So What? .....But What If!: Grooming and Online Safety Panel Event



Hello and welcome back to So What? … But What If!, a series of panel events which continues to explore gender-based approaches to safety. Today we’re relaying the highlights of our Grooming panel event, which was streamed live on 17th June 2022. This month our panel discussed how to prevent grooming by empowering children to make informed decisions about their relationships (especially online), but also encouraged us to look into ways we might support potential perpetrators to get the help they need before committing a crime.

Our panel included:


Jeremy Indika, survivor and advocate for awareness around child sex abuse and grooming

Marianne, outreach worker for the Enough campaign at Glasgow Women’s Aid

Kim Flower, of women’s empowerment social enterprise Gilded Lily

Stuart Alladyrce, one of the directors at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and manager of Stop It Now Scotland

And our host Heather Offord, director of One4Growth


Key issues: the scale and nature of the problem


Stuart noted that it is difficult to gather data around the issue, and that criminal prosecutions only make up a minority of cases. ‘It’s probably around a thousand people who are arrested each year for offences involving online solicitation and grooming of children in some way [in Scotland].’ (4:30-43), but this is just ‘the tip of the iceberg.’ (~4:50) Stuart: ‘If you look at the statistics from the National Crime Agency, and they produce a threat assessment every year, their estimate is that between 550,000 and 850,000 people in the UK present a risk of sexual harm to children’ (5:02-22). Stuart noted this is commensurate with victimisation data too: ‘Between one in five and one in ten children are sexually harmed in some way in Scotland’ (6:07-14).


Stuart and Stop It Now launched a campaign to provide free and anonymous help for those who have had or may start having sexual online conversations with children, and their website received 65,000 hits (~6:50). Not all were necessarily offenders or would-be offenders, but many were.


He then went on to explain that the situation is complex, as children are connected online more than ever. Groomers now operate by contacting children on social media first, and looking for vulnerabilities on their pages. From there, they will take the conversation somewhere more secluded: ‘What they’ll generally then do is try and shift the conversation away from a public social media space to some kind of encrypted space, and that’s fairly easy to do now in terms of encrypting messaging that can take place. Even something like WhatsApp for instance is an encrypted space’ (13:38-14:00).


In terms of preventing this from happening, Jeremy and others on the panel noted that trying to reduce access is far less than effective for kids who are now digital natives. Jeremy highlighted that ‘Parental controls are easy to get around if you’ve grown up with technology. If you’re in a peer group and your friends are seeing something that your parents have stopped you from seeing, you’re getting to get around that no problem and your parents will never find out because they don’t know about technology half as much as you do’ (23:22-42).


Stuart presented the caveat that parental controls are useful for younger children (~23:50), but agreed they become less effective as children move into adolescence.


Jeremy continued that reducing access or checking phones creates an antagonistic relationship with children, where open communication about what’s happening in their digital lives becomes strained. ‘A big part of the challenge is: when we’re asking young people these questions about what games are you playing, what apps are you on, it’s like a checking process that they’re not interested in us being involved in. We are adults, we are ancient, we come from a different era, we know nothing. And they will give us the answers we want to hear’ (19:23-46). Although he thinks open conversations are important, he stresses that it is not sufficient by itself: ‘It’s about how to empower them on how to use the tool [...] and how to make decisions online’ (~20:10).



Key solutions: empowering children to make healthy discussion through open dialogue and public education


Stuart continued this sentiment, and the discussion developed into how we empower children to make healthy decisions and ask for adults’ help when needed. He implored that ‘We need to be curious about our children’s online lives, even though actually we might not be terribly interested in the latest app or games and online stuff. But we make an effort to be interested in our children’s school lives and their friendship groups. So we need to make an effort to reach out there [too]’ (17:37-58).


He continued: ‘We did a bit of work in Glasgow with young people in highschool, looking at what messages they wanted integrated into online safety and what they wanted to hear back from adults. And they said one of the things that was the main reason why they wouldn’t go to an adult if they felt out of their depths online, [...] when they felt at risk in some way, [was that] they were worried that adults would then take all their digital devices away from them’ (18:08-44). Stuart advised instead that parents reassure kids that they will do their best to keep them both safe and online.


Stuart also argued that parents need to accept that teenagers become more opaque and private about their relationships, and instead of prying or preventing access to online spaces, warm and open parenting is the best strategy to prevent abuse (~25:10). He continued: ‘The last component is building resilience for children and being able to handle complex situations as they get older, which comes again to digital resilience. When kids become teenagers, we will not be able to monitor them all night, let’s be frank about it. So we need to make sure they have the skills to navigate risks themselves’ (25:29-49).


Jeremy added to this by arguing that children’s attention is not always focused in school settings, and that outreach can be much broader and more engaging. He said: ‘I don’t feel that education only has to be coming from school. Where is children’s attention? [...] They are learning so much from their phones, it’s incredible. They’re learning from social media posts, they are learning from TikTok, they’re learning from TV, they’re learning from film. Why can’t we also meet them where they’re at? Why can’t we start making incredible, engaging TikToks about these conversations? Why can’t we make a TV series, following a character that goes through all of these troubled times? [...] That’s education as well’ (29:03-54). Jeremy recommended Stop It Now’s series of short videos about their services, as he found them very engaging (links to resources are found at the end of this blog).


Stuart agreed, citing the same research in Glasgow about what children want in terms of online safety education. ‘They didn’t want a teacher standing at the front of the classroom, talking talk, “here are the things you need to know”; what they wanted was discussions, they wanted to sit in small groups and talk about what are the risks online and how do you navigate that and what people’s experiences are: learning from their peers and developing the kind of compass that helps them navigate this kind of stuff themselves, with some adults nudging them in the right direction’ (31:32-32:02).


Stuart spoke also of how the evolving conversation around consent isn’t explicitly tied to online safety, when that would be beneficial: ‘The key thing about online safety is how do you have safe and trusting relationships online? So the ideas around consent need to be applicable in online spaces, but we don’t lock these things together for teenagers in meaningful ways’ (32:25-43).


Marianne agreed, and encouraged parents to show their children how to access safety resources in their own time: ‘There’s so many resources now for young people online’ (22:23-8).


Stuart had some recommendations regarding resources as well: ‘We have a website called Upstream, which is for parents and members of the public in Scotland, which is all the practical things that we can do as parents to prevent sexual abuse happening. And you’ll find resources there like the NSPCC’s pantosaurus resource, which is a terrific resource for kids between 3 and 8 in relation to child sexual abuse prevention and them understanding their bodies, and that adults don’t have a right to have access to their bodies’ (40:59-41:43).


Key issues: how to approach children’s online relationships


Marianne stressed that the traditional approach to children’s safety, in which we warn them of ‘stranger danger’, is increasingly outdated for children who interact with strangers online through gaming and social media. She also emphasised that these relationships are not always harmful. ‘Some of these places that they’re doing that are actually very safe and it’s healthy relationships that they’re forming and healthy connections with people. So ‘stranger danger’ in the eyes of a teenager is not as applicable as it maybe was when we were teenagers’ (10:53-11:07).


She noted, however, that isolation is important; not in regards to perpetrators, but victims who are lonely and vulnerable. ‘The classic view of the perpetrator being lonely, in their room: quite often, that’s where victims are. They’ve maybe been isolated through bullying, they’ve maybe been excluded from school for whatever reason, or not attending school’ (11:14-29). Falling out with friends is another common feature, though Marianne did note that victims can come from all different circumstances. Ensuring children feel supported in having healthy social relationships can help prevent child solicitation from escalating, as isolated children may initially enjoy the attention they are receiving from a groomer.


Key issues: barriers to reporting


Marianne went on to explain the barriers to reporting: ‘Maybe if a young person is not allowed to be in a relationship at all anyway, for whatever reason, or is not encouraged to be in any sort of online friendships, when something goes wrong online then they’re very unlikely to say something’s gone wrong online. Or if maybe they’ve already made a mistake online before and been told: “don’t do that again”, whether it’s sharing an image - which is really common with young people now, image sharing - if they’ve been told: “doing that, you can end up with a record, these are all the consequences”, if the conversations aren’t open enough and they don’t feel that they have these open avenues, that’s just one thing that can prevent them. It’s about the same and the stigma of coming forward and saying this is happening’ (14:58-15:47).


Marianne instead advises to have continuous conversations with young people without blaming or judging them so that abuse can be prevented or acted upon swiftly. Stuart later added that children will make mistakes online, and that we should be upfront to parents about that so they can prepare for that scenario (~18:00). Again, threatening to take away devices, or instilling blame in the child, are actions that will likely result in a breakdown of communication, which will in turn prevent carers from effectively protecting children from harm. Acknowledging instead that children have online lives, and to have a supportive role in ensuring those online relationships are healthy, are key ways to protect them.


Key solutions: peer support


Kim began to propose the solution of peer supprt by asking: ‘Is it actually that we should have children teaching children [about online safety]? That whole peer support I see work so well across the board [...] it goes back to that peer empowerment and support, so important. I think children hate getting dictated to, and quite often they are cocky and think, “I know much more than them.” But in this situation, they are right, but they need protected. So they should probably be teaching the teachers, us, as well as teaching their peers’ (27:14-47). Marianne agreed that current education curricula around online safety focus very strongly on what young people shouldn’t be doing, which is unlikely to be effective.


Marianne continued: ‘The most influential thing on any young person’s life is their peer, in most cases. And if peers can be just talking to each other, we can equip them like Jeremy said, giving them the tools, equip them to be having these difficult conversations, and creating and fostering an environment where calling out is actually okay as well: in a safe and productive way. [...] It’ll help us identify things earlier in order to protect people from themselves and to protect their potential victims as well’ (45:02-38).


Stuart agreed: ‘If children are to tell anyone in childhood that they have been harmed in some way, they’re more likely to tell a peer than anyone else. But actually all our systems around safeguarding are about going and speaking to an adult. We don’t think about the protective capacity that peers could bring in these situations’ (45:53-46:16).


Key solutions: sharing stories


Jeremy kindly relayed his own experience of grooming as a child, noting how his story has motivated him to share with others, so they too can speak up and change the culture and education around the topic. ‘The conversation is mirrored into the physical world as well when it comes to grooming and young people in the vulnerable stages of life that they are [in] being taken advantage of. I have lived experience of this; I was 8 years old, it was 1993, so a completely different era. But [with grooming …] there’s a huge lack of understanding within the public about this. [...] People think that all grooming [...] is a very thought-out plan, very organised crime, which I’m sure it is in many cases. But I also think it’s about people throwing out bait and seeing who bites’ (35:50-36:58). He continued: ‘The man was 25 years old, he was a nurse, and a very honourable man in society from the outside. And he took a liking to me, and managed to trick me and manipulate me into sexual activity. It lasted two years, and I never said a thing to anyone until I was 27 years old. [...] and now I speak out about it, trying to get these conversations out there, trying to let people know that if they want to talk about it, it’s okay, it wasn’t their fault, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, you were a kid. [...] That’s hopefully a nice introduction to the conversation’ (37:53-38:39).


Kim thanked Jeremy for sharing his story, and added: ‘It changed my life actually realising I’d carried shame all my life, and I think having these conversations can really, really, really help, and going back to that word, empower: empower everybody’ (39:20-35).


Key solutions: supporting victims on their own terms, and at their own pace


Marianne noted the complexity of the problems means that ‘Not all victims, particularly in teenage years [...], will not see themselves as victims at all for a very, very long time. So that’s a challenge as well, helping the victim see what’s happening to them maybe isn’t a good thing’ (47:01-19).


Jeremy, using his own experiences, agreed that children are not always immediately ready to speak out about abuse that’s happening to them, and that sometimes it takes until adulthood for survivors to be receptive to support. ‘It needs to be at the person’s pace [...] People will come forward when it’s their time to come forward’ (48:26-40). It is important not to coerce children into receiving support, but let them come forward by building positive and trusting relationships with them.


Lastly, Marianne wanted to remind anyone listening (or reading): ‘Support is absolutely out there. [...] Confidential support is out there if you don’t want to report and escalate, and also if you feel this is happening to a friend, support is out there for you as well. It’s quite a hard thing to support somebody with’ (46:40-47:00).


Key issues: stereotypes of an abuser


Stuart expressed how urban myths about the type of people who present a threat to children remain pervasive in our society, and that these stereotypes can prevent children coming forward, either because they are dismissed or disbelieved, or the children themselves do not recognise what is happening to them is abuse. He explained that ‘There’s often an image presented in the media of a lonely, isolated guy sitting in his room on his own, in his 40s or 50s, on a laptop and grooming children. The first thing to say is that in terms of the people we work with at Stop It Now Scotland, who have been involved in online solicitation of children, people come from a wide range of backgrounds and a wide range of ages. And indeed, many of the people we work with are married or in relationships; many of them have children themselves. Sometimes they present a significant risk to their own children, sometimes they don’t. The main trajectory we see into the behaviour is people saying to us that they’ve been involved in large amounts of cyber sex behaviour generally, and they have gravitated towards interactions with teenagers, often because they found teenagers most suggestible and more able to do the things that they wanted’ (7:18-8:31).


The data also suggests that there are a lot of young people and young adults involved in solicitation. According to Scottish Government data, the average age of the victims is 14, and the average age of the perpetrator is 18 (~9:16). Building on Marianne’s point about ‘stranger danger’, Stuart similarly noted that this messaging is redundant in many scenarios where the perpetrator knows their victim, which is often the case with younger perpetrators who know their victim from school or youth settings. (~9:50).


What this young age means, however, is that intervention and support can be extremely effective, which leads us to our next key solution.


Key solutions: helping perpetrators and potential perpetrators to prevent future abuse


Stuart, who works with perpetrators, was the first to suggest this solution. He eloquently stated that: ‘I don’t think it’s responsibility of children to stop themselves being sexually abused. I think it’s the responsibility of adults, and it’s the responsibility of adults who present a risk of harm to kids to make safer choices and for us to get the right messaging out to them. And it’s the responsibility of those who are already protected to be better protectors’ (41:47-42:10). Stuart mentioned, for instance, that the calls Stop It Now receive on helpline include perpetrators asking for advice, but that many calls consist of concerned parents. ‘We get loads of calls that come in from parents, for instance, who have questions like: “my uncle is playing with my 3-year-old daughter in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, and he’s started telling some jokes about how my 3-year-old daughter is his new sexy girlfriend; what should I do about that?” And we need to get better at helping people have those conversations and think about protective actions [...] through public education and recognising that this is a public health issue’ (42:17-55).


Jeremy agreed: ‘We probably should have also talked about how we’re going to educate children on how to not commit these crimes as well, because if you take a school of children, at least one of those children are going to grow up to be somebody who will commit a crime of a sexual nature. [...] Are we going to talk to children about how to avoid committing a crime of a sexual nature, and why you shouldn’t commit a crime of a sexual nature. And then of course, are we going to work with or support [...] the people who are looking for help who feel like they’re going to commit a crime of sexual nature and the needs and support in not doing so’ (43:15-44:08). How best to approach this issue would likely require another panel to fully discuss, but the idea is to prevent future abuse by helping - rather than demonising - those who present a threat to children.


Conclusions


The panel’s advice of radical empathy - towards those vulnerable to online grooming as well as perpetrators - paves a path towards prevention of child sexual abuse. In our increasingly digitised world, there is only so much parents can do to exclude children from online spaces, and the reality is that exclusion, banning access, and punishment by taking devices only isolates children further and makes them more vulnerable to grooming. Furthermore, children and young people can actually have fruitful and healthy relationships online through gaming and social media. As such, it is far better to foster those relationships, teach consent, and have a warm, open relationship so that children recognise when something is wrong and are comfortable to come forward with concerns. New channels of education and information - including how peers can support each other - present innovative solutions to helping children come forward as well.


Challenging stereotypes of what an abuser looks like is another step towards prevention, as we begin to recognise that young people in actuality make up a large proportion of those who present a harm to children. Offering them the support they need to make better decisions, where possible, should be prioritised, rather than waiting for them to commit the offence and punishing them for it.


Thank you to our panel for their critical insights into how to best navigate online safety in our rapidly changing world. Please tune in next month for our panel on LGBTQIA+ rights and safety, as we continue to explore progressive approaches to keeping everyone safe.


Resources mentioned:


Jeremy’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCeM5j3x68j8gq3MHPSLzjmQ


Stop It Now website: https://www.stopitnow.org.uk/


Upstream: https://www.stopitnow.org.uk/scotland/upstream-online-resource/


NSPCC’s Pantosaurus resource: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/support-for-parents/pants-underwear-rule/



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