Eight-year-olds sexually exploited online, says Barnardo’s as it launches urgent appeal to fund services
Children as young as eight are being sexually exploited, Barnardo’s warns as it launches an urgent appeal to fund its child sexual exploitation services.
The popularity of live streaming services like Tik Tok and Live.ly is contributing to younger and younger children needing to access specialist help after being exploited online, the UK’s leading children’s charity says.
In previous years Barnardo’s youngest child sexual exploitation service users were aged 10.
During 2017/2018 Barnardo’s child sexual exploitation services supported 19 children aged eight who had been exploited, children at risk of being exploited, or siblings of children who had been exploited.
Any child can become a victim of sexual exploitation, the charity warns, saying all children are vulnerable and there is no stereotypical ‘at risk’ profile for victims of any type of sexual abuse or exploitation.
Barnardo’s services demonstrate that children who live in protective families can still be targeted by determined groomers who use online platforms to communicate directly to children on their mobile devices.
Children using streaming services can be contacted by predators using the comments function on live videos and Barnardo’s is seeing children as young as eight in its services who have been encouraged to engage in sexual activity online.
Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:
“When we think of young people who have been sexually exploited, a stereotypically ‘vulnerable’ child may come to mind; someone in the care system, who doesn’t have a reliable support network or who is disengaged with education. But the fact is that any child can become the victim of sexual exploitation or abuse, even children in loving, stable families.
“Without the right security settings, children broadcasting live video of themselves over the internet could be targeted by abusers in their bedrooms.
“It’s vital that parents get to know and understand the technology their children are using and make sure they have appropriate security settings in place. They should also talk to their children about sex and relationships and the possible risks and dangers online so children feel able to confide in them if something doesn’t feel right.
“We are also calling for a legal duty on technology companies to prevent children being harmed online.”
Broadcasting videos live over the internet has become popular among children and young people. A survey by YouGov for Barnardo’s in 2018* found that 57% of 12-year-olds and more than one-in-four children aged 10 (28%) admitted live streaming content over the internet using apps meant for people over the age of 13.
Almost a quarter of 10 to 16 year-olds (24%) said they or a friend regretted posting live content on apps and websites.
14-year-old Ruby was in a loving, stable family when she was groomed and abused. Despite her supportive family, Ruby felt she needed to find love and affection online.
She started using dating apps meant for adults and started sending explicit pictures and videos of herself to people she was targeted by online. She was still only 14 when she met up with one of the men and had sex for the first time.
“Deep down I knew it was wrong and I began to regret it. I was still just 14 and hadn’t been ready.
“We met again in a local park a few weeks later. He tried to pull my jeans down. I said ‘no’ but he kept undressing me. That’s when I realised that I was in danger and started to panic and cry. He let go and left. I was scared but it didn’t stop me from meeting people from the internet.
“I started to self-harm by cutting myself. It was a way of releasing all of my pain and I soon found that I couldn’t stop.
“I met another boy and I believed that I loved him. I felt it was my responsibility to make him happy. He would Skype me during the night and force me to stay awake with him. He wouldn’t speak to me if I didn’t, which was more than I could bear.
“He knew exactly how to manipulate me. No matter how many times he made me cry and how many times he threatened to leave, everything would be fine again with just one kind word. I would forget everything because he called me beautiful.
“One night he called me, screaming and threatening to kill himself, yelling that it was all my fault. I began to wonder if things would ever get better.
“I decided that I would tell my parents that I was self-harming but I carried on with my online life and was soon meeting up with boys from the internet again.
“Eventually my parents caught me and it felt as if my entire world had finally fallen to pieces. All of the things I had done, and had been done to me, were out in the open. The feeling of self-disgust was so strong that it made me want to tear out of my own skin just so that I would feel clean.
“My own parents didn’t know who I was anymore and they called the police, who took my phone and asked me lots of questions – but I didn’t see that I was being manipulated by the people I spoke to online.
“That was when I was referred to a Barnardo’s project worker. She helped me to work through my past and understand grooming and what had happened to me, and helped me to recognise the signs of abusive relationships and how to avoid them.
“The sessions really helped and they became a lifeline. They helped me to understand that I wasn’t to blame for what had happened. I was a child and a victim of exploitation. Life at home was tough, but I could talk through all of my issues with my project worker. She helped me to cope with the nightmares, panic attacks and anxiety.”
Barnardo’s is appealing for donations to help fund its child sexual exploitation services to help children like Ruby. Visit www.barnardos.org.uk/transform to make a donation.