Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Protecting children online starts at home

Do we really know what our children are doing on their laptops or smartphones? Mostly it is something totally innocent, such as chatting to their friends via social media or browsing. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Do we really know what our children are doing on their laptops or smartphones? Mostly it is something totally innocent, such as chatting to their friends via social media or browsing. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Editor's Viewpoint

Do we really know what our children are doing on their laptops or smartphones? Mostly it is something totally innocent, such as chatting to their friends via social media or browsing.

But as the Childline charity points out in its alarming annual report, the laptop or smartphone can be the portal through which malign figures bring distress, and in some cases even suicidal thoughts, into the lives of young people.

Childline reported that in the last year it conducted 140 counselling sessions - up 44% on the previous year - with young people here who had been the victims of child sexual exploitation.

In 60% of cases the young people said they had been targeted online by peers or people they knew.

Such abusers use social media or video games to approach their victims, and on occasion this has resulted in grim consequences.

A Tyrone teenager took his own life in 2015 after being tricked into sending naked photographs of himself to someone who had approached him online.

This week the mother of a young Surrey boy who was lured to his death after being groomed on the internet addressed pupils at Belfast's Victoria College to warn of the dangers lurking on the web.

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Some parents and many young people may find it difficult to talk to each other about the potential problems of social media, but it is a conversation that must be had.

It is not enough to expect schools to take the lead on this issue, although there is much good work done in the classroom, because predators can strike at any time.

Social media is still a relatively modern phenomenon, and it's obvious that the internet is a relatively unguarded environment.

Social media companies are often slow to remove potentially dangerous material, and the sheer scale of the platforms makes policing them very difficult.

It is obvious from the figures contained in the Childline report that child sexual exploitation is a growing crime.

The charity provides a wonderful service, but it needs more volunteers to ensure that young people can access help when they need it.

The most frightening aspect of online exploitation is the feeling many young people have of being alone and unable to cope with the pressures applied to them by predators.

They need to be assured that non-judgemental help is available.

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