“It’s a different world now, and while we think our children are safe and sound upstairs, the danger is coming right into our homes.”

That was one of the messages presented to a virtual reality and resilience for parents event held at Enniskillen Library on Tuesday evening.

Fermanagh Neighbourhood Policing team member Sergeant Scott Fallis is one of the 160 officers across Northern Ireland who are trained to deliver the PSNI’s internet safety message which aims to empower, educate and encourage young people and their families to be safe in their virtual world.

Ahead of the event, The Impartial Reporter spoke to Detective Sergeant (DS) Elaine McCormill who works on child sexual exploitation and e-safety in the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch and who helped design the presentation.

With 24 years in policing under her belt, DS McCormill has been proactive in detecting, preventing and bringing to justice people of concern who target and abuse vulnerable young people. She wants parents to be less naive and to set rules about their child’s online presence.

The cyber security presentation covers privacy, cyber bullying, gaming, social media, sexting, web cams, indecent images and advice on what to do if a disclosure is made to you by a child or young person.

“The day you hand over a phone or a device as a gift for a child or teenager, you need to set the rules from the start. Online has become a medium for predators. We hand our children devices without putting the safeguarding in place because we haven’t grown up with this technology,” said DS McCormill.

“You need to have regular conversations and reassure the child that if there is any inappropriate contact they need to tell their parent or a ‘safe adult’ such as a teacher, youth leader etc,” she added.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s main definition of ‘friend’ is: ‘A person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.’ It also defines friend as: ‘A contact on a social networking website.’

According to DS McCormill: “A virtual friend to a young person is now a real friend.”

She elaborates: “All of our friends are real people. We meet them for a drink or we go to the cinema. Children will now befriend people online and they see it as a real friendship developing. They have loyal traits towards them and see them as a real friend. Because they are growing up in a connected world, children can’t differentiate the line between the virtual world and the real world like we can.”

She warned: “Predators can lie dormant and watch them. They can learn about them. That’s the start of the grooming process. They can pretend to have similar interests in movies, music, they build up a common bond – it’s quite frightening.

“Naive parents think their children are upstairs doing their homework, watching Netflix, googling, chatting their friends but they are being exposed to real risks. They will download the latest on-trend apps which are all designed to attract young people – the predators know this too.”

She was not shocked when the Late Late Show recently posed as an 11-year-old girl on a new social media app called Kik and received explicit messages, including a private message asking if she wanted to trade nude photos.

“That is happening all the time. We’ve got these people who predate against vulnerable people. They know that young people sit unsupervised for hours each evening. They know they can access them easily and they are bypassing that myth that predators hang around at the school gate,” said DS McCormill.

Grooming is often difficult to spot but DS McCormill says that signs can include: “a change in the child’s behaviour, if they become secretive or anxious or wary of their own phone. For example, if it rings or they get a notification, do they frown or look worried or frightened? Watch the expression on their face.”

She added: “It’s about having constant conversations with your child about who their friends are online.”

Sexting is sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs or images, primarily between mobile phones.

DS McCormill points out that it is illegal to take, permit to be taken, or to make any indecent photograph of a child or young person under the age of 18 even if that image is of you. It is also illegal to distribute, or show to another such a photograph or to have it in your possession. And it is illegal to publish such a photograph.

“So, if a 16-year-old girl sends a photo of herself to her 16-year-old boyfriend, she is guilty of taking and distributing an indecent image of a child and he is guilty of possession – Under 18s cannot consent to indecent images of children,” she said.

DS McCormill explained that ‘revenge porn’ or “peer-to-peer abuse” is on the rise “and that’s something professionals need to recognise.”

She added: “England and Wales have legislation for adults in relation to revenge porn which we don’t have in Northern Ireland. When the Executive gets up and running, perhaps that’s something they can expedite. We have Misuse of Telecommunications but that does not reflect the seriousness of the crime.”

Adults and children are increasingly accessing pornography on their mobile phones. DS McCormill said: “Any use of online pornography is not recommended for young people under 18. However, we know it happens as it is so accessible.

“It creates exposure to images not suitable for under 18s and can generate a certain perception around what a healthy relationship entails. Their reference point for learning about healthy and/or intimate relationships can be skewed depending on the sites visited. School websites should not be able to access adult material however if pupils use their own phone with WiFi, this is harder to control.”

Privacy is a problem among many young people, the experienced Detective Sergeant has found.

“I’ve met teenagers with 4,000 friends on social media. Many young people have an unhealthy obsession with friends. There’s a belief that the more friends you have, the more popular you are and they keep their profile open. Teenagers understand privacy to a degree but the need to be popular overrides the need to be private – it is an obsession,” she stated.

Whilst parents often try to keep their children offline by switching off the WiFi, DS McCormill points out that homework and coursework often requires online research, which leaves parents in a tricky situation.
“We as parents need to be astute and aware of the risks,” she said.
Cyber bullying is “a plague”, according to the experienced officer, who notes that it can often have devastating consequences if a young person takes their own life.

It is important to note that “bullying in itself is not an offence. Police cannot arrest someone for bullying,” said DS McCormill, adding that “bullying can escalate into harassment, blackmail, threats to assault – in that case the police can become involved.”

She said: “Nobody is anonymous. We will use the IP address of a person’s phone to track them down. When it becomes an offence we can use technology to ascertain who is doing the bullying. It’s complex and it’s protracted, but it’s doable.”

The online gaming world has changed substantially over the years and DS McCormill noted that the CJI and special effects used in games means that the visuals can be quite harrowing. She said that 10-year-olds are playing games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty which are certified 18.

“Perhaps it’s because the parents think ‘it’s only a game’ or it’s a matter of keeping up with the Jones’ but the visuals, it’s almost as if they are real people and their language and behaviour are not suitable for younger children. These games are designed to be addictive. That impacts on the child’s concentration in school the next day,” warned DS McCormill.

If a child or young person opens up about being groomed online, the language used by an adult is important, DS McCormill explained.
“Something sexualised may have happened to them and they find it shameful or embarrassing. They will apportion blame on themselves therefore it’s important for a parent not to apportion blame by saying: ‘Why would you do that? Why would you send that picture?’ They are a victim – they have been coerced into doing this. A parent or safe adult’s response is important to encourage the child to disclose further information about a predator.”

The e-safety presentation delivered by the PSNI is in conjunction with the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland.

The PSNI works with the Education Authority, church groups, scouts, schools and any other group that wants to be trained in e-safety so they can roll it out across their organisation. It also works with school pupils to ensure they think about their on-line reputation and to promote real world relationships as opposed to virtual ones.