A Yorkshire father is encouraging parents to talk more with their children about online safety after his son attempted suicide in the wake of online abuse.
Carl and his son Ben, whose names have been changed to protect their anonymity, are sharing their story as part of the NSPCC and West Yorkshire Police’s campaign on Tuesday for Safer Internet Day.
Ben was tricked on Facebook into thinking he was speaking to a female friend of a friend. After three weeks of chatting, this person revealed himself to be a man.
Using threats and blackmail, Ben was coerced into sending sexual images and performing sex acts on Skype.
The images and videos were shared with five other men who bombarded Ben with further demands.
Ben felt trapped and was too frightened to tell anyone what was going on. After two years of meeting the demands of his abusers, he attempted to take his own life.
He said: “One day I came home from football training and went straight to my room.
“I decided to take some tablets to try and end my life so I didn’t have to deal with what was happening.
“Maybe it was a cry for help. I just told my mum that I wasn’t enjoying school. I still didn’t tell anyone what was happening.”
A week after the suicide attempt, Carl was called into Ben’s school after a fellow pupil had complained about some photos Ben had on his laptop.
“The police took his laptop away to look at it,” he said.
“A few days later, Ben and I were called to the police station... They asked me if I knew what was going on, and I was really confused. That’s when it all came out and our lives changed forever.”
Ben’s abuser was jailed for four and a half years but his actions have had a lasting impact on the entire family.
Ben explained: “We won’t ever be able to forget what he’s done to us as a family. Anxiety has played a major part ever since.
"I couldn’t leave the house for ages and still feel sick when I go outside – but that just feels normal now. It feels normal to always feel like I’m going to be sick.”
Carl and his wife have also been affected. Carl explained: "It’s been devastating. Rachel and I have both had counselling and I have to take anti-depressants to cope with how I feel.
"Depression has really affected me. Every second I’m awake, I’m thinking about it.
"The damage he’s done to us mentally doesn’t just go away once they go to prison. I’m constantly thinking about it, and what he did.
"I’m always anxious, I’m always looking over my shoulder. We used to love life and go out all the time. But now I don’t want to have fun - I rarely go out - I just go to work and come straight home.
"I just want to be near my kids in case something happens. I’m just waiting for something to happen."
Carl wants to warn others to prevent more families from suffering in the same way.
He said: “In the same way that you would ask about ‘real life’ friends, ask about online friends, too.
"Have an open dialogue about their online activity and ask questions about the platforms they are using. Parents need to understand how they work.”
The NSPCC and West Yorkshire Police are urging parents across the county to take just five minutes to have an online safety chat with their children to mark Safer Internet Day on Tuesday.
Helen Westerman, the NSPCC’s campaign’s manager said: “The messaging behind the Your Child campaign is very simple but really can help protect our children in their online worlds.
"The key is to talk openly and regularly, be positive, but also be open about any concerns so that they have the confidence to talk to you or a trusted adult if they come across something that is not age appropriate or unsettling.”
Assistant Chief Constable Catherine Hankinson of West Yorkshire Police, said: “We support Safer Internet Day every year and it is a great opportunity to launch this important campaign – it would be great if parents and guardians could have a discussion with their children about online activity in support of the campaign as it could help them to remain safe.
“Children should tell their parents if someone does try to talk to or befriend them online that they do not know. It’s so important to talk and encourage that approach.”
“Every parent or guardian would want their children to enjoy the benefits that online activity can hold, so the campaign is just to encourage those discussions that could help in protecting young people while they use the internet in a positive manner.
“The Force has produced a quick animation to help spread the message and we will regularly be updating our social media accounts as the campaign continues."