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Suffolk: Parents are failing in fight against online child abuse

PUBLISHED: 09:30 05 February 2014 | UPDATED: 15:21 24 February 2014

Parents in Suffolk are falling behind in the challenge to protect children from online abuse, it has been warned.

The intervention comes after a new report found one in four young people aged between 12 and 15 were victims of online abuse in the county in 2013 – an increase over the past two years.

But there was a fall in the number of youngsters who said their parents had taught them how to keep safe on the Internet.

Some 40% of children aged 10-11 said their parents had failed to teach them about online safety. For 14- to 15-year-olds, only one in three described their education of the topic as “very good”.

Overall, out of 1,685 youngsters aged between 10 and 18 surveyed, the level of adequate parental guidance over Internet safety dropped from 63% in 2011 to 58% last year.

The findings were revealed in Suffolk County Council’s (SCC) third-annual ‘Suffolk Cybersurvey’ study, unveiled yesterday at a major online safety conference at IP-City Centre in Bath Street, Ipswich.

Tink Palmer, founder and chief executive of the Marie Collins Foundation, said the results of the survey were “concerning but not surprising”.

She insisted parents must become better at noticing when their children start showing signs of abnormal behaviour – possible evidence of online abuse – and need to develop the confidence to intervene at a time of growing technologies.

“For parents and teachers – for all of us – we need to become much more active and start engaging with these children,” she said.

“I’m getting a bit tired of parents and teachers bashing the Government for not giving them the materials they think they need to protect children from online abuse.

“We must all start asking them questions instead. When their behaviour suddenly changes, whether in the classroom, or at a youth club or at home, we must ask the question why.”

The findings also revealed that 22% of young people were blackmailed or threatened over private photos or webcam images.

It said 70% of those young people who suffered online abuse reported it. However the bullying stopped in only 58% of those occasions, while it worsened in 10%.

Mrs Palmer argued the response to the needs of children who suffer online bullying – which she said sometimes includes older people grooming vulnerable youngsters – needs to be improved.

“Online abuse knocks the child’s self-confidence,” she added.

“They do not know where to go and they suddenly panic. They do not trust anyone and become inward; a feeling which could lead to self-harm.”

In the category of 12- to 13-year-olds, there was an 8% rise of cyber-bullying in the past two years, reaching 25% in 2013. For teenagers aged 14 to 15, it increased by 5% in 12 months also to 25% last year.

Dr Emma Bond, senior lecturer in childhood and youth studies at University Campus Suffolk, warned advances in technology meant many parents were failing to supervise the online and social media activities of their children.

Some 73% of young people in Suffolk now own a smartphone. Tablet ownership surged from 43% to 67% in a year.

“It is increasingly important to talk to children and parents about the risks online (because) recent technological advances have transformed how children access the internet and the social media they use,” she said.

“Teachers and parents are often unaware of the apps children are using, the sites they are visiting and who they are communicating with.

“The boundary between offline and online are blurred but the messages about the risks need to be clear.”

Around 100 people who work with vulnerable children heard at yesterday’s conference from industry-leading Internet safety and sexual exploitation experts.

They highlighted issues relating to the sexualisation of children, cyberbullying and cyber-addiction.

Gordon Jones, Suffolk County Council’s deputy cabinet member for education, skills and young people, said the harm caused by online abuse, exploitation and grooming is a “serious concern”.

“That is why e-safety awareness training is regularly delivered in schools and to staff in organisations that work with vulnerable young people and adults,” he said.

“Professionals from across Suffolk who work with vulnerable children and adults came together in Ipswich (yesterday) to hear from industry-leading e-safety and sexual exploitation experts.

“This is part of our ongoing work to educate vulnerable people and protect them from harm.”

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