“and don’t be talking to any strangers”, my mum would regularly say to me growing up, “Yes I know” I would yell back at her, exhausted at forever being told the same thing.
Yet here I am today, repeating the same to my kids – the single difference being they aren’t leaving the house when I tell them! This stranger is right here in our house, more so in our children’s bedrooms – in the form of the internet and social media platforms.
As a parent it’s difficult to know if all the nagging (my kid’s words) and repetitive talks on internet safety ever really sink in. Groans of “yes we know Mum”, “you don’t need to keep telling me” are often heard, when I am, as the kids say, on one!
Would they tell us if anything untoward happened? It’s a worry. We later found out, that yes, our eldest did tell us. While there are positives to social media, there are also negatives. When speaking to my kids about the dangers, I don’t sugar coat any of it. Awareness is better than ignorance.
Knowing the majority of their online chats will be with their friends, there is always the chance that someone, somewhere might try and creep in un-invited. Explaining to my younger ones that 11-year old Jacqueline Wilson fan, Jane, might actually be a 40-year-old paedophile John, can be difficult for them to grasp at. The difficulty being they cannot see this person so generally will believe what is being fed to them (unlike the stranger on the street, where they can physically see).
Any time there is a story about the perils of the internet, such as the scenario above, I show mine. It doesn’t give them sleepless nights; it just gives an insight of the real, potential dangers out there.
Unable to have eyes and ears on the kids 24/7 any prolonged monitoring of their online activity is just not possible. As parents we are bringing our kids up to be both sensible and savvy. To know right from wrong and to notice when online, the difference between safe and worrying.
A few rules that work for us as a family are below, and with any rule I always explain my reasoning behind it, that way it’s not open to misinterpretation!
100% not allowed too give out any personal details, i.e. name, age, where they live.
The kids groan when I reiterate this to them from time to time. The replies of “we know, you don’t have to keep telling us”, are often heard. But they have to be mindful of unwittingly slipping up. Who’s to say after a long comfortable conversation they haven’t, unwittingly just given out some personal detail. It pays to always be that little bit on guard.
You don’t accept friend request from complete strangers.
If a person approached you on the street and asked to be your friend, would you accept it? No. So why would you accept a friendship from someone you don’t know online & who doesn’t know you, especially one with no mutual friends!
If it doesn’t look right or you are not sure, don’t click on it.
Like an email that appears to be legit but contains a link in it. Or any pop ups or ‘click here to win’ boxes. Clicking on these can lead to unwanted viruses or worse.
Reminding the kids if they feel this is happening to them, let us know. Also, enforcing we don’t expect them to participate or become involved in any form of bullying online. Once its said and sent it cannot be undone, even with good intentions some message can be misconstrued.
When it happened to us
When I mentioned to Ciara I was thinking of writing this post, she was like “Mum, what’s the point of writing about Internet safety, everybody knows the dangers”.
Rewind to the midpoint of 2015 when Ciara, then 15, received a notification showing she and a couple of friends had been tagged in a post on FB.
When she viewed the post, she was shocked to see a photo of her Christmas presents (along with around 8 other various photos from her account) had been posted, with a piece underneath telling her what he would like to do to her, sexually.
This post, was public on her wall for all to see. This was only half of it, there were 8 more photos. She chose not to read further and immediately blocked him. Fortunately, she screenshot the posting which proved invaluable as he later removed the post from her wall.
The ‘offender’ in this case was a lad at her school, in the year above. She knew him, but he wasn’t someone she spoke to or spent any time with.
Shaken and troubled by this, she spoke to her Head of Year at school about it. In turn, the school liaised with me and informed the police
Her friends, who had also been tagged in this post, were less willing to discuss it with anyone. They didn’t want to report it. One friend didn’t see it as any big deal, while the other did not want her mum to know or have her phone taken from her.
Undeterred, Ciara was happy to take it further and speak to the police. She felt what he had done was wrong, and she wanted him, in her words ‘told off’.
She was also concerned about how it might have been perceived by anyone who may have seen the post when it was live. They might, wrongly assume that she was in some sort of relationship with this boy, and was ok with this type of sexualised messaging!
With the police on board and dealing with the lad in question, Ciara carried on as normal. However, a little while later, he sent Ciara a photo on FB.
Again, it was posted publicly on her FB wall and was an image of his erect penis along with some scribblings on what he would like to do to her.
Shaken, she again screenshot it. Like before, he took the image down some 30 minutes later
She reported it accordingly, and this time was invited down to the police station to make a -statement. She spent around 30 minutes in a room describing in detail, to a male police officer, the sequence of events and a description of what the photo showed.
I for one, at that age would have found that to be an excurationally embarrassing situation, if not an incredibly scary thing to do. She handled it with great maturity, and I was so proud of her.
She later heard, when interviewed, he denied the charge but on further pressing admitted he had sent the image.
He was given a conditional caution and to undergo a process of Restorative Justice:
“restorative justice whereby the system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large”
A youth intervention officer was assigned to Ciara. She was there as a mediator, giving Ciara the opportunity to talk about how she felt, how it made her feel and what outcome she would like to see happen. In this case, she replied she simply wanted him to acknowledge he had done wrong and be punished.
One of the biggest things Ciara struggled with was why he had done it, and more importantly why her? This was a question she put to him, he was unable to answer it.
These meetings proved to be a great help to Ciara, keeping her up to date on how things were progressing. It was something she felt was important to her. I often wonder how she would have felt if there had been no such intervention.
It was suggested she write a letter to him, whereby she could ask any questions she would like answered. Then if agreeable to both parties, they could be brought together for a meeting where she would have the opportunity to speak to him about why/what he did.
She agreed and wrote a letter. In turn, he responded and the YIO duly brought it around. Feeling, nervous Ciara read it. In it, he said he didn’t really know why he had done what he had, but he was willing to meet with her too discuss.
Unfortunately, a couple of days before their scheduled meeting, he again sent an inappropriate picture, this time to a different girl.
Consequently, the meeting was cancelled. Ciara was not interested in meeting with him anymore. She was shocked, and said it was like re-living the whole experience again. She could not believe, after all his weeks of ‘therapy’ he was still acting in this manner, with no show of regret and willingness to stop.
Throughout all this, she still had to see this lad every day in school. She spent her days, always mindful that she could at any time bump into him. It was a situation that made her uneasy for a number of months.
Fortunately, he is no longer in school and Ciara is able to continue her education without feeling nervous about seeing him.
As a mother, I found it incredibly difficult, especially at the meetings whereby he would be discussed. I struggled with how he could, after being involved with the police, go on to repeat the same offence. I imagined being his mother, and what I would do if it was one of my children. But like all situations, its easy to say and much harder to do. Hopefully, with all the best will in the world I will never have to know.
To date, Ciara has never heard anything more from him. I could not be any more proud of Ciara than I am. Throughout this difficult period, she handled it with a level of maturity beyond her years and was completely non- judgemental.
So in fact, by continuing to parent our kids the best way we can, we must also look on the plus side of the internet. It brings a lot of positives: endless information, possibilities and opportunities for us all, blogging being one major one!
And a favourite of mine, connecting us to loved ones far and wide, bringing the ones we love and know into our living rooms.