by Annabel Turner, Lawyer and Expert in Online Child Sexual Exploitation

This morning’s Victoria Derbyshire programme features another story about grooming through Roblox. Rather than parents feeling overwhelmed the story we can use this story to understand an important aspect of online sexual exploitation.

The story is about Sarah’s son. We know he is under 12, we know that he has relatively involved parents – because they had already set parental controls on the app. Turning the controls on meant that he could not send messages on the platform. But it did not stop others contacting him within the game and moving him to another app where he and they could send messages.

This practice of moving children from a space with some moderation to a closed space is key for those targeting children online. We see it continually repeating in grooming cases. It is the modern day equivalent of someone offering a child some sweets to get into a car. Increasingly the groomer need to move the child to a space where they can build control of them and where others are less likely to watch.

Parents need to speak to their children explicitly about this aspect of online behaviour and about never moving to a different game or platform unthinkingly when asked. Anyone with a child will know the speed at which they organically move between apps when they are playing. We have to cause them to recognise the difference between their moving quickly around apps and someone asking or encouraging them to move. They need to know not to move and they need to know, if they are asked to move to come and talk to you or a responsible adult immediately. Parents and children need to fully understand that adults targeting children online are never targeting only one child and so behaviour has to be reported at the earliest opportunity. In this way, as a community, we can protect vulnerable children who have no one to talk to at home.

If your child is asked to move within a game they need to know 1) not to move if they don't know the person asking them to move in real life, 2) as a matter of caution to talk to you so you can help them report it to the app at that point, and 3) to block the user who has asked them to move.

The story should also heighten parents’ awareness of behavioural changes as an indicator of online child sexual abuse. Sarah discovered the grooming because she noticed a change in her son’s behaviour and she checked the app and the other platforms he was on. Behavioural changes are a hugely important indicator of abuse and we need to be increasingly alert to digital roots of those changes.

You can read Sarah's story here

The government has today released its advice for parents and carers around screen time use. This advice is important because it was asked for by parents and carers (and others!). The report was written by the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (Dr Sally Davies – England, Dr Cath Calderwood – Scotland, Dr Frank Atherton - Wales and Dr Michael Mcbride – Northern Ireland).

I’ve written a summary of the advice to help you understand the true substance of it behind the hype of any headlines you may have seen today. It all boils down to 2 key recommendations (see below).

The report recognizes that the internet and social media can be a force for good in our society, enabling social contact and facilitating the delivery of advice and education. However, there is growing concern about the amount of time children are spending on screens and the mental health impact of that time. There is also concern about exposure to inappropriate and harmful content.

The report recognizes that an association has been seen between those who engage in screen-based activities more frequently and/or over longer periods, and mental health problems. Because of other possible influencing factors it cannot be clear that the screen-based activities are the cause of those problems. however there is a sufficient link for the CMOs to encourage parental caution and the CMOs can be clear that some content being viewed by children online is very harmful.

Therefore the CMOs recommend:

1.Parents adhere to the social media companies’ own age restriction of 13 for accessing social media (note under GDPR 13 a child in the UK cannot give legal consent to joining social media)

2. That extensive existing research about diet, physical activity, quality family time and sleep – which are all strongly associated with healthy development should lead parents’ understanding when developing habits which are important to their family.

These are all summarized in a helpful graphic.

The report notes that young people have repeatedly reported their worries about their parents’ screen use and want them to engage with them, and so adults can lead by example through not using screens excessively in front of children and behaving online as they would in person.

The CMOs also commend the discussion questions for families produced by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to help them make decisions about their screen use:

• Is your family’s screen time under control?

• Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?

• Does screen use interfere with sleep?

• Are you able to control snacking during screen time?


Updated: Nov 15, 2019

It is important that parents and guardians know what sites present the most risks to children in their geographical area at any time. Parents often tell us that they feel disconnected from their children’s online world because they don’t know how to help and there are too many risks for anything they do to make much of a difference. They tell us that they see headlines about things that have happened to children online but those headlines seem overwhelming and other-wordly – things that they hope won’t happen to their own children.

It is only by making simple information available about sites on which children are being most targeted in different areas of Scotland that we can help children and parents to take simple actions which will make a huge difference to their overall safety online. For example, through knowing that 50% of children aged 9 – 13 in Aberdeen who use social media have their profile settings set to public we can help parents in Aberdeen specifically respond to this risk.

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