Childline's Esther Rantzen warns parents of social media dangers during Belfast visit to mark charity's 30th year
With the number of recorded sexual offences against children at a ten-year high in Northern Ireland, Dame Esther Rantzen is calling on parents here to be more vigilant over their children's access to social media.
The Childline founder - in Belfast today to celebrate the charity's 30th birthday - said that the helpline, now co-run by the NSPCC, has seen more children than ever from Northern Ireland asking for help.
Referring to her own molestation as a teenager at the hands of a male relative, the veteran campaigner stressed the need for young people to continue to seek help, no matter how far down the scale of abuse they feel they have been subjected.
"Any kind of abuse can create lifelong damage," said Dame Esther.
"I was lucky in the sense that, with my horrible, disgusting old relative - and it was traumatic for me and I remember it very vividly - that fortunately it only happened once and you do get past it.
"It's natural to feel angry, but I'm not a fan of anger; it can become addictive. You have to find a more creative way to deal with it. The most important messages to give are, one: it's not your fault, and two: we can talk it through and change things."
The former That's Life presenter said she was a "plump, self-conscious wallflower" when she was groped by relative in her parents' garden in Hertfordshire, and was left, at 15, feeling "frightened and disgusted".
"When you have been abused, it's important to face up to the memory and take the pain and the shame out," she said.
"Don't turn anger in on yourself or it can lead to depression, and that, in turn, can lead to suicide, and in many cases nowadays, social networks are a factor.
"The increase in sexting and cyber bullying and grooming have created new dangers we have to be aware of.
"The increasing number of calls we're receiving from young people shows that no matter what, they realise they can ask for help, which is one good thing in an appalling situation."
Referrals from ChildLine to statutory agencies in Northern Ireland have almost doubled in the past year, the most frequent among these aiming to prevent attempted suicide. The increase coincides with a rise in reported sexual offences against children of over 50% in the past five years.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph before her visit to Stormont and the Childline NI Belfast HQ today, Dame Esther pointed to the dangers of an unregulated internet.
She said: "I spoke to the mother of a little boy recently, who was groomed online and murdered by a paedophile. She tried everything to protect him from danger but couldn't. It's a very difficult indeed to try to take all the danger out (of the internet) - it's like driving a car: wonderful but dangerous. It opens up new worlds but also brings with it cyber-bullying, sexting, grooming, paedophilia. You have to know what kids are accessing online, but it's so hard to control. And these social media networks are conveying to young people the impression that you have to be SO popular and SO successful and SO perfect, and real life isn't like that.
"As George Clooney said, every life has deep valleys, as well as peaks. Social media creates an illusion. In Childline, we have an educational initiative wherein a male volunteer pretends to be a child online, then reveals himself as a man - to show kids that virtual reality is just an illusion."
The increase in calls to Childline, while welcomed by the charity, has placed increased pressure on the service. At present, volunteers are able to answer three of out every four calls.
While praising the backing given to Childline initiatives by Stormont, the outspoken Dame Esther, who once claimed, following news of racist attacks here, Northern Ireland was "addicted to violence", hinted that our politicians need to grow up. The difficulty is that some people really feel that collaborating is an admission of defeat, instead of an aspect of maturity," she said. "Grown up people support each other. Stomont does take the tragedy of young suicide very seriously. It has become a very serious problem, which it wasn't 30 years ago.
"The tragedy of the Irish teenager who took his own life (after being tricked into exposing himself online) is a case in point. Young people must stop and think, 'if you saw it happening to someone else, what would you do for them? Why should it be so different for you?
"I meet so many adults, who as a result of their contact with Childline when they were younger, have gone on to help save other children, instead of going on a downward spiral themselves.
Dame Esther set up Childline after an edition of That's Life focused on child abuse.
"Forty-eight hours after that programme, we had 100 kids ringing in, who weren't able to talk to anyone else," she recalls. "I knew then the service was crucially important.
"And when we launched Childline in October 1986, we had 50,000 calls on the first night. That just proved that it was a crucial service."