Parents need to grasp dangers of children’s online activity

Parents can unwittingly allow children wander in a treacherous online world

Two in five under-16 children surveyed in the UK never told anyone about the worst thing that happened to them online. Photograph: iStock

Two in five under-16 children surveyed in the UK never told anyone about the worst thing that happened to them online. Photograph: iStock

 

Some weeks ago, there were reports that a five-year-old girl had allegedly gone with three boys aged between seven and 10 whom she knew to a derelict house, where they allegedly beat her and tried to touch her in a sexual way.

These and other disturbing assaults involving children have been in the headlines for months. Parents’ hearts hammer when they see them. 

Having a child who could potentially be an assault victim is terrifying but most parents would be even more horrified by the possibility that their child might be a perpetrator.

This is illustrated in Kieran McGrath’s booklet Understanding and Managing Sexualised Behaviour in Adolescents. McGrath is a vastly experienced independent child welfare specialist. He describes the case of a 12-year-old boy named Jason. (Minor details were changed to protect identities.)

When McGrath first met Jason’s mother, she sobbed inconsolably for more than an hour. Jason was an adored only child who, far from experiencing adverse events, was given the best of everything, including a smartphone, laptop and video game consoles. Good-looking and athletic, he had lots of friends. 

Narcissistic

He was quite narcissistic rather than suffering from low self-esteem and was used to being given what he wanted. Imagine the devastation when at a family party it was discovered that he had managed to get a three-year-old cousin on her own and put his penis into her mouth.

A close-knit extended family was rocked by shock and anger. Jason expressed bitter regret; and, after the first wave of anger and disgust had died down, the family tried to put it behind them.

Jason reoffended with a slightly older boy cousin a year later. This time there could be no refuge in the idea that it was just “naive experimentation”.

McGrath worked intensively for a year and a half with the boy who, unknown to his parents, had been accessing a steady daily stream of porn.

Also, he had experienced the death of a grandmother to whom he was close. His own mother’s mourning displaced him from the centre of her universe. McGrath describes how Jason’s “innate narcissism kicked in”. He had never developed interior resilience so he tried to find a way to escape unfamiliar feelings of loss and abandonment. He distracted himself with internet porn that quickly became addictive. This led to a desire to experience oral sex for himself and he figured his cousin was too young to tell.

Recent figures on juvenile perpetrators of sexual abuse are difficult to find but the 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (Savi) report stated that a quarter of the perpetrators were aged 17 or younger, figures that caused shock at the time. 

It seems impossible that increasing use of violent, degrading demeaning porn at younger and younger ages will have altered those figures for the better.

When the Savi report was being compiled, the idea of technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour barely existed. As well as being exploited, kids can exploit others. These behaviours in minors span a continuum from underage use of pornography to grooming, sexting, exposing other minors to pornography or inciting someone to engage in sexual activity online. 

The NSPCC in the UK analysed data young people referred to the Turn the Page service, which supports children and young people aged from five to 18 who display harmful sexual behaviour. (Yes, you read that right: five-year-olds.) 

The NSPCC discovered a link between accessing of pornography under age 13 with offline abuse. The former was noted as a trigger for offline harmful sexual behaviour in more than half of the cases. 

Obviously, not every child immersed in porn is going to assault younger children but that does not mean compulsive porn use is harmless, either. Nor is porn the only online danger.

UK survey

In 2018, London-based educational charity LGfL Digisafe surveyed 40,000 UK children aged between seven and 16 about their online activity. They asked them about the best and worst things they encountered online. The worst included: self-harm and suicide; hate speech, bullying and fighting; violent and obscene videos; sexual approaches from adults; animals being hurt; being asked for nude photographs; and pornography. 

Frighteningly, two in five of those surveyed never told anyone about the worst thing that happened to them online. My guess is that they were fearful of parents freaking out if told.

Parents who are completely vigilant about their children in the offline world are allowing them to wander in an online world that is both frightening and treacherous. 

Awkward and embarrassing as it may be, ongoing conversations with children and teens are vital. Cybersafe Ireland has some good tips.

Online activity can have lifelong consequences. Last year, Copenhagen police reported that they charged 1,004 people aged between 15 and 20 with redistributing child pornography after the young people shared video clips on Facebook Messenger of two 15-year-olds having sex.

Good luck to working with children or in a caring profession, or getting a visa to the US, if you have a conviction for distributing child porn.

No wonder Kieran McGrath describes smartphones and tablets in the hands of children as dangerous weapons. 

Understanding and Managing Sexualised Behaviour in Children and Adolescents by Kieran McGrath is available at kieranmcgrath.com

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