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.