Our cover feature this week is one of the most harrowing we have ever run. It may shock you – in fact, it should shock you. Because the situation we find ourselves in is profoundly shocking.
The Metropolitan Police, like every other force in the UK, is struggling to get to grips with the growing menace of the sexual abuse of children online. The situation is so worrying that our commissioning editor, Jon Severs, was given unprecedented access to two of its teams – the Predatory Offenders Unit and the Sexual Exploitation Team – in an attempt to convey the seriousness of the problem.
The children that these teams of officers encounter through their work will attend your schools – both secondary and primary. In fact, the victims in online cases are getting younger, they say, and are now regularly as young as just eight years old.
Sadly, sexual abuse of children is nothing new; it’s always been around. What has changed is how it has been amplified through the advent of the world wide web, apps and social media, which have provided new ways to violate and humiliate.
Most of today’s parents will have had no childhood experience of the internet, no memory of warnings or stories from their own parents to pass on. Awareness of danger is for many limited to the strangers on the outside. They have little idea of the dangers posed by strangers to their children when they are inside, seemingly safe and secure in their bedrooms. In fact, few of us do.
Opening the door to danger
But when children go online, they are opening the door to a world of predators, not all adults – young people themselves under the age of 18 are abusers, too. And they are doing so with little understanding of the dangers and with little information.
“You would never send a child to the park on their own with no advice. You would never let them cross the road with no advice. We warn them about strangers. But the internet? Smartphones? We just let them do it,” says Dan, an officer with the Met Police Predatory Offenders Unit.
The problem, the police emphasise, is not with the internet or smartphones, but with human behaviour.
And although they recognise it is not schools’ job to help them combat this, more often than not, they say, it is teachers that can have the biggest impact.
Thus far, all efforts to deal with the problem of online abuse have been centred on controlling access to the internet, through limiting use of smartphones or through parental controls.
That is clearly not working. So what should we be doing? We can’t simply put tech back in its box. Of course, we need to educate children about the dangers and trust them to make the right decisions. But, tragically, sometimes even that will not be enough, as Lorin LaFave – mother to a son who was groomed online and killed – knows to her cost.
According to both the police and Lorin, the problem is a societal one. Culturally, we have ideas about pornography, about what a victim or a paedophile looks like, that are more dangerous than any technology.
The police know that teachers cannot shift culture alone. But it’s a start. Teachers, they say, are trusted, are seen as a link to adult reality and children listen to them.
But teachers – and all of us – need to understand the real dangers of the online world, to understand that it can be even more dangerous than the outside world and to be scared. Really scared. That is why our feature is so graphic. And that is why we have asked Lorin to tell her story.
All of this may happen in the virtual space but it’s real. Very real. And shocking. Please don’t look away.