Our online ignorance leaves children in danger

28th February 2014 at 00:00

I recently watched a police officer - a specialist in cybercrime - give school leaders a quiz to see how up to speed they were with the acronyms teenagers were using to communicate online.

It started off with widely known shorthand such as LOL (laugh out loud or loads of love) and YOLO (you only live once). But then came more concerning examples: POS (parents over shoulder); ASL (age, sex, location); LMIRL (let's meet in real life); and WTGP (want to go private).

Teenagers with no apparent vulnerabilities - they are not in care, do not come from chaotic backgrounds and are not serial runaways - are increasingly becoming victims of child sexual exploitation, we reveal this week in our news focus (see pages 16-18). But why?

Well, largely because of the internet, it turns out. A recent advert by anti-bullying charity Respectme shows a mother questioning her daughter ahead of a trip into town. Where is she going? Who will be there? When will she be back? But when the daughter heads upstairs with her laptop to go online, there is no grilling. The message is clear.

With smartphones, of course, children can go anywhere, at any time. And when they do, they can be as young as 8, according to Daljeet Dagon of charity Barnardo's Scotland.

The simple fact is that most adults are profoundly limited in their knowledge of new technology and the latest trends online. Most teachers are "not even at the starting line" and the same goes for parents and carers, says Les Obre, a former depute who is now a child protection and inclusion officer for South Lanarkshire Council.

Det Sgt Kevin McDade told the school leaders at his cybercrime talk that they needed to educate their students to mitigate the risk. MSPs, too, have called for schools to implement internet safety programmes.

The politicians on the Public Petitions Committee also want a national education programme on child sexual exploitation to be delivered in every school.

The committee - which began investigating the issue after a petition from Barnardo's Scotland - published its report on child exploitation last month; the government has yet to respond to its recommendations.

Some of the most disturbing evidence the committee heard came from Kirsten Stalker, professor of disability studies at the University of Strathclyde, convener David Stewart told TESS.

The rate of abuse among disabled children was three to four times higher than with non-disabled, Professor Stalker revealed. Loneliness, especially among young girls with learning disabilities, made them "particularly vulnerable to approaches and grooming", she said.

Clearly the need to educate our young people about internet safety applies to every age and stage - and in every sector. And although it is not solely their responsibility, schools, school leaders and teachers need to ready themselves to play their part.

emma.seith@tess.co.uk.

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