A NI mum has spoken out after her two children fell victim to online sexual abuse.
The abuser targeted the youngsters through Snapchat.
On Safer Internet Day, today, February 6, the PSNI and the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) is raising awareness of the dangers for children online.
Zoe (not her real name), is the parent of two children from Northern Ireland who were victims of online sexual abuse at the hands of someone they had met online.
Publicly warning other parents, Zoe said: “It’s been really tough. You never think something like this will ever happen to your children.
“I had no idea what was going on until the police contacted me saying they had evidence to believe my children had been groomed online by someone they had met on Snapchat, who was pretending to be a child around the same age as them.
“As a parent, hearing that was devastating. Totally earth shattering. You don’t see this happening at the time, you don’t pick up on the warning signs and at that time my children also didn’t understand that they had been victims of crime.
“It’s had a huge impact on our family. I continue to grieve the life they could have had, had they not went through this and their innocence taken from them.
“Looking back, there were changes in their behaviour. They became more withdrawn and secretive. This is something I wish I had addressed and asked more questions about. I would urge other parents out there to not be afraid to have open and transparent conversations with their children to warn them that not everybody online is who they say they are.”
Sadly, online sexual offences against children are becoming an increasing crime type in Northern Ireland.
There were 2,300 sexual offences against children recorded in 2023, 200 of which relate to grooming and sexual communication with a child.
848 offences relating to taking, possessing, sharing or publishing indecent images of children were reported in 2023, a 40.6% increase on 2022.
Detective Chief Superintendent Lindsay Fisher from the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch said: “Often groomers hide their identity online and may pretend to be the same age as a child. They may use fake profile pictures, pretending to have similar interests and offering gifts to gain the trust of the child before steering the conversation to a sexual nature.
“Once trust in established, a groomer may use power and control to make, force, blackmail, guilt or trick a child into doing what the groomer wants. They may persuade a child to take part in online sexual activity including sharing explicit images and videos and live-streaming sexual acts.”
Recognising the signs of online grooming can be hard as often child predators are incredibly manipulative and tell children not to talk to anyone about it. Sometimes children don’t realise they’ve been groomed and may believe they are in a ‘relationship’.
Signs a child may be being groomed include:
– sudden changes in behaviour, such as spending more or less time online
– spending more time away or going missing from home or school
– being secretive about how they’re spending their time, including online
– having unexplained gifts, big or small
– misusing alcohol and/or drugs
– having a friendship or relationship with a much older person
– developing sexual health problems
– using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know
– seeming upset, worried, sad, withdrawn, angry, stressed, anxious or depressed
Online grooming can happen on social media and messaging apps, dating sites, chat rooms or via online games.
The police and SBNI have today began a new social media campaign aimed at young people and families to raise awareness about online dangers and reporting pathways.
The messaging aims to help them understand some of the dangers that children may encounter online and encourages the public to report incidents to the police and signposts to local sources of support.
Independent Chair of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, Bernie McNally said: “Some young people might feel embarrassed or nervous about speaking out about what has happened to them. Through this latest campaign, we want them and those who care for them to know that they aren’t alone, that they will be listened to and crucially, that support is available.”
These latest figures provide an important insight to the local picture and help us to understand the scale of the problem that children are experiencing and that police and safeguarding agencies are responding to. The rise in recorded offences may reflect an increased willingness and confidence from the public to report child abuse and we hope that continues.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Lindsay Fisher continued: “It is a crime for anyone to possess, make, distribute or show anyone an indecent image of a child under 18 years of age. This offence can be committed by an adult or a child. It is also a crime for an adult to send a sexually explicit image of themselves to a child.
“We have specialist detectives within the Child Internet Protection Team who are dedicated to robustly investigating those who contribute to the cycle of child abuse and bringing those responsible before the courts. We use specialist technology to detect digital devices and trace any digital interaction right back to the persons front door, making it difficult for offenders to hide evidence from us.
“If a person is downloading, viewing or making indecent images of children, you are leaving a digital footprint and we are actively looking for you. I would encourage anyone with concerns or information to get in contact us on 101 or 999 in an emergency.”
The Child Internet Protection Team are the busiest they have ever been since their inception in 2010. In 2023, 468 searches were carried out relating to tens of thousands of indecent images of children and thousands of devices were seized. As a result of these searches, they made 86 arrests.