Children’s internet safety: A father’s story

Susan spent a lot of time in her room but there were few signs anything was amiss. Picture: Esme Allen
Susan spent a lot of time in her room but there were few signs anything was amiss. Picture: Esme Allen
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His 14-year-old daughter was groomed by an online predator. Now Susan’s father is to tell his family’s story at an internet safety conference in Perth today as a warning to others, hears Dani Garavelli

By the time a teacher at *Susan Taylor’s school contacted her parents to tell them their 14-year-old daughter had been sexually groomed by an online predator, she had spent thousands of hours communicating with him though the internet and mobile phone. Over a year, what started out as innocent chit-chat on Windows Messenger with a group of three girls had developed into highly sexualised exchanges. The boy, who was 19 and lived in England, had exposed himself to her and put pressure on her to do the same for him, although she refused. The pair had even arranged to meet while she was on a school trip but, thankfully, he didn’t turn up.

Then one day, frustrated she would not co-operate with his requests, he upset her by phoning her in the playground and verbally abusing her and a friend; teachers intervened and seized her phone and the police were called. Eventually, after a complex cross-Border investigation, the man was brought to Scotland and charged. He was jailed for ten months and placed on the sexual offenders’ register, but the power games he played with his victim have had an enduring impact on her whole family.

“One of the hardest thing for my wife and I to deal with is that we have never heard a full account of what went on,” says Susan’s father, David*. “When the police interviewed her, they asked her if she wanted us present and she said she thought it would be too upsetting, and then he pleaded guilty so the full evidence wasn’t read out in court. The result is that, though we know our daughter was the worst affected of the three girls, we will probably never know exactly what she went through.”

Also distressing was the fact that, as far as Susan was concerned, she was in love with her online abuser. Even after she recognised what was being done to her was wrong, she wanted to speak to him, to make sure he was OK. One day, David found a pile of old mobile phones and SIM cards hidden under her bed, testimony to her desperate attempts to keep in touch.

“You have to think back to when you were a teenager and you fell in love and how strong that was,” David says. “If you’re a teenage girl who is a bit lacking in confidence anyway and a guy comes along and says ‘you’re fantastic’ it really gets under your skin. So she was glad it came out, she was the one who blew the whistle, but we then had weeks of her worrying about him, having sort of withdrawal symptoms from the relationship. In the house, you’ve got a situation where you feel angry; you want to say, ‘How could you be so stupid?’, but you can’t, because you know that kind of anger won’t help.”

David still finds it difficult to talk about the trauma of those first few weeks – the fear that he’d somehow failed his family, the hurt that his daughter trusted her abuser more. Yet, he is so keen to warn other parents about the dangers of internet grooming, he has agreed to speak at a conference on internet safety being run by Perth and Kinross Council today.

Such is the concern over children’s behaviour online, more than 500 parents and professionals have already registered for the event, Getting it Right, Keeping Them Safe, which is being held for the second year running, and will include speakers from Tayside Police, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the Women’s Support Project.

David, who says his family have always been close, hopes to point out that online grooming does not only affect those young people who would be considered “vulnerable” and that those who groom do not always fit the stereotype of the socially inadequate loner (the man who groomed Susan was employed and in a relationship).

In his family’s case, there were few outward signs of what was going on, other than that she spent a lot of time in her room and her schoolwork deteriorated.

Yet, as time went on, Susan was being put under enormous pressure to behave in a sexual manner. “You put locks on your windows and doors, yet you can’t stop these people getting in,” David says. “As a father you feel as if you’ve failed, that you haven’t been able to protect your family the way you meant to.”

Det Insp Graham Binnie, of Tayside Police, says officers are fielding more calls than they used to about worrying online behaviour. The first challenge is distinguishing which cases cross the line from being merely inappropriate to being criminal. But even when, as in Susan’s case, it is clear an offence has been committed, it is not always easy to investigate, particularly where the offender has used a false identity and is based outside the country.

“A lot of internet providers are not based in the UK either,” DI Binnie says. “The difficulty for the investigator is securing potential evidence from places which are not bound by Scots or UK law. Thankfully, a lot of criminals are not as sophisticated as they might be, but if they use all the technology that’s available to them, they may be a step ahead of the law which is why we have to do our best to get in early doors and help kids identify them.”

Also speaking at the conference is Linda Thompson, national development officer with the Women’s Support Project, who will focus on the problem of the increasingly sexualised behaviour that goes on within peer groups.

“I’m asking parents to take a step back and look at the increasing pressure on both boys and girls to adopt highly sexualised behaviour, especially online, because it’s such a sexualised environment,” she says. In particular, Thompson is concerned about the practice of girls posting “naked selfies”– images of themselves naked – on photo-sharing sites such as Tumblr and Snapchat. For boys, collecting nude photographs of girls in their year group or their local area brings status, while girls are made to feel as if there’s something wrong with them if they don’t comply. “There was a really interesting study done by the Girl Guides a few years ago which showed that the less self-confidence girls had the more they were likely to amplify their sexiness.”

Thompson is aware how difficult it is to control teenagers’ internet use now they can access it out of the house on their 3G or 4G phones, but she insists it’s time to redraw the boundaries. “This is not about parents not trusting their kids, its about them realising they have given advertisers, retailers and big businesses direct access to their children – and giving them the skills and the power to start pushing back and regaining control.”

All of those involved believe the key to online safety is starting the conversation early. “I am not about preventing young people from growing up and wrapping them in cotton wool. I think we’re way past that stage,” says Thompson. “But how can children navigate a path through everything they are exposed to when adults don’t know what to do with it all? We need to start talking to our children about the concept of respect, about the concept of public and private; it’s about saying to them, ‘You don’t share that with people; you keep it for yourself.’”

David’s daughter received counselling from Victim Support and is now doing well in further education. His biggest fear, provoked in part by the fact it was by no means clear the man who groomed his daughter would be jailed, is that if online abuse keeps growing it will so overwhelm the authorities, only the very worst cases will reach the courts. He says: “I fear the scale of this is becoming so huge, the police are going to struggle to deal with it – and the danger then is that the goalposts move and what’s defined as sexual predation becomes something really serious because that’s all the cases they can deal with. But behaviour like this is hugely damaging and must never become normalised. We have to make it clear that it is never acceptable.”

• Getting It Right, Keeping Them Safe will be held at the Perth Playhouse Cinema today, with sessions from 9.30am to 11.30am, 1pm to 3pm and 5.30pm to 7.30pm.

* Susan Taylor’s name and that of her father, David, have been changed to protect the victim’s identity.