Keeping teens safe online means YOU need to know about stuff

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How do you keep teens safe online

It’s 7.30pm on Sunday night.  We have had a lazy afternoon watching the Grand Prix and an indoor barbecue with lovely friends and I am just assembling waffles and strawberries when my mobile rings.   Withheld number.  Sod that on a Sunday night.  Anybody who wants me at 7.30pm on a Sunday will be in my phone book, and if they aren’t and it’s urgent they will call the home phone.

Home phone then rings.

Hmm.   Probably just Barclaycard saying me £5 minimum payment for the month is late.   I get ready to give them a piece of my mind.

Is that Mrs Barrow?

Yes, who is this?

It’s Hampshire Police

The world stops turning and I sink down the front door and turn around to sit on the stairs.  These sorts of phone calls are never good

Nothing to worry about, nobody is in immediate danger but can we come over and chat to you about your youngest daughter?  She isn’t in any danger, and she has done nothing wrong.  We have reason to believe she is the victim of an online crime, possibly grooming and sexual exploitation. 

My heart starts beating again slowly and I realise that I have been holding my breath.  Whilst in the background said youngest daughter and son are running across the lounge with the their legs crossed and on their knees in a daft race instigated by our friends Andy and Sarah.   Meanwhile Mr B is on the sofa coming down with full blown man flu.

This can’t be happening

We believe your daughter has been blackmailed into sending explicit photographs of herself to somebody who is not who they say they are.   We would like to interview your daughter with a view to then arresting this person for black mail and possible child pornography possession charges.

I think “They can’t come now, the house is a mess, and we have friends here”

And we have alerted Social Services and they will be coming too, we can be there in twenty minutes

I get up off the stairs, going into the play room full of GCSE revision work and discarded shoes, sit on the floor and silently weep inwardly.   This can’t be happening, surely?

My youngest teen is one of the most switched on people in the history of the world.  We talk about internet safety.  I know about social media.  This can’t be happening.   She can’t have done this, surely? I don’t want to have go through this two weeks before GCSEs start.  I don’t want to have to be disappointed and angry and upset with her.  More importantly I don’t want her to have this all come out now.  It happened in October allegedly and if she has been sitting on this, thinking it was going to come out at some point I don’t want it to be right now.   I don’t want to see “evidence”.  She is my baby, despite being almost as tall as me and having better dress sense.

We agree that 8pm on a Sunday night is not the best time but can they come the following morning, the last day of the Easter Holidays.   Two officers from the Internet Child Abuse Team and a social worker.    Oh can I not say anything to my daughter as they don’t want her to destroy any potential evidence, or alert this other person.

Oh and they will be taking away any computers, phones and tablets for forensic examination.

They don’t in the end.  There is no need.

They arrive as promised the following morning after I have spent all morning trying to pretend this isn’t happening.  Whilst wondering if the fruit in the fridge should be out in a bowl on the kitchen table, would this make the social worker think that my daughter really is being cared for and doesn’t need to be taken into care?   Fresh fruit on the table is good, right?  Should I move the dog bowls out of the kitchen?  Are they unhygenic and could that cause my child to be removed from this unsafe environment?  If I have the tumble drier on and things in the washing machine it will show I am on top of domesticity and a fit mother, right?  Oooh put the dishwasher on because that looks good too.  Surely that means my daughter is being properly cared for.

Whilst the victim in this case would my daughter be implicated and would more come to light that I didnt’ know about?  Would I be branded a terrible mother for allowing her to have access to the internet that is largely unmonitored?    Should I have grounded her for posting a pic of herself in a bikini on Instagram earlier in the week rather than seeing it and thinking “how can somebody that gorgeous be related to me?”.

Turns out my daughter really is the street wise switched on teen we have always known her to be.   When questioned by the police, she had evidence of challenging people who befriend her on Facebook and when she calls them out on using fake profile pictures by doing a reverse picture search she then blocks them.   She really is that switched on and clued up about being safe online.   That when blackmailed with “if you don’t send me explicit pictures I will put the ones you sent before all over the internet on revenge porn sites” her response is “go on then, because you haven’t got any, there aren’t any” and then blocks them.

It had taken six months to get to this discussion around our table.  Six months of completely unknown to us, investigation in the background, in the US and the UK.  A moderator on a site in the US had seen that snippet of the conversation sent to youngest daughter, and that youngest daughter (I am deliberately not naming her on this post by the way for reasons you can probably guess) had sent selfies and did have an account on the site but the moderators didn’t see anything else.   That was enough though to trigger their child protection policy and alert the American version of CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency) who in turn contacted the UK organisation, who alerted the police.   Who have been investigating, gaining information on IP addresses before finally getting the name of the account holder for our internet account, and the address.  And because I am on the local police database for reporting a road traffic accident last summer, they had my phone numbers.

Anything involving these agencies alerts Social Services who have  duty, rightly, to investigate too.

When the police were satisfied that she hadn’t been exploited online we chatted about online security and the policy we have in our house of being open and honest and trusting.  I trust my family to behave on line, to not do things that are illegal or that will hurt other people.   I don’t want passwords or to demand to know what is going on with my kids in their online world.    Demanding passwords to accounts will just encourage them to set up accounts I don’t know about, and those are the accounts that often lead to the behaviour that hurts.

I trust my teenagers.   And they trust me to not snoop on them, to not comment on what they are doing.   They have to be able to live their lives online without fear their mother is watching their every move.     To a certain extent they have to be able to make their own mistakes.   God knows I made enough when I was a teenager and am very grateful there was no internet.

I dont keep my teenagers safe by snooping in their rooms or asking to see their computers because I don’t need to.  I trust them to be behaving because we have talked about behaviour on line and they know that I would be disappointed if they did anything hurtful.

Clearly as a family we are aware of social media, and know how it works, we can have open conversations about adding people on Facebook, about security settings, about accounts being locked etc.  Just about the online world in general and they can tell me funny stories, or we can discuss other cases that have happened either to friends or in the press without them thinking I will just roll my eyes and say “I have no clue what you are talking about”.

Parents that shrug their shoulders and say “Oh I dont know about any of that online stuff” are doing their children no service at all.   That is a very dangerous attitude to take in my book.

Nor is a blanket ban on going online and cries of “the internet is scary, its terrifying, its a terrible place and full of evil people”.   That stance is utter bollocks in my opinion.   Misguided and ridiculous.     Like any community there are one or two that ruin it but by and large the internet is an incredible resource, the world is at our fingertips because of it.  Literally.   We live in an era where the internet is here to stay and where our children can get the most extraordinary support should they need it.

But because we have had these discussions my children are clued up, switched on, know I am too.  That they can talk about these things.

And ultimately THAT is what keeps them safe online, us as parents knowing stuff, knowing about these things, and talking about it openly.   Those conversations in the past are what kept my daughter safe when this happened last year.  That she knew it was not right to be asked for photos.  That this person was not really a friend of a friend and therefore it wasn’t all innocent.   She knew how to pick apart their persona, and thought no more of it after blocking them.

So if this happens, as it now has, we don’t blame the internet, the internet didn’t do this.  Somebody pretending to be somebody they aren’t did this.

And there is a very big difference between the two.

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  • Oh T, how did you get through that evening/night?

    Thank you for sharing such an honest post – it has given me lots to think about with how I will raise my girls and their online life.

    An well done to you for raising such a wonderfully switched on young lady!

    • Thanks Alice. As with all things with our children all we can do is give them the tools and information they can then put to use when they need to. I am not one for lecturing teenagers, or even little ones like yours. But seems for once I got something right and she knew this wasn’t right, didn’t engage any further and moved on, and really thought no more of it. Good to know companies have policies that work too!

  • This is such a great blog post and your stance is one I wish many more parents of teens used! As someone who works in secondary education I spend hours each week dealing with cyber bullying and abuse on the Internet. Parent response, like you said is often, ‘I don’t have a clue about all that stuff!’ They are failing their kids! Would you mind if I shared this with some colleagues? It will be useful for their them too in informing the conversations they have with parents?

    Laura

  • So proud of you for writing this and sharing and spreading awareness. It would have been easy to have kept it quiet but it’s a really important thing that parents think about their kids online safety and what they can do to prepare them for the online world.
    Ironic isn’t it that I a world where so many parents worry about their younger kids going out to play and how safe they are that actually more danger lurks online at home.
    Thank goodness my fudge-loving teen friend is switched on and that you feel you can talk to her about all this stuff x

    Much love (obvs)

  • Every parents nightmare when it comes to the internet. It’s great that your teen is as switched on as she is!
    Today’s world is so far removed from when I was a child in the 70’s. The worst we had to worry about was a stranger offering us sweets and stuff but when we were home, we were safe from the outside world.
    While I agree with much of what you’ve said, I need to speak up for the vulnerable, such as my autistic son. At the moment he’s all but six years old so his internet experience is managed totally by us, as in, it’s like Fort Knox. He sees only what we allow him to see. This will be the case for any child of this age (or should be) However, his condition makes him vulnerable. He has no concept of danger. As he gets older, it may be the case that merely discussing it won’t be enough to keep him safe. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
    Thanks for writing about your experience. I’m glad it ended well. X

    • Oh I totally agree with you about your son and you must, and will, do what you feel is best for him. And given his vulnerabilities you will make judgement calls and put things in place to help and support him that may be different from mine. But as a family discussing it and making those choices based on his needs is still true. I wish you luck, it can be scary. I just wish there was a parenting manual some times!

  • I read this article about immediately after my daughter (12) asked me for Facebook, again (as ‘everyone’ in her year has it). This is despite a letter home from her school a couple of days ago stating that children under 13 shouldn’t be given access. The letter was in response to some incidents similar to your daughters which took place at the school. I don’t want my daughter to feel left out (or go behind my back and open an account) but she is still relatively young for her age and not the most street/internet smart. It really is a minefield!

  • Well that made me feel a little bit sick this am!
    Will have to investigate (ask you!) how to work out if a person/photo is real – I am amazed that youngsters have SO many friends & can’t possibly know them all & I guess therefore open themselves up to these interactions sometimes!
    Well done your baby girl :0)

  • Thank you so much for sharing this. As a parent to two teenagers, I take a very similar stance to you when it comes to online activity and I have to say that this stopped me in my tracks this morning.

    • Sorry to have stopped you in your tracks. I hope it made you realise though that your teenagers in a similar situation would probably do the same thing as mine.

  • Bravo! I’m not a parent but I still applaud you for sharing this and raising the issue for other parents. It must have been dreadful for you and your daughter. Had I been younger when I first encountered the internet I know my mother would have had the same, sensible approach as you with her teenage daughter. It’s a healthy approach in my opinion. At the FE college where I used to work there were posters up proclaiming the internet to be a “scary place”, for all the students to read. Children and young people don’t need scaremongering. For sure, they need to be aware of the potential dangers from people pretending to be who they aren’t, but the internet is a wonderful resource and a helpline for those who need it. Well done you for sharing and for raising such a clued-up young woman!

    • THank you Gillie. I am a huge fan of the internet, it has completely changed my life. That sounds like a huge and sweeping statement but it truly has. But I have to balance that with not posting all that goes on at home all over it and respecting the privacy of my teens. I also, as you say, don’t want to scare monger them, because it isnt the internet that is scary, it is people being idiots. I guess like the bloke in the mac at the park when we were kids.

      Thanks for your comment, it really is appreciated.

  • Mother. Of. God. I don’t know how you managed to calmly note it all down but I thank you for doing so. I thank you for writing this, for reminding me to keep talking. I thank you for the insight, and the notion that I can ask you how to do the raising teens thing when I have them. If youngest daughter wants to lead the way with my girls she is most welcome. Sounds like you all need a holiday when GCSEs are done. Huge hugs. Huge.

    • Funnily enough it started with “I would love to blog about this, can I?” And her saying “yeah * insert name of eldest daughter * is surprised it wasn’t all over Twitter on Monday”. But once I processed it in my head and sat down, it was a brain dump and pretty much, one take.

      You are doing an incredible job with your girls, they are brilliant. And you will continue to do so as the boundaries change. But yes, come July, a holiday is a must!

  • Oh my goodness, that must have been a really stressful few hours for you, I can’t even begin to imagine. How brilliant that your daughter is so savvy though and what a huge relief. This is such a great post with a vey important message too, I think you have the right attitude and I agree that ignorance really isn’t an option in this day and age.

  • Thanks for sharing this & for your advice away from this post. The more open we are with our kids the better. It’s not right as parents to bury our heads in the sand. It’s not a privacy issue it’s a parenting one. We have to be clued up & help to teach our kids to be safe online, it’s our moral duty!
    Here is a great online resource I was recommended for anyone who wishes to know more & don’t know where to start http://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/share-aware/
    It seems strange to me that parents keep an eagle hawk eye on their kids in the toddler/early years only to abandon them later on because ‘I don’t understand’. You’ve clearly been doing the right things with your kids though!! So pleased to hear that she is savvy & knew what to do, that’s great parenting xo

  • Phew. Bet there was a stiff drink or two taken after that. I’m totally with you on the stance to take, be wary but wise and not scared of the internet. Sadly I’m not as wise as I’d like to be and I do think us of a certain generation could do with some extra lessons, but I try my best. Thanks for blogging this, as it’s a great reminder about having that conversation again. Once every so often is a good idea so they don’t feel like they’re being nagged – and it’s good to have real-life examples to be able to talk about (bet you’re so happy you can help, eh?! ;)) x

  • Brilliant piece, very powerful. Your daughter is a credit to you. That must have been tough to go through, but I’m glad it came out well in the end.

    This has given me a lot to think about, particularly as we’ve unfortunately had a negative experience with my son and the internet.

  • Great post. I’m going to get my 12 and 15 year old daughters to read this. It is so important for them to view internet safety as a team sport and not parents against children. That must have been a really horrific Sunday night, thanks for sharing it.

    • THanks Clare. My daughter is the same age as your eldest so thanks for sharing it with them. Good point about this being a team sport, it really is and I hadn’t thought of it like that before.

  • Oh my goodness! How scary. I felt sick even reading this. Thank goodness your daughter is as switched-on as you thought she was and thank you for sharing this post – a useful reminder to parents of the dangers online.

  • Oh T I am sorry to hear that this even went on but your daughter is amazeballs.

    I think I need another chat with my almost teen. A refresher course in avoiding weirdos on t’interwebs.
    Thank you for writing this. X

  • I’ve found the original post and the subsequent correspondence fantastically valuable. It would merit having a much wider readership.
    I think you know that the first time Lady B and I met you and the kids “oop north” we were most impressed by the very calm and good relationship the four of you had. That impression is greatly enhanced by what we’ve read today. Onwards and upwards!

  • I’ve found the original post and the subsequent correspondence fantastically valuable. It would merit having a much wider readership.
    I think you know that the first time Lady B and I met you and the kids “oop north” we were most impressed by the very calm and good relationship the four of you had. That impression is greatly enhanced by what we’ve read today. Onwards and upwards!

  • I am so happy to hear that your daughter didn’t fall for this and have no idea how you’ve managed to cope during the past few days. When my daughters joined FB I insisted that they didn’t become friends with anyone they didn’t know in person – even if the person concerned insisted that they knew one of their friends. Thanks for being brave enough to share this post, I hope that it raises awareness for parents who aren’t so clued up about the internet.

  • I can’t tell you the relief to read that youngest daughter is so switched on and belted them one back.

    Such an important post, thank you so much for sharing what must have been an incredibly scary moment in your life.

    My 6 year olds have a Cromebook each – (homework online already), to do that I had to set up Gmail accounts for them. I instantly recognised I need to be more clued up about blocking certain places on their laptops to protect them. I need to get on and put those barriers in place now.

  • Sorry I am so late on this – but even though you knew how clued up your children are it must have been such a worry, and then relief, for you.

  • I nearly cried reading this, so pleased to see it turned out well, but very scary in the meantime.

  • Oh woa, that is pretty hideous having to go through that, but what an important post! We need this kind of lucid, honest talk about these kind of things, esp for those of us whose kids are on the brink of teendom. Thank you so much for sharing. Look out for it soon on Post40Bloggers.com….

  • I’m so so pleased this turned out well. It easily couldn’t. I’m actually reassured that the police are onto this, it’s clearly an increasing area of concern. I’m with you though on giving children the freedom they need online – we can’t wrap them in cottonwool, it’s bad for them! But I do make sure I’m friends with my daughter on the accounts she’s on and I have a nose every now and then to make sure she’s okay. Thank you for sharing this. (Oh I loved your mental thought process about putting fruit out and getting the washing on etc, I’m like that whenever the health visitor calls! 🙂