Children are at greater risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during lockdown in the COVID-19 pandemic, child protection bodies have warned.
More reliance on digital platforms for learning, entertainment and communication can lead to increased safety risks.
John Piekos, a former senior detective who set up the charity nearly 10 years ago, said: “A predator can create vulnerability, even in someone who has a loving, supportive family.
“It may seem to the child that the predator recognises their abilities, is affirming them and understanding them when no one else does.
“In fact, they are seeking influence over the child, which quickly turns dark and manipulative, in ways that will likely seem obvious to an objective outsider.”
Safe and Free, which tackles human trafficking and CSE, provides teachers and pupils with educational materials to better protect young people – both online and in their everyday lives.
John said: “Predators pretend to be someone or something that they are not – they are skilled at building rapport and using it manipulatively to ensure that the child does not have the perspective of an objective outsider.
“It’s vital that children, parents, teachers – and anyone in a safeguarding position – are aware of the warning signs and know how to take action.”
Spike in online abuse
Millions of children are at risk due to an unprecedented rise in screen time, according to UNICEF and partners.
And the National Crime Agency (NCA) has reported a spike in online child sexual abuse offending during the pandemic.
The first coronavirus lockdown led to 4,760 arrests and 6,500 children being safeguarded between April and September of last year.
John, who was also a hostage and crisis negotiator with Greater Manchester Police, said: “It’s important to be able to speak frankly about topics such as sex education, grooming and safety risks to your child. To do this, you must have a relationship built on trust.
“Trust is created when you provide accurate information, without drama, and enable your child to spot attempts that might be made to target them or their friends – and to speak out confidently when they have concerns, even seemingly irrational ones.
“Secrets are dangerous things and leave children open to manipulation by exploitative people. Transparency and openness make them much less vulnerable. Advise children to ‘always tell someone you trust if you are asked to keep a secret’.”
John’s charity Safe and Free has provided case studies and roleplays exercises as part of their courses for primary and secondary school children.
John also encourages teachers and guardians to use existing issues and TV scenarios to explore strategies for dealing with awkward situations.
He said: “It is better to have thought through sensible avoidance techniques in a safe learning environment.”
Something ‘not right’
John said it is important to be vigilant about the people your children may come into contact with and address any concerns.
He said: “In the police, I would speak with parents of children who had been abused – and some would say they had felt something wasn’t right but couldn’t put their finger on it.
“Even if you don’t have evidence that something is wrong, you may notice a change in the behaviour of your child, such as eating patterns. Don’t try to rationalise these changes, look into them as possible red flags.
“We generally don’t want to be seen to prejudge people without any reason. But exploitation of any kind is terribly damaging in the long term, so it’s better to be cautious if you have concerns.”
But John says not every situation is preventable. He said: “It’s impossible to live without taking risks. For instance, when you meet someone new you invest a degree of trust in them that they may not deserve. It is also true that a victim of a sexual offence is never ever to be blamed.
“But we can do our best to educate our children and encourage them to speak openly to trusted adults.
“It is important to ensure that there are adults in their lives that they trust and that they are able to speak to”.
Safe and Free’s ten tips for safeguarding children:
1. Keep communication open and develop trust, so your child knows they can speak to you about anything which may bother them.
2. Speak openly about issues such as sexual education and online dangers. It is better a parent/guardian has these conversations rather than peers.
3. Encourage children to look out for each other and to bring any concerns to the attention of an adult.
4. Create learning opportunities from real-life or TV. Safe & Free run free safeguarding courses for schools, which includes role plays and age-appropriate examples.
5. Practice due diligence with new friends, their parents and adults in their life. Watch how they interact with each other and if your child is initially comfortable with them and remains comfortable around them.
6. Look out for any changes in children’s interactions or behaviour. This could include a change in eating habits or sleeping patterns.
7. Establish rules and boundaries. For younger children, this may include not closing the door when playing with friends.
8. Let them know you are there for them and keep your word. For example, if they are at a sleepover, let them know they can call at any time and you will hear what they need to say.
9. Let them know that some people cannot be trusted. It is ok for them to be wary around people that they do not know or who make them feel uncomfortable. It is also important to share those concerns with their trusted adult/parent
10. Do not dismiss or try to rationalise anything you as a parent do not feel comfortable with, even if you do not have evidence to support your suspicions. Look into and act to protect your child.
- Safe and Free offers a free education pack for schools to help prevent child sexual exploitation: