SOCIAL MEDIA FAMILY SNAPS ALARM
Mother’s chilling safety warning that every parent must read:
FIRST day at school, a visit from the tooth fairy, birthday party, swimming lesson, school play, Christmas, riding a bike, family holiday, sports day, school prom.
These are all important moments proud parents want to capture on camera. They may then wish to share their photos and videos with family and friends on Facebook and Instagram.
But parents and guardians are being warned to think carefully before publishing images of their children on social media – as they could be unwittingly handing them to sexual predators.
Mum-of-one Sarah Williamson said: “I’m desperate to get parents to realise that it can, and possibly has, happened to them.”
Sarah, who used to volunteer as a “paedophile hunter”, warned that offenders are accessing images such as children in swimwear on sites like Facebook before downloading and sharing them.
The 38-year-old from Newport said she has encountered paedophiles commenting on how “sexy” the children are and recommending profiles to others.
She said she wants to educate families about the potential dangers of posting images online, adding: “What I have seen in these groups needs to be addressed.”
The local authority worker said paedophiles trawl social media looking for pictures of babies, toddlers, young children and teenagers – both boys and girls.
Sarah added: “They’re just the usual photos we all take of our children. Just innocent family photos.”
That could include, for example, pictures of football practice or gymnastics class, a family day out at the beach or friends playing by the river.
She said predators even target photographs on some school websites if they are not password protected.
“These photos could be stolen by anyone, anywhere in the world and shared,” warned Sarah.
She said the offenders, mostly men, but also some women, take such images from wherever they can, but mostly sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
Sarah recalled encountering one offender with a fetish for boys in sportswear, so he followed a num- ber of Facebook pages for children’s football teams, both local and further afield.
She said another offender had a foot fetish and sought out images of children sitting on the sofa with their feet showing.
Single mum Sarah explained that the paedophiles download the pictures and share them with others, adding comments like “mmmmm” and “sexy”.
The images themselves are not explicit, but the comments on them by strangers sexualize them.
Sarah said some predators discuss the material and make recommendations, giving details about where to find more pictures or videos of a particular child.
Others post reviews and give ratings according to how likely the profile is to accept a friend request and how many more images are available.
Sarah added: “The remarks on these photos are awful.”
In her experience, she said most of the material would be classed as Category C indecent images.
According to the Sentencing Council, Category C covers indecent images which do not show penetrative or nonpenetrative sexual activity.
Sarah reports cases to the Internet Watch Foundation – an international organisation aiming to make the internet a safer place.
Many are referred to Child Exploitation and Online Protection, which is a command of the National Crime Agency, working to pursue and prosecute child sex offenders.
Sarah believes many families have no idea about the potential dangers of posting photos of their children online and she advises parents and guardians to check their privacy settings.
“It’s incredible how unsafe social media is,” she said. “It horrifies me when I see kids’ photos shared on there. Many people’s accounts are wide open to the public. People think it wouldn’t happen to them, but it could and probably has.”
Sarah said she would urge parents not to publish images of their children online, unless they are sure everyone with access to their profile is safe.
She admitted she finds her volunteer work harrowing, but copes by detaching herself and having counselling sessions.
“Some of it has disturbed me greatly, but I’ve learnt to deal with it and talk if I need support,” she said.
The issue was brought to the attention of Members of Parliament on the Government’s Science and Technology Committee last month.
Parents were urged to set up the right privacy controls to stop their photos ending up in the hands of sexual predators.
Children’s charity Barnardo’s warned that paedophiles could find this type of content and circulate it online.
The organisation was on a panel of experts that highlighted the risks children are exposed to on social media.
Barnardo’s has called for greater oversight of the internet industry, including an independent regulator.
It is also calling on the Government to provide better safety information and education for parents and teachers.
Sarah Crawley, Director of Barnardo’s Cymru, said parents should ensure they have their privacy settings on and think carefully about the images of their children they are sharing.
She said: “I think parents need to be more informed of the possible dangers and lack of control regarding pictures and video being accessed and used by strangers.
“Privacy settings can be used on Facebook profiles and YouTube, but if these are not enabled and parents are unaware of them, then all their photos and videos are open to everyone.”
Ms Crawley added: “Their own children and teenagers may also be posting content that their parents don’t know about which is then shared and used illegally.”
Barnardo’s has warned that online abuse can have a “devastating impact”.
The charity urges parents to learn about the games and apps their children are accessing, as well as making sure parental controls, privacy setting and online filters are being correctly used.
A spokesman for NSPCC Cymru said: “Each time a photo or video is uploaded, it creates a digital footprint of a child which can follow them into adult life. It is always important to ask a child for their permission before posting photos or videos of them.
“For very young children, think about whether they would be happy for you to post or if it will embarrass them. If you aren’t sure, it’s best not to post.”
The education programme Thinkuknow was set up by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command of the National Crime Agency in 2006.
It aims to keep children and young people safe by providing education about sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.
The website has advice for parents about posting pictures of their children online.
Guidance says: “Most parents love sharing photos of their children with friends and family. But remember – pictures you share online could be out there for ever.”
For many children, online life begins before birth, when their excited parents-to-be post ultrasound images on social media.
A report published by Ofcom last year stated that 42% of parents share photos of their children online, with half of those posting pictures at least once a month.
The guidance adds: “The internet can provide fantastic tools for sharing special moments from your child’s early years.
“And online parenting forums, networks and blogs often provide valuable support and reassurance through parenting’s ups and downs. But before you share, you should give thought to exactly who can see photos and comments featuring your child, and how this online footprint might affect your child in years to come.
“Remember that anyone who can see a photo can also download or screenshot it, and could go on to share it.”
Detective Superintendent Leanne Brustad, from Gwent Police, said any parent concerned that content they have posted has been used inappropriately should report their concerns to the police immediately.
She added: “As a matter of course we would advise all parents to exercise common sense and regularly review their privacy settings to control who is able to view their content.”
Adults concerned about indecent images or the wellbeing of a child can call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000. Children can contact Childline with any concerns on 0808 1111.
For more information, visit Net Aware, Thinkuknow and Internet Matters .