NSPCC Childline’s service manager in Foyle has said that reports of sexual predators grooming children and young people online were on the increase.
Georgina McGlinchey was speaking after figures published by Childline this week showed that in their Derry and Belfast bases alone, more than 150 counselling sessions on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) had been delivered last year.
The number of calls to the two centres involving children and teenagers worried about CSE has jumped, with most being targeted via the internet.
CSE involves manipulating young people into sexual activity in exchange for gifts, money or affection and can include online and offline grooming, trafficking, sexual harassment and engaging in online sexually explicit activities or images.
Georgina said: “There has been a 33 per cent increase in Northern Ireland alone.
“It is mainly online grooming that is happening. It is children aged from 11 upwards being targeted and most of them would be aged 12 to 15 years old.
“In many cases these perpetrators are able to access devices and portray themselves as 12 to 14 years old males or females. They are going to hide who they are, hide their true identity, until that point when that young person thinks they are in a relationship with this person. The victim then thinking, ‘this person loves me. They are going to buy me this and that when we meet up’.”
Georgina said that the perpetrators often preyed on vulnerable young people and try to create emotional bonds with them. The young people may then, in turn, hide the fact they are having this interaction online.
“Often they will not speak out straight away. They don’t see themselves as being a victim and believe their abuser is their boyfriend or girlfriend and that they love them,” Georgina added.
“It is really difficult to see the full scale of this because of the fact these children might not want to see anybody get into trouble.
“They might be targeting vulnerable children and increasing their dependency on them; but it can happen to any child or young person.”
Georgina added that it was important parents and guardians are aware of potential signs that a child could be a victim of grooming, which included being very secretive, going to unusual places, using new phones and unexplained gifts plus changes in behaviour.
“It is all about safety as well and educating children and young people,” she said.
The effect of grooming, includes children experiencing isolation from family and friends and being robbed of their childhood.
“It’s important to let them know there is support out there and there is a way out of it,” she maintains.
Local volunteers at the NSPCC Childline bases in Belfast and Foyle delivered a total of 154 counselling sessions to young people worried about CSE in 2016/17 – up from 80 in 2015/16.
Across all of the 12 Childline bases in the UK, the NSPCC service delivered 3,122 counselling sessions to young people concerned about CSE in 2016/17 – an average of eight per day – and up from 2,340 in 2015/16.
One girl told Childline: “I was playing a game online and started talking to someone who asked me to send them rude pictures.
“They said they were my age and after talking for a while, I sent them some pictures, but now they’re blackmailing me and threatening to show everyone if I don’t carry on. I feel really stupid and I’m scared about what will happen, what should I do?”
The NSPCC run direct services such as ‘Protect and Respect’ which works with young children at risk of sexual exploitation to help keep them safe.
Children can contact Childline, which is based in The Exchange House, close to the Guildhall, 24 hours a day. The number to ring is 0800 1111 and calls are free and in confidence.
Alternatively, children can also visit www.childline.org.uk
The free NSPCC helpline, meanwhile, provides adults with a place they can get advice and support; share their concerns about a child or get general information about child protection.
Adults can contact the helpline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on 0808 800 5000, by texting 88858 or visiting www.nspcc.org.uk
Any adults concerned about how to set up parental controls, adjust privacy settings or looking to get advice on social networks, can speak to experts from the O2 & NSPCC by calling 0808 8005002.