Bullying, racism and sexual advances – these are just some of the shocking topics children as young as nine are being exposed to online.
The Yorkshire Evening Post made the alarming discovery when it posed as an under-aged girl on a children’s chatroom.
In the last of our Child Friendly Leeds digital week series the undercover sting uncovers the risks children are facing when they log on to chat sites.
Child protection experts claim predators are using social networking sites to groom children and it is too “easy” for them to hide their real identities from their victims.
Reporter Laura Bowyer went undercover to find out more:
My name is Lou, I’m 13 years old and I am desperate to be Mrs Harry Styles.
This was my profile when I signed up to an internet chatroom especially for children - little do they realise I am in fact more than double my “online” age and I’m a reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post.
Within one day I had nearly 30 complete strangers request my friendship and I hadn’t even posted a single message.
Just minutes after logging on to the chatroom, which was suitable for nine to 17 year olds, users were discussing terrorism and typed racist language.
One user asked members how old they were and then after engaging in public conversation they were asked to add their new “friend” on Facebook.
Another user posted: “Any girl wanna chat just add me” and another user was called “fat”, “dumb” and “ugly”.
The most shocking incident was a user, who had billed himself as being a 16-year-old boy, asked if any “under age” girls wanted to message him on a webcam.
The same person also requested to be my friend.
I also observed a girl naïvely ask the entire chatroom if any of them was her friend who had signed up for an account earlier that day - leaving herself open to being approached by absolutely anyone.
Child protection experts in Leeds told me parents would be “surprised” to see what happens on websites like these.
Taylor Austin-Little from Genesis told me: “It is so easy to be false online.
“Some people target particular websites such as self-harming forums because they know there are really vulnerable young people out there experiencing some social or emotional problems.
“Young people say they feel a more confident online than in the offline world but they are the first generation of users to this online life. They are used to having online friends.
“Perpetrators have instant access to young people.
“They can build up very strong relationships because young people are so trusting online and people can be pretending to be someone else.”
And Taylor said websites, such as the one I visited, have a duty of care to protect but she warned predators can easily avoid moderation.
She added: “If you get blocked on a website it is very easy to create a new email and log in again.
“It is very difficult to moderate these sites and that is why so many people are being groomed.
“It is a massive challenge and I think parents and carers should get online themselves and ask young people how they use the internet and show us what is happening.
“It’s important not to put your head in the sand.”
READERS HAVE THEIR SAY
Yorkshire Evening Post readers share their thoughts about the digital lives of children.
We asked them how old children should be to own a mobile phone, how do they monitor children on the internet and what their top safety tips are.
Here is what they had to say:
Stephen Morton: 14 you don’t accidently buy apps.You have to accept there terms so it is not a accident to click on yes.
Karen Bradley: When a child goes out with friends without you. So I’d say about 10. My own children have had them since they were 10 and had they ever since.
@muz500: Very simple: never leave them unattended when they’re online. They must be in the same room as an adult.
Peter Mitchell: I didn’t get one till I was 15 and that’s the acceptable age to have one.
Michele Hall: I was against getting my son one until he was at least 12 , but because he is now in middle school and walks there and back he needed one for safety and so I can get gold of him if he had to meet me after school rather than going home ... He’s nearly 10 !
David Watson: When our boys use the tablet the net is deactivated, and there are no live payment accounts even if they did manage to get online.
@Donnidale: Don’t give them access to the net. Problem sorted.
Babs Hind: If a parent let’s a child have a profile on FB or wherever at such a young age it speaks volumes about the parent.
Rachey Pea Mcgee: Too often FB is used for sharing vile images of child and animal abuse and bullying. Kids don’t need to see that sort of thing online. It’s bad enough seeing is as an adult when some div shares it on their timeline.
rls82: However it is quite sad that children no longer feel comfortable to speak to their parents and that parents aren’t monitoring this like they should. It won’t be stopped as it can’t. Even if sites remove these bullies, they’ll just set up a new account in a different name. It’s as easy as that really.
rantingron: Don’t children talk to their parents? Don’t parents talk to their children? One of the benefits of a strong family is the support and protection it offers.
kir20: People really do need to learn to protect themselves more on the Internet.
WHO TO CONTACT OVER ONLINE SAFETY ISSUES
CEOP: Information for children, adults or teachers on staying safe on the internet
NSPCC: 0808 800 5000, email email@example.com
West Yorkshire Police on 101
Internet Watch Foundation
ChildLine on 0800 11 11