An interview with Anne-Marie Yates, Learning and Development Lead in XenZone’s Clinical Team

Is social media – or being online – risky for young people?

Social media and gaming is a huge part of children’s and young people’s lives – and of course adult’s lives too. It can be a great space to meet friends, learn, play games and have fun. It can connect us in powerful and positive ways.

But we also know that social media can pose risks to children and young people and their physical safety and emotional health and well-being. Particularly when sites are not monitored or moderated effectively.

We regularly hear from young people who have found themselves caught up in the darker side of social media or on other unmonitored sites.

The truth is that perpetrators target vulnerability, not age or gender, and can easily manipulate young people. Young people then become frightened, isolated and overwhelmed.

If a perpetrator knows there is no father or male figure in that young person’s life they will try and meet that need. If they know the young person has recently been rejected by a partner they will try to be that partner. If a person is looking for a friend they will be that friend.

If something negative happens, young people can often then blame themselves and this can lead to them feeling or being left in a frightening and dangerous situation.

How do we help to build online resilience in young people?

For a parent or carer, it’s about educating a young person in an age appropriate way as soon as they begin to show an interest or begin using social media. By talking openly with children and young people, it gives them a clear message that it is okay to talk about anything.

A child is far more likely, if educated about the benefits and the risks, to tell a parent or carer if something goes wrong or does not feel right.

There are organisations such as ‘CEOP’, a law enforcement agency helping keep children and young people safe from sexual abuse and grooming online, which can help do that. Advice on the site is targeted at specific age groups, starting with children as young as five. The ‘thinkuknow’ resources are fantastic.

I would encourage a parent or carer to watch the short videos with their child and educate themselves at the same time. Let children ask questions and ask when they need to – which might be a week or so later. Parents can also monitor a young person’s browsing history by, for example, asking for usage reports from their mobile service provider.

I would also reassure parents that they can and should create boundaries, despite the pressure they may feel to let their child loose online. I monitor my teenage son’s internet use; we are very open about this, but more importantly he knows why. It’s about keeping him safe.

Teenagers tend to be secretive and that’s normal, but if they know that they can talk to someone if something doesn’t feel right, that knowledge is going to keep them safe.

The more educated, armed and fore-warned a parent is, the more likely they are to have those conversations in an age appropriate manner.

I know parents who are worried their child is at risk from grooming may want to take their child’s phone away. If they are at risk, however, this might push them further towards their abuser – who may then offer a new phone as an enticement to join their gang or engage in other risky or inappropriate behaviour.

Parents or carers and their children could consider an agreed ‘contract’ between them. This may cover the use of a phone, time-wise, and also cover appropriate sites.

How cautious should parents and carers about their children being online and using social media sites?

Of course no-one wants to terrify young people. The big message is: if that young person has a gut feeling something isn’t right, it probably isn’t.

They should try to speak to a trusted adult about their concerns. The ‘trusted’ part is important here as we know sometimes abuse is happening in the home.

How does Kooth help?

Usually young people come to us in a distressed state because they’ve shared a picture or sent a text and are scared about the consequences. They’re in crisis.

Our focus is on safeguarding and safety, first and foremost. We let them know about organisations like CEOP, which supports and empowers them to report abuse.

And while we’re focused on safeguarding, advising and supporting, we also offer ongoing support.

It could be that we’re talking to a young person in the initial grooming stages, in which case we look at prevention and education. Or we could be at a stage where a young person has met the perpetrator. It could be relevant to county lines. It could be for sexual exploitation (they are often interlinked).

We listen without judgement, helping a young person see the situation they are in and supporting them to find a way out. The door at Kooth remains open to them and we build that relationship and offer the time and space they need.

Why do some young people choose to join gangs?

I doubt it’s ever a choice, but a need. Young people may become involved in a gang for many different reasons: to belong to something or someone, through peer pressure or because of adverse childhood experiences and trauma. Often what is a push factor to engage with gangs is what can also keep them there, so early intervention is key. However all children and young people can be at risk.

Perpetrators are extremely clever at targeting; they can use social media to begin the grooming process. Sometimes they will use other young people as spotters or seekers. Often they are both the perpetrator and the victim. Many have been groomed and exploited themselves.

Parents often feel really out of control because a perpetrator’s pull can be so great. Young people can ignore everyone around them, even those will the intention of keeping them safe, when entrenched in the grooming process, so the earlier they seek advice the better.

So while we know that there are many positives to the internet and to social media, the more we understand the risks, and help build knowledge and resilience in our children, the better chance we have of avoiding the risks attached to unmonitored sites.

So, the answer is education and open dialogue?

Yes, so that we have a shared understanding and can help children and young people avoid the risks together. Listening to the voice of the child is key, as well as offering positive relationships, whether a parent or professional.

Anne-Marie Yates

Useful resources and further reading

CEOP – law enforcement agency helping keep children and young people safe from sexual abuse and grooming online. See its ‘Think U Know’ resources

We’re part of the charitable organisation, NWG, formed as a UK network of over 14,500 practitioners who disseminate our information down through their services, to professionals working on the issue of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and trafficking within the UK

Pace offers emotional support to parents affected by CSE through one-to-one telephone support and a national befriender scheme. Pace has worked with over 600 families in England during the last 16 years

Stop It Now! is a child sexual abuse prevention campaign and helpline

Children’s Commissioner report: “If Only Someone Had Listened”, an inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. There’s a version for children and young people here too

Counsellor video: Is social media damaging to young people?

Counsellor blog: Understanding the impact of social media on young people

Blog: Creating a Safeguarded and Supported Online Experience