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Karen Kay: The dangerous alleyways our children find online

PUBLISHED: 16:31 02 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:31 02 March 2017

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Wandering at will on the internet is an enjoyable excursion but can take the youngest and vulnerable to dark places, says Karen

Like many people, I love losing myself in a book or magazine. I’ve also spent hours immersed in the digital world, surfing the wonderful space that is the worldwide web. Thanks to the internet, we can explore, learn and discover from the comfort of our favourite sofa or desk.

Cyberspace offers a thrilling adventure for the curious. How many films, photographs, anecdotes and fascinating snippets of information have you enjoyed by idly journeying around the internet’s highways and alleyways? In so many areas of our lives we set out on fixed journeys, planning a route from A to B. Perusing our newspaper of choice each day, we tend to turn habitually to favoured writers, sections of interest, the crossword or other familiar content. Rarely do we veer from the routine.

Yet in the virtual world we’re much more open to carefree meandering: a journey without a destination but one to be enjoyed purely for its own sake. This relaxed approach to our online excursions has led us to become less questioning of the sights along the way. Those who would previously never consider dirtying their minds with gossip magazines and tabloid media happily peruse the digital equivalent and, much worse, digest dubious ‘fact’ as truth. For all its wonder, the web has made us lazy, and less discriminating.

Information is hard to distinguish from fabrication in the ‘post-truth’ era. We are in a world where fog hangs over fact, and our ability to trust what we consume is blurred by the digital Chinese Whisper – viral trumps veracity in 2017.

So, if intelligent adults get lost in this alluring space, occasionally making errors of judgment, how can we expect our children to be any different? I’m writing this because I recently interviewed the father of a boy who was groomed online and sexually abused by a number of different men, acting independently. His son was barely into his teens when this began, and his account of the impact was one of the most harrowing I’ve ever heard.

Like so many of us, the boy was lulled into a false sense of trust by feeling comfortable online. It’s no different to the feeling of ease that comes with a congenial environment in the ‘real’ world, mixing with like-minded folk in welcoming surroundings.

The truth is, as adults, we’ve accrued years of intuition, garnering an ability to assess people we meet by appearance, the nuances of their body language, the way they talk. Yes, instinct is open to error, but time and experience teach us a lot about other people we interact with. In our children, those skills are not yet honed, and in a virtual world, the absence of physical presence limits that ability.

Jason, let’s call the father that, spoke of a son who had been a good student at school, a loving, considerate, gentle member of their close-knit family. This devastated man described how his beloved boy had his innocence stolen, and was robbed of his teen years by the perpetrators of these crimes.

He expressed intense regret that, as a parent, he had been ignorant of his son’s online activities, reassured by the idea of him being on what he believed were harmless sites, ‘chatting to his friends’. The brutal reality was that those friends were not the kind any parent would want for their child. They were callous, manipulative paedophiles.

The reason Jason was happy to talk of his son’s experience was to emphasise the need for parents to be informed about the whereabouts of their offspring at all times; whether in the virtual world or venturing into the streets outside.

Last month, statistics emerged that, in Britain, three and four year-olds spend an average of almost eight and a half hours online each week, while teens spend over 20 hours per week in cyberspace.

I’m sorry if this column has a somewhat sinister tone. I wanted to ensure that parents and grandparents make it their business to monitor their children’s activities.

Would you drop off your eight or 12 year-old on a street corner, miles from home, in the dark, and leave them to wander without any knowledge of where they were headed or who they might meet? If we, as adults, can’t spot fake news stories, how can we expect children to detect virtual predators without help? The internet is a wonderful thing, but we need to hold our children’s hands as they navigate the virtual world, teaching them to stay safe in a place that didn’t exist when most of us were growing up. 


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