As you may have heard in last month’s news, charges were recently laid against a Queensland man for committing 931 child sex-related crimes posing online as Justin Bieber, including child grooming offences and possessing child exploitation material.
His victims were completely convinced they were speaking to the real singer and were willingly sending nude images to him at his request.
Police describe the breadth of the offences committed in this instance as horrendous. The investigation demonstrates the vulnerability of children using social media and communication apps such as Skype, plus the global reach and skill that child sex offenders have to groom and seduce victims. The fact that so many children could believe they were communicating with this particular celebrity highlights the need for a serious rethink about the way that we as a society educate our children about online safety.
This is called Catfishing and is the modern term used for online predators who pose as someone else in order to manipulate victims. It’s an effectively a spin on the traditional online grooming; rather than just being a stranger, the offender manages to get through to you or your kids by taking on a fake identity.
It might be easy to think that here in Coffs Harbour we are protected from these types of online dangers. However, I can honestly say that in 2014 I discovered an Instagram account where exactly this type of grooming was taking place, and there were over 300 local teenage girls following this predator. As previously reported, I naturally reported the account to the Police, and the matter was investigated.
Whilst I have written about this in previous columns, I think with this recent case it’s important to remind parents to have open and honest conversations about online and real world stranger danger and reinforce the message regularly.
Some of the things to cover could include – you would not talk to a stranger in the street, so why would you talk to a stranger online, or even a friend of a friend? But more importantly, strangers might not appear strangers; they could be posing as a celebrity or even a friend of a friend. I’d even go so far as to check your child’s friends with them periodically, ask who people are and why they are friends or followers. If they don’t talk to the person at school, then why would you be friends online and sharing your photos with them? Demonstrate to your kids how easy it is to impersonate another person or lie online; check the celebrities they follow are, in fact, real. Ensure you create an open environment where your kids feel they can come to you if they think something is not as it should be online.
Recent research indicates that 94% of parents have spoken to their children about online safety at least once, but only 38% talk to their children once a month. I suggest we should be talking to our children about their online activities every day. Make it part of your dinner conversation, just like it’s part of their day. Ask what’s going down online today; who’s talking to who?