Digital technology opens up a whole new world - but top child protection experts in Leeds have warned youngsters are at greater risk than ever before of being targeted online by bullies and predators.
Nearly half of children aged 11 and 12 have a profile on social networking websites – despite most imposing an age restriction of 13.
Childline has reported a staggering 87 per cent increase in contacts from children saying they have become victims of cyber-bullying.
Police told the YEP that social networking websites have made it easier for children to be contacted.
Det Insp Lawrence Bone said: “Ready access to the internet does form a way for these offences to be perpetrated and contact to be made but 10 to 15 years ago that couldn’t have happened.
“Children can be in their bedroom and still talk to someone they don’t want to talk to.”
Det Insp Chris Gibson added: “If you wanted to talk to a child you would have to have been in an area such as a playground, whereas now you have got social networking sites.
“There are far more opportunities for anyone who wants to commit that type of crime to target young people.”
Young people have told ChildLine that the 24-hour nature of online bullying means there’s no escape.
Dr Nick Sutcliffe from Leeds Metropolitan University, said: “There certainly appears to have been an increase in cyber-bullying in recent years as new forms of social media become more popular and the hardware has become increasingly accessible to children. One of the real challenges for parents and carers is that unlike them, their children have grown up using sophisticated technology and so are often ‘digital natives’ whereas the adults who care for them are often playing catch-up.
“It’s also important to retain a sense of perspective in that of the millions of children in the UK use the internet on a daily basis and of these the vast majority have safe and happy experiences.
“Unfortunately there are also children who may be particularly vulnerable and open to exploitation.”
Parents are being urged to have “awkward” conversations in order to help keep their children safe.
Dr Sutcliffe added: “Responsible parents would never allow an adult stranger unsupervised access to their child within their own home and yet the rapid growth in the use of computers, smartphones and games consoles and the prevalence of private cyber spaces, such as internet chat rooms and social media, has made this a real possibility for many households, particularly those where parents and carers are unaware of such issues or do not take adequate steps to protect their children from these potential dangers.”
Police say the internet can also play a vital role in helping to catch criminals. DI Bone said: “People leave a footprint on the internet chat and there are methods we have of being able to trace back conversations.”
> See tomorrow’s YEP for top tips from experts about how to keep your children safe online.
An anonymous teenage victim of cyber-bullying gives her account:
“A boy who used to go to my school added me as a contact on MSN after he left.
“I thought maybe he wanted to catch up on news from his old school so I accepted him.
“At first it was fine, but then out of the blue he turned on me.
“He started saying really nasty things about me and about my family.
“The first time it happened I just logged off, but it kept happening.
“He’d say horrible things about how I looked and he’d say that being ginger is a disability.
“He called me fat and ugly, and I really started to take it to heart.
“He said I should want to kill myself. I didn’t talk to my family as the things he was saying were so hurtful.
“He said my parents should commit suicide for having a daughter like me, and he was abusive about my brother because he’s gay.
“My friends were shocked. I think one of them challenged him over MSN and he blamed me.
“I logged back on and he showed me these red marks on his neck over the webcam, and said he’d tried to hang himself because of what I’d said about him.
“Then I started to feel like it was all my fault.
“I brought it to an end by permanently blocking him and I found out he was creeping on Facebook to find out about me, so I changed my settings.
“I just wish that I’d cut him off straight away and not let him get to me.”
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
HOW IMPORTANT IS DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY TO YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN?
This week the YEP is looking at the digital lives of children in Leeds.
We want children, parents, carers and teachers to tell us a little bit more about how they consume technology. Can you go the day without any form of technology?
How much of a role does technology play in your lives?
Do you find your children tell you everything you need to know about how to use the computer?
And what are your top tips for children in Leeds about how to stay safe online?
Tell us your thoughts at www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk.
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