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 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-48450604