Our children must be taught perils of web
The number of sexual assaults on young people in Northern Ireland and the level of depravity involved is truly sickening. While it is not uncommon to hear or read of assaults on youngsters, few could have imagined that in the last three years alone more than 4,100 incidents have been recorded, an astonishing average of almost four a day.
Perhaps the most frightening statistic is that around 700 of those assaults were rapes.
It is difficult to imagine the effect of these attacks on the young people involved. Obviously there is the short-term trauma, but there are also long-term effects after such a brutal loss of innocence.
It is claimed that young people are the most vulnerable in society, and a large part of the reason is the influence of the internet and social media.
More and more young people are online, frequently making them targets for evil predators skilled in befriending and grooming youngsters. Technological advances such as webcams and apps make it even easier for those preying on young people to make contact and develop relationships aimed at victimising them.
Most parents know that there are potential dangers online, but few will have imagined the scale of the assaults on young people, and those are only the ones we know about. It is thought that many more cases go unreported.
The usual advice of setting parental controls and limiting the time young people spend web browsing or on social media is only partially effective. Virtually every mobile phone is now a gateway into the lives of their young owners and it is impossible to screen what they are doing all the time, especially when away from home.
They are also quite sophisticated in their use of digital devices, perhaps much more than their parents, again making it easy for them to hide what exactly they are up to or who they are meeting online.
Yet parents and teachers must take the lead in educating children about the dangerous predators who stalk the digital highways. They need to be told of the danger signals to look out for and to report any approaches they are uncomfortable about.
As well, police and social services must be given the training and resources to tackle this sort of cyber crime.
Given the sickening nature of the crimes and their frequency, with predators often sharing information, it is imperative that when caught they are treated severely by the justice system as a deterrent to others.