A ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ horror tale for the internet age

A nine-year-old is duped into sharing naked photos. How can we prevent such awful scenarios?

Don’t ask children what they would do if they got requests from a stranger online but say “if your friend came to you and said this happened, what would you tell them?”

Don’t ask children what they would do if they got requests from a stranger online but say “if your friend came to you and said this happened, what would you tell them?”

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The little girl had bought the phone with her Holy Communion money to watch cartoons, dancing and singing online. It was a very innocent and very modern scenario that soon turned into a horror story for the nine-year-old and her family, as outlined at a Dublin court hearing this week, when a man pleaded guilty to child pornography charges.

Matthew Horan had persuaded children to send sexual photos of themselves through widely used apps such as Snapchat, Instagram and Kik. With the predator posing as a child to his victims, it’s a Little Red Riding Hood tale for our internet age. Children have to know that not everybody online is who they seem.

The chief executive of the ISPCC, Grainia Long, says she and her staff were “obviously shocked, if not surprised” at children so young being snared in this way through the internet. Their helpline Childline has had calls from nine-year-olds in comparable situations – although they are extreme cases, she stresses.

Children may call “about behaviour they have witnessed, or behaviour that has been visited on them or behaviour they have done themselves”, she says. They often don’t recognise what is happening as abuse, and the speed of online activity confounds them.

“Children are not ready for the cold reality of an adult exploiting them,” she says.  Most children spend their whole childhood without an adult trying to exploit them “and that is how it should be”.

Yet they have to be made aware of the possibility. It was all too real for the boys whom an 18-year-old admitted tricking into sending indecent photos of themselves to him, as featured in a Belfast court case, also this week.

Clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune says using news stories like these, “not to terrify kids – or ourselves”, is a good starting point for a conversation which must be had with children – and if they are already using the internet, you’re coming to it late. Such a chat this weekend, Fortune suggests, could go something like this: “I read in the paper about a situation that happened, and it’s something you and I haven’t talked about . . . What do you think about people who lie and pretend to be children when they are actually adults?”

Don’t ask them what they would do if they got requests from a stranger online but say “if your friend came to you and said this happened, what would you tell them?”

They will probably say: “I would tell them to go to a teacher, or to their mum and dad…” That gives you a chance to say “that’s really good” and to talk more about a strategy in such a scenario.

Vulnerable children

Cases like the ones we heard about this week are not a reflection of parental failure or short-comings, she says, “because people who prey on children in this way are very good at what they do. They are skilled at finding vulnerable children – and all children at that age, by nature of their immaturity, are vulnerable.”

However, the idea that nine- and 10-year-old children might have free access to the internet “is just unconscionable” for psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley. A paedophile infiltrating a children’s online chat group can figure out very quickly who has unsupervised access and target that child, she says.

When parents tell O’Malley that their child “doesn’t know what a paedophile is so I don’t want to tell them” and yet that child is on a smartphone, “my head falls off with that. It doesn’t add up at all,” she says.

So, should we blame parents for being too lax on cyber safety? O’Malley, author of Bully-proof Kids, sees parallels with another childhood crisis that society has been struggling with.

“These multi-billion [online] companies have spent so much money targeting our kids, it is like obesity,” she argues.

“Would you throw children chocolate to keep them quiet? Well you shouldn’t. Do parents do it? Yeah. And is it the less educated ones? Yeah. And am I nervous around criticising them? Yeah. And does it need to be said? Yeah.”

Our focus must be on educating children and supporting parents in ensuring that their children grow up using technology in a safe way and in a smart way

The question of who should be doing more to protect children from online exploitation is hotly contested. Is it down to the parents? Should schools be more proactive? Are online media companies ignoring their responsibilities? Is the State too slow and weak in tackling the issue?

Yes is the short answer to some or all of the above. Cliona Curley, programme director with CybersafeIreland, cautions against a kneejerk reaction to particular cases – they are markers of the huge issue this is.

“There is no magic legislative or technological solution,” she says, although there is certainly a place for progress on both.

“We need leadership at a Government level; we do need to look at legislative gaps, and the technology platforms need to be doing a lot more but the reality is our focus must be on educating children and supporting parents in ensuring that their children grow up using technology in a safe way and in a smart way.”

Extremely complicated

There is no one lever that can be pulled to fix what is, in reality, an extremely complicated issue, says solicitor Simon McGarr. “As we can see from this week, there’s been a race from various TDs to rush to pull the lever because it’s labelled child safety and that would look good.”

But the Government can’t fix it and, if it tries to do so, the danger is it we’ll regret its interference, he warns. While he praises the “excellent” 2016 Law Reform Commission report on “Harmful Communications and Digital Safety”, he’s not convinced that its recommendation for a Digital Safety Commissioner, modelled on comparable offices in Australia and New Zealand, is a solution in itself.

However, the Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten, announced on Thursday that he is consulting on the need for such a regulator. An open policy debate will be held in Dublin on March 8th to raise awareness of what the Government, Europe and the industry are doing – and must do – to tackle harmful on-line content.

A Government spokesman says that the Taoiseach is supportive of the work being undertaken by Naughten and that he believes the major tech companies, which operate on an international basis, should do more to mediate the content available on their websites and social media platforms.

The ISPCC had been lobbying for a commissioner and Long says until there are regulatory standards in place, that hold all technological media companies to account, those who do act responsibly can’t be recognised and, more importantly, we can’t see those who aren’t taking child safety seriously. With cyber safety being “the child protection issue of our time”, she does not believe self-regulation is enough.

Meanwhile, she has huge sympathy for parents who are navigating a very difficult area. “Don’t beat yourself up about not being an expert but find the answers,” she urges.

Technical aspects

Parents can get very caught up on the technical aspects of protecting children online, but basically it’s a parenting issue, says Áine Lynch of the National Parents’ Association (Primary).

Just as children are taught to cross roads, going from having their hand held tightly, to parents walking beside them, then perhaps observing from a distance before trusting them to mind themselves, so it should be with navigating the online world.

She doesn’t believe it is helpful to give parents a blanket warning about certain apps because most can be used for good as well as bad, and there are always new ones coming on the market.

“While Snapchat is getting a bad press at the moment, lots of children use it very healthily,” she points out.

We very much understand the changing nature of technology and the internet, and for many parents this can be one of the biggest concerns

Webwise.ie has a dedicated team providing parents with explanations on how various apps work, their appeal to children/teenagers and potential risks. It is run by the Irish Internet Safety Awareness Centre that is co-funded by the Department of Education and Skills and Europe.

“We very much understand the changing nature of technology and the internet, and for many parents this can be one of the biggest concerns,” says Webwise project officer Jane McGarrigle. Their advice is practical, free from jargon and well worth a look.

In weeks like this, it’s hard not to get hung up about the sinister side of the internet and want to just turn off the wifi. But the aim of all concerned has to be to empower children to enjoy all the positivity of the digital world, safely.

Protect your children

Every parent wants to know what they can do to protect their child from online predators. Here are seven steps:

Inform yourself

It’s no longer acceptable to say you don’t know much about online technology and leave your children at it – even if safety controls have been installed. To draw up effective and credible rules for internet use, you need to understand the environment your child is in, says Cliona Curley of CybersafeIreland.  There is no lack of online information and advice for parents on sites such as webwise.ie, cybersafeireland.org and zeeko.ie.

Watch your language

We tend to get into negative rule-making says psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, when a positive approach is more effective. For instance, if you say “you can never put up naked photos” all the child has in their head is “naked photos?” and may want to test to see if you are right about that. If you say “We only post photos to people we know well and we’re always fully dressed in our photos”, the child will think “obviously we’re dressed, what a bizarre thing to say”, but that is the message they now hold in their mind.

Hold off on the smartphone

A child’s first phone should be cheap and basic with no internet access, says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley. She believes children shouldn’t be going around with a smartphone in their pocket until at least age 13.

Keep the conversation going

Talk frequently to children about what they’re doing online and with whom. Ask them to show you things they enjoy doing. “Active listening” and “co-use” is the approach internet safety company Zeeko suggests to parents.

Don’t snoop

Going behind your child’s back to monitor internet use is not advised. Far better is to make clear that you as a parent are entitled to full access and passwords, but foster mutual trust by sitting down with them to check in on their online activity.

Talk to children about their ‘uh oh’ feelings

Tell young children that if anybody ever asks them to do something that gives them a little “uh oh” feeling, they should tell you. It’s a term they’ll understand, says Fortune.

Devise an ‘exit’ strategy

Children don’t just need advice on how “not to get into trouble”, they must be armed with strategies to get out of trouble too, says Áine Lynch of the National Parents’ Association (Primary).

No matter how good the relationship a child has with parents, there will be a time when they feel they can’t talk to them. If they have broken rules around internet use, they may fear the parent will be disappointed, angry or, worst of all, take away their phone. Have a conversation with your child about what other trusted people they can go to – before they might need to.

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