On the 17th January the parish was visited by Catherine Tummelty of the PSNI who gave a hard hitting and most useful talk on the dangers inherent for young people when using the internet and social media. The talk was well attended, and we were glad to welcome friends from other churches in our rural deanery.

The talk began with a short video which showed a mother welcoming all sorts of ‘undesirable characters’ at her front door and ushering them up to her son’s bedroom.  The question was then posed “As you wouldn’t do this in the real world why would you let the equivalent happen on-line?  Catherine then pointed out that 7/10 children now have social media accounts and one in three has seen naked or semi-naked images of people on-line.

On-line gaming provides children with hours of great fun, but there are hidden dangers that parents need to be aware of. The gaming environment gives opportunities for paedophiles and others who wish to exploit children to pose as friends and begin conversations. The same is obviously true of social media platforms where other problems such as cyber-bullying also exist.

We are all aware of the unhappiness that children can experience from interactions on the internet and are conscious of recent examples in the media of suicides associated with activity on-line.

What can parents do to help to protect their children? Catherine reviewed several approaches including:

  • Ensure that privacy settings are applied on their computers, and for all the apps that are used, and if you don’t know how to do this get some help.
  • Advise your children to only have ‘friends’ on-line whom they know in the real world. People with evil intent towards children often masquerade as friends.
  • Never use your real name in chatrooms or other forums, and never give out personal details that may help to identify you, where you live or go to school. School uniforms can give out a lot of information. Similarly don’t keep posting where you go in the real world.
  • Beware if a child gets a second phone as a present from someone you don’t know. This is often a sign of a young person being groomed.  Even an app such as a second calculator can be used to covertly contact a young person who has been targeted for grooming.
  • Beware of posting photos. Anything on-line can be taken and reused by others. Especially take care with provocative poses as these attract paedophiles.
  • Remember that in many computer games violence and antisocial behaviour are part of the game. Read independent reviews closely before purchasing.

Sexting of explicit images is common amongst young people. It is important to realise that these images can be circulated and altered, and that the sending or possession of indecent images of children under 18 is a criminal offence.  Remember too that material placed on-line stays there indefinitely and many employers ask to view the on-line history of job applicants.  Indiscretions recorded on-line can reappear years later to block career choices.

She reminded us that we should support children to report abusive behaviour. It is often difficult for a young person to confess that they have been duped especially if sexual matters are involved. If you have any suspicions, you should report to the police.  Anyone who rings 999 or 101 will receive a sympathetic hearing even if it turns out that no offence has been committed.

All of this may sound very negative, but it is little different to other aspects of life in 2019.  The internet holds dangers but also great advantages.  In many ways it is no different from, giving our children bicycles or later on teaching them to drive. We take these steps with care and in a controlled fashion. We have to treat the internet in the same way.