It only takes minutes for a child to be contacted by an online predator so it's crucial that we take more proactive steps in bringing online child sexual offenders to justice argues Sinéad McDonough
While our modern lives have become easier thanks to the internet, it too has become a playground for those who prowl online waiting to engage with vulnerable children.
My research is indicative of how rapidly these repulsive interactions take place and highlights a blatant reality — it only takes minutes for children to be contacted by adults in chat rooms and via social messaging apps.
My analysis of online chat room conversations has highlighted how many messages being sent to minors are immensely sexually explicit in content. When a child begins chatting online, they are quickly asked for information.
Should the child proceed to reply, they hand over a wealth of information and it’s not long before the conversation becomes lewd.
Offenders trick children by pretending they want to be their friend and by lying about their true age.
It is also very common that early on in an online conversation a child is asked if they have a webcam, if they do video call, or if they use other sites and apps.
Unfortunately, children can be contacted via multiple online platforms — email, social networking sites, social networking apps, photo sharing sites, and online gaming sites.
So what can we do in Ireland to protect our children from online deviants? I believe parents, educators, law enforcement, and our Government have a collaborative role to play.
Parents and educators must continue to teach children about the dangers pertaining to the virtual world. Though it can be difficult for parents to keep up to speed with their children’s technological obsessions, they must keep reminding children of the importance of online safety.
We must keep reminding children that they should not accept strangers as online “friends” and “followers” on social media platforms.
Parents can also monitor privacy settings, and advise around live streaming and location sharing.
Though our children often look confident when they are interacting with others online, this confidence is combined with vulnerabilities. We need to remember that younger children in particular do not have the ability to recognise fake profiles online.
My work includes educating children aged between eight and 18 years in schools on online safety and cyber-bullying. I am very often struck by what children will disclose to me.
For example, many children have openly told me that their parents are unaware of the forums they are accessing online and have admitted that they would not disclose having been approached by an adult online for fear their device would be taken from them.
Another fast growing problem for young people is live streaming. Some predators will record and store live streams for viewing at a later time. Quite easily, children can also become the victim of a crime known as “sextortion”.
In this situation children are forced into producing sexual content, often by people they have met online, the child is then blackmailed with the threat of publication of these images.
Sadly the problem with online deviants engaging with our children is not going to disappear and we must take further preventative measures to safeguard children.
I am aware that monitoring and protecting children online is expensive in a quick paced changing virtual environment.
However, as someone who is committed to the protection of children online, I believe the Government needs to take further action in resourcing and funding units where trained sex-offender tracking teams can work in
a controlled environment to monitor online sexual offenders.
The longterm value of the protecting of our most vulnerable should be worthy of such funding.
- Sinéad Mc Donough holds a PhD in Applied Forensic Psychology and specialises in the risk assessment of those who commit sexual offences against children. firstname.lastname@example.org