Thursday, 25 June 2009

Beware Wolves Online

Here’s a question for the parents reading this. How hot are you on internet security? Is the computer your family use where you can see it? Have you switched on the parental controls? Do you know what it is your children are looking at when they spend hours online? Do you even know if they are surfing or chatting?

Boy #1 is not really into computers at the moment. At 5, he has other interests, or at least I Iike to think he does, so apart from watching the odd excerpt from Disney films on youtube, or visiting the C-Beebies site from time to time, his on-line exposure to-date has been limited. But I’m reminded that this period of grace is running out every time that ad for pc’s using an 8 year old girl pops up on tv.

The laid-back parent in me says not to worry, there’s plenty of time to fret about it. Which is true, I suppose. But at what age should I worry? I think that it’s probably sooner than I imagine.

This concern was highlighted yesterday when I read Frog in the Field’s post 'Always Use the Green Cross Code' where she writes about some worrying statistics concerning parent’s attitudes to their children’s online activity, and also lists some helpful hints on how to make the whole thing a little safer.

Now, I know what those of you with slightly older children than mine might be saying. ‘My child’s much too sensible to do anything silly.’ ‘I would know if anything was wrong.’ ‘He/she’s just too normal to get involved in anything I wouldn’t be happy about.’


Because that’s just what a good friend of mine thought about her early teenage daughter. She’s given me permission to write about this in the hope that it will prevent similar things happening to other children.

Her daughter was signed up to a social networking site when visiting some friends, who told her that it was great fun and that they could message her through it. Being a good parent who was aware that the internet can be a dangerous place, my friend discovered this from her daughter when she got home, and the outcome was that my friend – let’s call her Sue – asked her daughter not to use the site.

Sue’s daughter didn’t seem interested at first. Then she came home from school one day saying it was fine to use the site because people could only see her details if she gave them permission. It wasn’t public, it was safe, and only her friends would be able to see what she wrote.

Still Sue wasn’t happy. But her daughter said she was just fussing and that her mum didn't understand it all like she did. So the site got used early in the mornings before breakfast. And it was at this point that what I think of as the ingredients for a perfect storm began to gather.

Sue’s daughter was having trouble with a girl at school. She mentioned it online to a ‘friend’. She thought she knew who this person was. It turned out that she didn’t. He was simply someone who had looked through her group of friends’ profiles and had started sending messages to all of them. And being young teenage girls, no warning bells rang. No, being teenage girls (and don’t judge, we’ve all been there), they thought it nice attention, fun, and harmless.

So, Sue’s daughter began to pour her heart out about the troublesome girl at school to this 'friend'. She started talking to him about the music she was into. Also harmless.

Until he wrote to her about cutting herself. She was young and impressionable, and feeling lonely. So she tried it.

He said he'd like to meet up sometime in the future. So she gave him her school e-mail address. Then she gave him her home e-mail address.

Now – thank god – my friend Sue is no fool. By this stage she was becoming very suspicious, and had even asked her daughter if she had given out personal details to anyone, which was of course denied. One morning though, after her daughter had not logged out before going to school, Sue looked into the browser history and was able to read all her conversations. In her own words: "I thought I was going to die. My well balanced, intelligent daughter was cutting herself and had given her school email address and private email address to this person."

Luckily, Sue had found out in time. Her daughter had only given this ‘friend’ her details that same day, and by swift action she was able to deal with the situation. Sue immediately followed her daughter into the school and had her email shut down, then they both sat and talked with a trained counsellor. The so-called ‘friend’ was warned that parents were aware of his activity, and her daughter’s social networking account was closed.

Sue’s final word on this?

“My daughter is happier now, more outgoing, no longer cutting. Thank heavens, it could all have been so much worse, and we're sensible parents, or so we thought...”

Please. Check out Frog’s post for the guidelines. And turn on the parental controls.


  1. Certainly a harrowing tale, and a close call at that!
    a boy in my 8 year old daughters' class Googled 'Naked Men'..can you imagine what came up in front of all those children?
    I was not happy when I heard about it, it will probably be laughed about later in life but at the time..grr!
    ps. Thanks for linking to my post, people read it...these chldren are so precious. (I'm such a serious little frog today)

  2. Seems to be a lot of blog posts recently that I am mentioning my brother in the comments lol!

    My husband was asked by my brothers parents (long story) to have a look at the family computer as it was running slow. My DH set about wiping the history, deleting cookies and doing a general upgrade.

    Later that night he commented to me about some adult material he had found in the history. Unsure if it was my brothers or his parents he was reluctant to ask in case it was the parents!

    Turned out that my brohter had been downloading images on to disks and was selling them at school for profit! Shortly after my DH installed some heavy duty parental controls and the PC was moved out of my brothers bedroom!

    Anyway our PC's are all linked together so we can see exactly what DD is up to, but she tends to stick with websites in her favourites!

  3. As the parent of an almost 9 year old as well as a 4 year old, I'm becoming more aware of the issues surrounding my little girls' internet use. Especially as over the weekend my hubby's Mum bought Miss E a laptop. I do think she's pretty innocent, but she told me that at school they googled the word 'dogs' on google images and were faced with some pretty gruesome pictures of dead dogs as well as the cute kind they were looking for.

    I'll definitely be reading Frog's post. So far I haven't allowed E to have her own email address even, but she has friends who already use MSN.

    Rosie Scribble and I were talking about this just the other day. As Rosie pointed out, many 'safety locks' block the obvious words, but kids are actually unlikely to search for 'p*rn' but might simply but in the word 'bum' etc just for fun. The less obvious words will still take them to iffy sites.

    Scary stuff.

  4. Great post. As a parent who's already discovered some alarming Internet activity, I can only stress how important it is to make sure you know what your kids are doing. The big no-no is having computers in bedrooms. Some of my kids' friends are on at 1am.
    Although the Potty boys are a bit too young to worry about, it won't be long. They talk about 'boob' web sites at school, and the most worrying thing is the pop-ups. (Not the boobs, the web sites.) These can quickly become very nasty AND there are video clips involved which would make your hair stand on end!
    Apart from parental controls, you should let them know that they leave a train of Internet activity every time they go on-line. It also helps that adolescents are a bit forgetful and constantly leave their Facebook pages open for mothers to glance over!!!

  5. Thanks for posting this. What a scary story. I know this is just around the corner...

  6. Frog, thankyou for writing yours in the first place and calling my attention to this...

    Pippa, thanks for visiting and commenting - and your brother sounds... enterprising?

    Jo, it IS scary, which is why I think the joint internet sessions with children are such a good idea. I also may put our default screen to C-Beebies rather than google... (Just kidding. For now.)

    EPM, 'all mums have eyes in the back of our heads, we will kno where you've been...' That's a good one. I will DEFINITELY be using it!

    Modern, yes, sadly it is. Along with the cell phones and the possibility of txt bullying. Anyone else fancy moving to outer mongolia?

  7. Excellent post.
    Reminds me of what I was like as a child/teenager, very naive, highly impressionable. Thank goodness the internet wasn't around then. I dread to think what I may have ended up doing for a bit of flattery.
    I've got a few years yet before this becomes an issue for my kids, but I will be ready.

  8. yep. One thing that also bothers me lately is that altho i love reading about my blogging friends kids, i cant help wondering who else is watching. I feel deeply uneasy when I see photos of kids at school, or easily traceable info posted.

    We seriously have to be careful. As Mum/bloggers we have to protect our kids.

    Anyone who uses a fairly standard statistic counter for their blog will know its scarily easy to trace where an individual blogger is posting from.

    after that, its pretty easy to follow through.

    something to think about...sad but true....

  9. I'm so glad I read this, what a great post. My son uses the PC a lot and I have put all the parental controls on. Although I do let him on my screen because otherwise he can't view some videos on cbeebies. I do supervise him as the first time I didn't and I found him on a rather dodgy looking site. Never again!

  10. Screamish is quite right, I also tend to think that living in the countryside makes life safer, but of course it doesn't with the Internet around...
    I'm very glad I have dogs, scary brothers-in-law and a Darling Husband who has a shotgun and knows how to use it.

  11. well done for highlighting that potty. the difficulty is exacerbated because when you're trying to be a good parent you know you need to try to let go a little and not peer perpetually over shoulders for fear of rolling eye reactions. the trick is to learn to guage it: when to give them space and when to hone right back in again and take control. your friend did well. and I'm so glad her daughter is safe and happy.

  12. SC, I guess each generation of teenagers has new challengest to deal with. For me it was how to keep my hair immovable in the ridiculous 80's styley...

    Screamish, excellent point, and exactly why I don't post photos of the Boys.

    CB, I think - after using parental controls - the most important hint of all those listed is putting the computer screen where it can be seen and supervised. Easier said than done in this age of laptops, though.

    Frog, now you're scaring ME - I promise never to be rude to you again...

    RM, when the time comes I will be coming to you for advice on how to handle the boy's online activities, no doubt about it!

  13. A shocking story, thanks for sharing it to help others aware. My DD is nearing 5 and with all the bits they do at school and a good reading age is becoming more internet savvy, we do have parental controls but even so I worry.
    So glad your friends daughter was OK, a lesson to us all.

  14. Thank you for telling this story and making people aware. As I said in a comment I left at Frog in the Field's, my school now holds evenings to educate parents on how to keep their children safe, as well as trying to teach the pupils. The wolves out there know that chlidren can be naiive, trusting and vulnerable and that's what they prey on. My making children aware of what is happening and parents aware of how to monitor and help their children, we can keep them safe.

  15. Great post. It isn't something I ever really think about because the boys don't ever tend to go on the computer right now. But I know I need to keep it lodged firmly at the forefront of my mind as they grow and their computer usage increases.

    A colleague had a rude awakening regarding internet usage with her 11 year old son. She was on a business trip and got a very upset call from her son explaining that he had 'crashed' her computer. Insisted he hadn't been doing anything wrong. She assumed it was a Youtube virus and thought she would sort it out when she got home. When she told male colleagues they all chortled and told her he had probably been checking out porn sites. She was flabbergasted. 'Don't be ridiculous - he's only 11!!' Of course, it turns out the guys were right. The sites were pretty innocous, mainly women in underwear, but she had no idea.

  16. A lot of comments about pop-ups suggest that most people don't use FireFox, or even a late version of Internet Explorer where those sort of things are much less likely to happen. If you use a sensible browser set-up you will be more secure than most "parental controls" software can make you - keyword blocking is trivially easy for a smart child to bypass. I recommend Firefox 3 with the NoScript and AdBlock Plus add-ons. I never get pop-ups or annoying adverts. And all that software is free, of course.

  17. I'm more disturbed by the fact that this mother didn't notice that her 8-year-old was cutting herself than by the fact that the kid was "sneaking" visits to chat rooms.

    What sort of priorities has this woman got that she's more concerned with her kid's browser history than her physical well being?


  18. Ralphinjersey - thanks for commenting, but I suggest you read the post properly. To put you straight on a few things...: At what point did I say the child was 8? She wasn't. And I'm assuming that you don't have teenage children that you think you would regularly be able to see them naked. They are notoriously private about their bodies; spotting cutting or any similar sort of behaviour is incredibly difficult. Finally, she was not visiting chat rooms. This was a well-known social media network where this early teenage child (incorrectly) thought she was safe. And would I check my children's browser history if I got the opportunity in similar circumstances, and was suspicious of what was going on? Hell, yes. Show me a mother that wouldn't.

  19. My kids are way too young for me to worry about it now ( 2 1/2 and 1 year old) but I do worry. There are so many weirdos out there!
    That's a scary story, but also a very good one, as it shows that parents shouldn't be just aware of pedophiles praying on our children on the net. We also have to be aware of sick people who use the internet to manipulate kids and gain the power they don't have in real non virtual life.
    Great post and real eye opener, thank you very much!

    BTW congrats for your place in the Cision top 10 :)

  20. Her teenage daughter was cutting herself and "Sue" did not notice? I think there are other problems at home other than on line friends.

  21. Wedger, thanks for commenting, but as I wrote to Ralphinjersey I think perhaps your experience of teenagers is limited. Grown women in supposedly intimate relationships cut themselves and get away with it; how difficult do you think it is for a teenage girl - typically very shy of their bodies around parents - to do it unnoticed? Not very difficult at all, is the answer. I suggest you think more carefully before levelling that kind of accusation so easily in the future.

  22. Oh my God I am so glad that I hopped over here from Brit Mums to read the rest of the story. Gosh!

    And a sensible well balance girl too.... shows it can happen to anyone :-(

    I came across your post as I was looking for people writing about this subject as I just wrote this:

    Best regards
    Liska x


Go on - you know you want to...