Abduction or harm following befriending is not new; Hindley and Brady did not need a computer to ensnare their victims. The young and inexperienced have always been – will always be – manipulated by the predatory in society.
What HAS changed is that the predators can now target kids 24/7 – at home, in school, in their rooms late at night. And with all this access, “stranger” has all the time he or she needs to become “friend” and make a meeting, or persuasion to comply with an uncomfortable request, seem OK.
This fearful level of access requires us all to play our part in protecting a generation arguably more vulnerable than any before it. Even now, some of us – whether teacher, parent, bystander, or police – struggle to understand the threat, to get our response right. Had the report Breck Bednar’s mother made to police been handled differently, there is every possibility he would still be alive.
So how do we get the “stay safe” messages thoroughly embedded in young minds when we are not only guarding them against people they may meet outside the home; and schooling them in their absolute right to refuse any approach from a relative or family friend or acquaintance which makes them feel uneasy?
We are up against the beguiling level of freedom and privacy that social media gives youngsters… an arena in which the predators have all the time in the world to bond, to win trust and to separate their prey from safety. It calls to mind Voldemort’s diary in the hands of Ginny Weasley, doesn’t it?
And that’s where we need to start. With warning messages that children and young people can get their heads around. And that includes, for older ones, some pretty harrowing case histories. Alicia Kozakiewicz has been in the media this week. She was just 13 years old when she slipped out of her home in Pittsburgh to meet someone she had been chatting to online. What followed was a horrific, almost unspeakable nightmare. She only just escaped with her life, and by chance, after days of torture. She is now 27 and an ambassador for safety online.
At Connex Education, we are doing what we can. Safeguarding is our number one priority and not just when it comes to vetting our own staff rigorously. We are employing eCadets to give FREE training to the youngsters in the schools we work with – and via the media we are trying to make them use more safely. The pupils are trained in age-appropriate ways to spot risk, and crucially, to support each other, because kids are far more likely to listen to their friend than an adult.
We can’t directly affect a child’s homelife, or the quality of the parent:child relationships available to support them learning how to be safe. But these are our top five ways to do our bit to get the “friend or foe?” thinking going in a child’s mind every time they go online:
Top quality risk-awareness training, like eCadets
Peer support widely available
online safety training readily and freely available to all interested parents
Targeted PHSE scenario-based sessions on what is a friend, what is a stranger; what is safe and what is risky.
High visibility, high priority school awareness campaigns
These are our top five…if you’ve got any better ideas, don’t waste time. Share them.