more children in Northern Ireland becoming potential victims of grooming for sex, according to new research.
The latest statistics from Childline show the charity held 164 counselling sessions last year with children here worried about online sexual abuse.
The true figure of contacts to Childline from Northern Ireland is likely to be higher because almost 25% of young people contacting the service from across the UK did not disclose where they were from.
The total UK-wide figures rose last year by 24% to 3,716 contacts to Childline from young people worried about sexual abuse. Most of these were aged 12-15 and almost two-thirds were girls. One in eight of the sessions related specifically to grooming, an increase of 21%.
Previous figures from Childline, a service provided by the NSPCC, have revealed how the internet is increasingly used as a gateway by offenders to commit crimes including sexual assaults, sexual exploitation and grooming.
Now Childline is launching a new campaign - Listen To Your Selfie - which is aimed at helping young people recognise the signs of grooming and unhealthy relationships, both online and offline.
The campaign, which has been funded by BBC Children in Need, features two films where selfies come to life and question a situation.
'The Game' focuses on a same-sex online grooming scenario and 'The Party' highlights peer-to-peer sexual pressure and grooming.
Neil Anderson, head of the NSPCC in Northern Ireland, said: "Most of us talk to people online and it's a great way to stay connected and make new friends.
"But it can be a playground for paedophiles, exposing young people to groomers who trawl social networks and online game forums exploiting any vulnerabilities they may find.
"Young people may not understand what is right or wrong in a relationship, or what to do if something makes them feel uncomfortable, online or offline.
"Listen to your Selfie is aimed at helping young people recognise signs they are being manipulated, controlled or exploited so they feel empowered to make their own decisions or choices.
"We hope that by putting this in the spotlight we can help young people to feel able to speak up if they feel worried or scared about a situation or relationship."
Childline founder Esther Rantzen said: "Very often young people tell us of their feelings of shame because they don't recognise that they are not to blame, one young person who had been persuaded to send explicit pictures of herself told us 'I walked myself into this mess, I couldn't ask for help'.
"It can be very hard for young people to identify that they are being manipulated or exploited, or to recognise that something is not right.
"We want children and young people to know that Childline is there for them, whatever their worry, to answer any questions and offer support and advice."
Children and young people can contact Childline for free, confidential support and advice, 24 hours a day on 0800 1111 or at www.childline.org.uk
One girl who contacted Childline in Belfast said: “Recently I have met this guy online. I don’t usually add strangers to my account but I was bored and wanted someone to talk to.
“We got chatting and we had loads in common and I really liked him. He told me he loves me and will never hurt me and suggested we meet up.
“He said we could go out and then back to his house. I really trust him but I am getting suspicious because he lies about small things like where he goes to school and his age — he says he is 16 but he sounds much older.”
A 16-year-old girl also told counsellors in Foyle: “My boyfriend is older than me and he makes me share pics and do stuff with other guys online.
“He gives me money and food when I go online and do things via the webcam.
“I have not told anyone else what is happening, I am so scared and drink to forget. I am too scared to report him.
“I just know I am not normal, I am weird and nobody understands. I am disgusting, so rather me than another young girl.”