What Is The Barrier That Is Stopping Women From Disclosing Their Experience Of Sexual Violence?

As a trauma therapist, I have had the privilege of extensive experience working with survivors of sexual violence, and the bravery they show to engage in support to begin to make sense of their trauma is truly inspirational. Each and every person’s healing journey and experience of Sexual Violence is completely individual.

back shot of a woman with her head down in gray scale.

However, after several years of holding people’s hope, a few common themes are shared around the blocks to disclosing their experience of sexual violence to either the police or their support network.

I wanted to understand the difficulties that survivors experience in disclosing to the police or the support network around them. I want to explore this further by understanding the current picture of the justice system and gaining insight from my client’s points of view by asking direct questions about their experiences. I have gained their permission to use answers within this article and will keep their identities anonymous to further protect them.

Reporting the crime to the police can be a very traumatic experience often resulting in a long drawn-out process that unfortunately does not often lead to a conviction or a fitting sentence given to the perpetrator. The process of reporting includes sharing every detail of rape, sexual assault, child sexual exploitation, or child abuse they have experienced this can be re-traumatizing for the survivor.

Over the last ten years in the UK has seen a dramatic increase in the number of sexual violence crimes, Rape Crisis reports “The number of rape offenses in the year ending June 2021 was 61,158. The charity ‘Rape Crisis’ has reported 1 in 4 women being raped or sexually assaulted as an adult and the highest number of rape cases reported to the police in march 2022 was 70,330.”

Despite more rapes and sexual offenses being committed and reported than ever before the statistics for successful convictions are at an all-time low. Criminologist Dr. Katrin Hohl from the University of London, reported last year that under 1% of reported rapes lead to a successful conviction.

I feel this further blocks the decision to report to the police. Knowing that the process will be invasive and may leave the Survivor feeling like they aren’t believed married with the unlikely chance of a successful conviction doesn’t encourage survivors to report the horrendous crimes they have experienced.

I asked three clients a series of questions to further understand their experiences with disclosing, they have bravely agreed for me to share their experience. I will protect their identity, but they have agreed to share their gender, age, and community identity as it is important to give context to their responses. I have outlined the demographic and shared the questions and the client’s responses below.

Client A: 24 years old, British Sikh, heterosexual, female. Client B: 37 years old, white British, heterosexual, female. Client C: 25-year-old, White British, Lesbian, Female

Did you report your Sexual Violence to the police? If yes/or no why/why not?

Client A: “No, I did not report. It took me 3 years to be able to come to terms with what happened myself, let alone tell my own family. I could never think about going to the police with it, not when it was so raw when I would have to relive it not even wanting to believe it happened to me. I didn’t at the time, have the mental and emotional capacity to go to the police with it, knowing how much I would be questioned about every detail, some of which are a total blur. went back and forth from coming forward about it, but in the end decided against it because if it landed in court, and I had to become a witness, I don’t think I could’ve handled my entire life, conversations, choice of clothing and anything else being under a microscope. “

This highlights the current rape culture where survivors are often judged by society for not coming forward at the time of the trauma they experienced. I think the idea of laying your life and choices bare when you have experienced a violation is almost too much.

Client B: “I didn’t report my experience to the police, I was so scared I wouldn’t be believed and that my family would find out what had happened to me. I was worried that I would be blamed for not being able to stop what happened to me. The idea of being questioned and describing my trauma was overwhelming.”

The fear of not being believed and having to describe in graphic detail the survivor’s experience can be retraumatizing for them. Trauma memories are often non-linear and often not fully present. Client B has shared that they dissociated a number of times throughout their experience. Not being able to recall a detailed timeline of events can add to the fear of not being believed.

Client C:” I did not report my experiences to the police. Unfortunately, my experiences were not a one-off issue but instead a series of events over the course of a year and a half. Due to this, I believe it was a case of not understanding in myself that what I had experienced was something that should be reported. I think it’s often a common misconception that sexual violence is something that can only happen to girls who are drunk, wearing crop tops, and being approached by strangers. In reality of course, sexual violence can happen to anyone wearing anything and being in any state of mind. It can happen with the person you love whilst you’re wearing your pyjamas in your home. Whilst I truly believe the above to be correct, this is not the dogma of society today; particularly of those in a position of power who could actually do something to influence change. Whilst I was scared of the perpetrator, I feel I was more scared by the idea that I would disclose information that would change others’ perceptions of me. I believed at the time and still do, that disclosing my experiences to the police would have led to further questions that I either could not answer or was not in a fit state to answer. By not adhering to the same ideals, I believed that I would have been made to feel ashamed of those events; as if I had done something that caused a chain reaction so that the only logical outcome would have been sexual violence. Growing up in a rural environment, I was often witness to conversations such as “well she obviously did something to annoy him” or “well what did she expect when she talked back like that?”. Aside from the obvious victim blaming, there is a sense that this is an inevitable sequence of events that had to happen in order for the woman in this situation to understand her place. All in all, the main reason I did not report my experiences was because I was conditioned to believe 2 important things 1. This is a normal thing that happens 2. I had obviously provoked such behavior In disclosing to the police, I became part of the problem; another example of a woman trying to ruin a man’s life with stories of her own failings.”

The client is able to bravely share the impact of the subconscious messages they received from their environment growing up and how that shaped their own experiences of prolonged sexual and domestic violence. I think it’s so powerful to see how their world “conditioned” them into holding damaging beliefs about women and how they see the world through a different lens now.

Q: “Did the fear of not being believed prevent you from disclosing? If so how?”

Client A:In all honesty, this thought never really came into my head. I wasn’t actually worried about not being believed, but more so worried about being blamed. As a woman, we get a huge amount of the blame for SA committed against us, but as a woman of colour, our communities are a whole lot tougher to get through.”

Client B:Yes, I truly thought I would be perceived as if I was making it up. I thought the police might think that sexual violence happens to attractive women who are in dangerous situations. I was also worried my family wouldn’t believe me or blame me. “

Client C:Personally, I felt that not being believed was almost a given. It is common knowledge that sexual violence cases are not often convicted and I was reluctant to be another name on the list of people who had disclosed information, only to be tossed aside as a liar. I don’t think that the case would have been that it was believed I was lying about the violence, I think the situation would have been that I wasn’t believed that I did not deserve it. By admitting to the police that this had happened, I was in essence admitting that I had done something bad enough to warrant the violence as a reaction. My fear was that disclosure would lead to questions such as “if you hadn’t done this then maybe it wouldn’t have happened”. As a victim of sexual violence, you go through so many thought processes and how someone reacts to your story can influence which process dominates. If not being believed by the police had occurred, like in the case of so many others, I believe it would have led me further down a path of believing that I had done something to deserve my experiences.”

All of the clients felt as if they would be somehow blamed for the sexual violence they had experienced. Whilst the lack of convictions also seems to play a part in the reasons why women don’t disclose, I feel that rape culture and societal messaging also feed into a culture where women feel unheard, judged, and dismissed and disclosing their experiences would means they don’t receive the justice they deserve.

Q: If you disclosed to family or friends were you believed?

Client A: “For three years, I battled this by myself, but I made the decision to tell my mother first, and later my father and brother and best friend. All of whom believed me without a second thought.”

Client B: “ I have never disclosed to any of my family and probably never will I hold so much shame still around what happened to me but don’t feel like they will ever understand it or believe me. I have disclosed to one friend and my husband both of whom believed me but it still feels really hard to talk about.”

Client C:I have been relatively fortunate in my experiences of being believed by those I have disclosed my story too. However, I also have been particular about who I have disclosed to in the first place. When telling my friends, I was met with support and acceptance as I was not in an environment in which the dogma of victim blaming was predominant. In comparison, however, in telling a trusted elderly relative, I was told that it was a completely normal experience and that it would help me learn what not to do. I think being believed entirely depends on the individual person you are retelling to and their own stigmatised viewpoint of sexual violence and victim blaming.”

Reading the above response it’s easy to see that the survivor of sexual violence is still left with the decision of who to disclose to and what length of time to leave it. It’s hard to imagine carrying the impact of sexual violence in isolation whilst trying to work out who will believe you and who will support you. Client C’s response from an older relative highlights the damage long-term exposure to rape and myths can have. As a therapist I believe wholeheartedly this can lead to intergenerational trauma – the oppressive effect of their own traumatic experiences.

Q: Did you worry about the impact on your community?

Client A: “Personally, no one else aside from those mentioned and a few other friends and my now partner know about the violence I survived. That being said, as a whole, I think it is hugely important to talk about sexual assault and violence more, especially in the Asian community. It is imperative to break the stigma about survivors being at fault. This will only happen with more open conversations and education. In the future, if I ever feel ready to, I would like to be a part of this conversation and share my story and how my family supported my healing journey. I think people in the community seeing how a supportive family works and how to nurture and help someone who has endured such horrors and is still able to laugh and be happy would be a huge wake up call not to label the survivors as the problem. The accountability has to be shifted, and not just in Asian communities, but within every community. The survivors never asked for this pain, I never asked to go through what I went through. I never asked to be stripped of my sense of self, safety, dignity and mental stability.”

Client B: “ I never thought about the community in the sense that I didn’t feel I belonged or my life would impact the community as a whole.”

Client C: “This wasn’t a particular concern for me as I never had a consideration to share the information. The community that I grew up in believed that sexual and physical violence was a method in which men taught women how to behave. By telling those in the community, it would have only shed light on my own behaviour as opposed to the perpetrator. I think more than anything, it would have influenced the community’s view of me and that was something that I did not want to risk.”

I feel the responses to this question speaks for themselves. There are however, a wide range of differences between each one. This helps to put into perspective how the communities we belong to shape how we see ourselves, and perceive women and sexual violence as a whole. I was hugely saddened by the responses; from not feeling like the their experience mattered, to the client’s behaviour being questioned. But, I have admiration for the hope and potential change in the community in client A’s response.

Q: Has this impacted on your healing journey at all?

Client A:It took me almost 5 years to reach out to my therapist and get help. I wanted to talk about it from the start of my therapy journey, but I wasn’t ready to dive into it and properly heal from it. The assaults impacted my life for years, they impacted my friendships, relationships with my family and my relationship with myself, for years I couldn’t look in the mirror without feeling shame and disgust. I was only 18 when this happened to me, and I was 23 when enough was enough and I sought help. The conversation around sexual violence is not nearly as loud or as big enough as it should be. There has to be this huge overhaul on how we look at this, not just for out future generation, but for those out there like me, who survived, lived on and learnt to feel safe again.

Once I started my healing journey in therapy, it took me about 6 or 7 months to be able to talk about the assault. Only then, was I fully ready to finally heal and move past this. I’ve read accounts of other survivors who did go to the police, who ended up in court, only to have their whole life shredded to pieces and their attacker go free. This has to change. The stigma around sexual violence and how shunned upon it is to speak about it online, within your community, even in your own home to an extent had a huge impact on my healing timeline. Had the topic been more available for discussion, it wouldn’t have felt like such a huge weight pushing me into the ground for 5 years before I sought help, in fact, I wouldn’t have waited that long. I wouldn’t have hidden it from my family and friends for 3 years, I wouldn’t have silently suffered and ended up going down the darkest of paths at 18 years old. I never asked for that pain, I never wanted that pain – until it happened to me, from someone I trusted too, it was always something I heard about but never thought it could happen to me. When we, as women, say ‘All men…’, we know it isn’t all men, we just don’t know which men it is. I never thought someone I trusted could hurt me, let alone push me to a point of almost no return. It is high time for the conversation to open up and for the stigma around sexual violence survivors to disappear. We’re not the ones who caused ourselves this pain and fear, but we damn sure are the ones who survived it and lived on in spite of it. “

Client B: “ It took a long time for me to find a therapist, and when I eventually did I really struggled, in the beginning, to name what had happened to me. I thought they might blame me or assume that I deserved the experience as I had been so naïve not to see it. My therapist helped me see how it had a ripple effect on all my relationships and made me fear all men and feel as if I would never trust anyone. I think the who experience of sexual violence has damaged me long term, but my therapist has given me so much hope that I can take the power away from my perpetrator, by healing and recognising a 13-year-old is not responsible for what happened to her.”

Client C:I think being believed is the biggest thing that has contributed to my healing journey. It is often said that the first part in healing is acceptance but I do not believe this is to be true in the slightest. It was only after I had shared my experience and been believed, that I began to allow myself to come to terms with the idea that I had experienced something that should not have happened. Someone believing you allows you to believe in yourself. Often with those who suffer any type of violence, there may be gaps in memory or times in which your memory is muddled. Whilst this may give ammunition to those who’s view rests solely on the idea that ‘victims’ make up lies to ruin men’s lives, it is also the way in which a victim can protect themselves. By having someone believe me, I have been able to open those memories and fully understand them as a crime rather than a just punishment. Overall, those three words “I believe you” hold more power than that of the perpetrator and allow victims like myself to fully embrace their healing journey and allow us to understand our experiences. Whilst those who do not believe me paint me as a broken individual, it is those who do believe me that are helping me become whole.”

Before conducting this research, I wanted to clearly understand the barriers that stop women from disclosing their experiences of sexual violence to either the police or their support networks. I think it’s clear to see from the statistics and the response from my clients that there are a wide variety of issues preventing women from sharing their traumatic experiences. The combination of low conviction rates, how the police interview victims of sexual violence, and the societal messaging around current rape culture are obvious obstacles to women being able to share their experiences.

There is much more work to be done with the police and the way sexual violence victims are treated so that they can understand how traumatizing the process is. I think in the UK there is a current national outcry for the low conviction rates and sentences being given as this just isn’t good enough and certainly, it doesn’t help provide any deterrent. The problem has been further exacerbated by the recent case of a British policeman being found guilty of multiple rapes and crimes of sexual violence whilst serving. It feels as if the trust in the justice system by victims of sexual violence is understandably low.

I would like to explore further the impact that societal culture has on victims of sexual violence being heard and believed in a future article that I can dedicate more time and research to. I believe that we are very quick to dismiss the impact of messages we receive from the press, society as a whole, and celebrity culture about sexual violence.

I would like to take this time to thank my inspiration, brave, strong, and amazing clients for being able to share their experiences.

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Online Abuse – Child Sexual Exploitation In The Internet Age

As a psychotherapist, I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse in many forms I have become increasingly aware of the changing direction of sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people. It’s only within the last 20 years that the UK has recognised Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE); this was previously referred to as child prostitution which implies that the victim is consenting to the acts.

A sad kid in dark room with her laptop.

Both the UK legal system and statutory agencies are still playing catch up. We are beginning to see more of the organised CSE gangs being brought to justice. However, some of the abuse dates back as far as the 1970s. Whilst seeing the physical gangs being brought to justice is vital for the protection of children and the recovery of victims, it feels as if we are still looking backward and missing the evolving methods of exploitation that are occurring.

The NSPCC recently shared that the police recorded over 10,391 online child sex crimes which include grooming, sexual assault and rape in the year 2019/2021. Whilst this number fell slightly to 9,742 in 2020/21, potentially due to COVID, it still suggests a huge impact of online abuse.

Many online platforms are normalising sexual content for financial gains, often portraying content creators as “influencers” who make six-figure salaries. This often normalises the idea of swapping cash for images and content. Only Fans, the infamous platform where images and videos are uploaded and the creators are then paid by subscribers. Creators keep 80% of the profit they make. This has become a hugely attractive way for perpetrators to make money from the abuse they exact. Subscribers can send requests and offer larger amounts of cash for specific scenarios to be filmed or photographed. The scenarios can become more extreme than previously considered and the cash incentives and praise groom the creators to continuously push their boundaries.

In order to join OnlyFans, there is an age verification process to prove your identity. In May 2021, Alex Williamson for a BBC report, found that “under 18’s were using fake IDs to set up accounts, one 14 year old used her grandmother’s passport to set up an account.” This is just one account of many on public record proving that the age verification process for the website isn’t stringent enough.

Within the same BBC report, Childline had shared it was speaking to huge numbers of children under the age of 16, some as young as 12 who had been subject to grooming and exploitation on the website. They were often being forced to perform sexual acts by the perpetrators.

Michael Gryboski reported in August 2021, One of the most alarming reports from The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) In 2019 indicated it was aware of at least 10 cases involving missing children associated with content sold on OnlyFans. In 2021 this number grew to 80. These are figures based on children within the USA the actual worldwide figure is thought to be significantly higher.

Stephany Powell from the NCMEC “There is a strong indication of underage Sexual Exploitation. Traffickers are recruiting off of this as well and they too will use the opportunity to meet the creator in order to make more money from the victim”.

The children that are currently being exploited and abused on the platform were often victims of previous sexual abuse, mentally ill, experiencing neuro divergence, suicidal and highly vulnerable.

However, OnlyFans isn’t the only platform that has recently come under scrutiny for images and videos of child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. Pornhub which is owned by Mind Geek, a Canadian-based company was brought recently into the public’s awareness due to investigations that found videos of real-life rape, child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. Dawn Hawkins reported in June 2021.

The National Centre of Sexual Exploitation hosted a briefing for over 70 members of congress to look further into these images, and the running of Pornhub. This was in addition to hundreds of survivors whose abuse videos had been shared on the platform calling for further investigations. This led to major credit card companies pulling out from processing payments for the platforms. Pornhub was forced to remove 11,000 unverified videos. Despite this, it remains fully operational with huge amounts of unverified content on the platform today, and at its peak, had over 13+ million followers on Instagram.

In a recent Netflix documentary, “the most hated man on the internet” documented the journey to the incarceration of Hunter Moore the founder of isanybodyup.com who received 2 years and 6 months in prison for hacking the email accounts and photo storage apps of his victims to share pornographic, or graphic images of others. Isanybodyup.com was a self-proclaimed revenge porn website where profit was made from sexually explicit were posted without consent.

The impact of online child sexual exploitation is huge and will change the landscape of a young person’s life forever.

The UK has committed to a new online safety bill which will hold companies to account to do more to protect children and young people against abuse and exploitation, The bill has been delayed several times due to the pandemic and the recent change of prime minister.

The NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wainless said, “with every second the clock ticks by on the online safety bill an ever-growing number of children and families face the unimaginable trauma of preventable child abuse. The need for legislation to protect children is clear, and commands overwhelming support from MPs and the public. This builds on the UK’s global leadership position in tackling harm online. Robust regulation can be delivered while protecting freedom of speech and privacy. There can be nothing more important for the government than to keep children safe from abuse.”

There is a clear need to do more to protect children from online exploitation and sexual abuse. It’s vital that we see harsh legislation to ensure that online platforms face damning consequences and custodial sentences for the distribution of child abuse images. However, it’s not just legislation against these platforms we need, it’s a comprehensive support package in place for victims of such abuse to heal and rebuild themselves after such experiences. As a nation, both our National Health Service and specialised charity sectors are overstretched and underfunded.

I work with survivors on a daily basis and those who have suffered online exploitation talk openly about their fears surrounding the images of their abuse always being available on the internet. They also talk about how trapped they felt by their abuse and how every time they see a loved one looking at their phone or computer, they still fear they would uncover their images.

Some survivors tried many times to take their own life, unable to see another way out of the situation. One survivor I supported turned to substances to block out and numb what had happened to her. There is a huge cost to every life that has been marked by abuse. Sexual abuse and exploitation destroy lives, and the real cost to both the children who have experienced this and to the wider society is impossible to quantify. Each child deserves to be safe and have the opportunity to have a future free from fear, abuse and harm.

Toxic Busyness

Toxic busyness is a term that I came across before the pandemic began. Initially I felt that I could relate to this term in regards to my clients and colleagues. However, like many people at the beginning of the pandemic, when lock down began, I found myself struggling with the slowing pace of life. It was at this point that I began to reflect on what I would normally fill my time with. 

I became increasingly aware that I couldn’t sit still and that I would often feel unable to relax, and I’d feel guilty for my inactivity. It was a feeling that made me feel like “I should be doing something!”. Alongside this, I noticed a culture of posts on social media showing activity schedules and how people were spending their days. These schedules often contained activities with 15 – 30 minute intervals. Suddenly there became a need to learn a new language or be the best a baking banana bread, or completing Joe Wicks’ workouts. 

This made me take a step back and look at how culturally we praise and admire those who lives seems so full and are perpetually busy. I could really resonate with the feeling that I needed to fill my time with distractions. I decided to challenge myself to sit with this feeling, this was often difficult, but what I found over time was that by sitting with this feeling it subsided. 

This in turn led me to have more energy, lifted my mood and generally made me feel less anxious. I wanted to explore further the need I had to fill my time and to be busy. I was aware that often my clients who have experienced or are processing complex trauma will often fill their time to offer an enduring distraction for the difficult thoughts and feelings, but this didn’t feel like what was happening for me. 

I began to think about what my world look liked pre- pandemic and I realised my calendar was always full, I never sat still. I would often over commit to things even when I knew that I shouldn’t. I’d have holidays, but they never felt like a break as I felt I needed to fill each day full of activities. Colleagues would often share that they were close to burnout or how they were feeling overwhelmed which I thought was due to highly empathic nature of job roles. But, I began to think about the normalisation of being overworked and busyness. 

I’ve realised now that the normalisation of being so busy was harmful to me. It was just the acceptable norm, but worse than that, it appeared the busier we were the more of worth we seemed. I accepted that I had been stuck in a cycle of feeling more successful and of more value the busier that I was. I led a life at 100 miles and hour so I would feel that I had achieved a high level of self-care if I actually managed to stop and read a book, go for a walk or got the chance to do a facemask!

I recognised that if my everyday life was at a more sustainable pace I wouldn’t feel that finding time once in a blue moon to do something that enable me to feel rest was such an achievement. If I slowed down I could incorporate space and self-care into my everyday routines. 

Due to the pandemic and personal circumstances, I continued to live my life at a slower pace with more space in my diary. I tried not to over commit to social activities. This led to a positive boost to my mental wellbeing and left me feeling more in control and able to enjoy the things that gave my life colour.

When the language changed after the second lockdown and the phrase to “find a new normal” or “learning to live with Covid” I became aware of an increase of pressure I felt to fill my calendar again and over commit to social interactions. There were people that I was desperate to see and reconnect with especially family, but I didn’t want to feel overwhelmed and emotionally depleted by committing to seeing and doing everything in a short space of time. 

I also noticed those social media posts once celebrating the toxic busyness that had been so prevalent change from “we are all in this together” and wanting to connect as a community to a self-centred and somewhat aggressive attitude. I wondered whether this was linked to the need and celebration of toxic busyness.

I still have periods of time when I slip back into an over filled calendars and over committing myself, but I try hard to keep everything balanced now because I realise that only seeing myself as ‘of worth’ due to my busyness is stopping me living in an emotionally balanced and healthy way.

I have shared a post below to help identify the signs of toxic busyness. If you feel this is something that you are experiencing or caught in the cycle of, and it’s having a negative effect on your mental health, please feel free to reach out for help and support.

Grooming in a pandemic

As a therapist I specialise in supporting survivors of sexual violence and severe trauma. I am often surprised by the lack of awareness of how grooming happens, and the platforms that are used to access children. There have been many recent cases in the media about how children could be accessing inappropriate content on a variety of websites such as TikTok, Youtube and Snapchat.

Due to the current pandemic, our children are spending more time on screens, more than ever before and that combined with parents who are working from home, trying to juggle everything, this often leads to prolonged periods of time that our children are unsupervised online.

This is not a form of criticism or judgement. We are all just doing the best that we can with the tools that we have. During the first lockdown my Father was taken to hospital due to COVID-19. He spent an agonising time battling the disease in intensive care in a coma. It was exhausting then to put what energy I had left into home schooling and battling some days with my ten year old daughter to get through the work. All the while I tried to explain why online learning was so important to her. After home schooling had finished and we had done our 1hour allowed daily walk, I had nothing left to give. I wasn’t sleeping at all due to the stress and worry and I spent the rest of my time on the phone, cooking dinner or breaking down. My husband is a lecturer, so he was teaching from home and would try hard in the evenings to focus his time on my daughter and also to comfort me. This meant my daughter would spend an amount of time on a screen that she had never been allowed to before. I am so grateful to share that my Father pulled through, and that he is now recovering slowly.

I think back to that time with a huge amount of guilt because my daughter is an only child. Myself and my husband have always spent time with her and been accessible, so that she does not feel alone. However, during that period Minecraft, Gacha Life and kids Netflix were her best friends and babysitters who she would spend her downtime with. I am ashamed to admit that, but I think we all have to be honest. There are times we look back and wish things had been different. It makes me realise how easily my daughter could have been targeted and I am so grateful that this wasn’t her experience. Now the balance is readdressed, often meaning my daughter perceives me as the worst parent in the world because she doesn’t have access to Tiktok or Instagram. We are still currently in a period of time where she spends huge amounts of time online for home schooling, but I am really keen on trying not to normalise this and often talk about how good practical subjects like art, design technology or science will be again when she is back in the classroom.

Recently when exploring the impacts of prolonged screen time on children, I stumbled across a piece on the NSPCC. The sad news is that like my daughter, many children are being left unsupervised and devastatingly this has led to a huge potential increase in online grooming. According to their findings (incorporating the beginning of the first lockdown) within the 18 months to 29th May 2020 over 10,000 online grooming offences had been reported, up from 5,000 in 2018. The NSPCC shared that the data obtained revealed the below:

· the number of offences is accelerating, with 23% taking place in the six months up to October last year.

· Facebook-owned apps (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp) were used in 55% of cases, from April 2017 to October 2019, where police recorded information about how a child was groomed.

· There were over 3,200 instances of Facebook-owned apps being used, of which half involved Instagram. Snapchat was used over 1,060 times.

Unfortunately, as technological platforms advance and develop, so too do the channels of communication for groomers to use. Games such as Roblox, Fortnite and Among Us have chat facilities that can be accessed by adults posing as children.

Whilst this all seems bleak there are proactive steps that we can take as parents to understand how the grooming process works and what to look out for within our children’s behaviour. This can help you protect them further.

What are the 6 main stages of sexual grooming?

Stage 1- Identifying a victim – Abusers who groom online will often look for the patterns of time children are online for. For example, after or before school, weekends and particularly during lockdown lunch and break times. Children may talk about a new friend or share a name that they have not mentioned before. At this stage, children may be happy and would ask for extra time on their games.

Stage 2 – Gaining trust Abuser will be sharing the child’s interests and talking about relevant programmes and games, sharing fake school and friendship worries. This develops the child belief that the abuser is either the same age as them and they begin to trust they have similar interests or views as they do. Children may be more outspoke about their views at this stage (especially teenagers), if this is reinforced by the abusers, younger children may mention a new name when referring to a theme i.e “… Jo likes Minecraft.. he’s even killed an Enderdragon”. It might be the first time that you have heard about Jo. Children will be more enthused about playing a particular game at this stage and are disappointed when they have to stop playing.

Stage 3 – Filling a need The abuser will ensure they are available to chat, talk, play or offer understanding to the child when others don’t. They may have an opinion on why the teachers are wrong for telling the child off. They will be on the child’s side. One of the most obvious things to look out for at this stage is an increase in game-credits or gifts being given. Many games are available as download only requiring a code to be given. Your child might suddenly be playing a new game that they wanted to before but couldn’t afford. Depending on the need being meet, the signs to look out for can be really different. For example, if a physical need is being met i.e. food, phones or gifts you may notice obvious signs like the child withdrawing from mealtimes or stop asking for the things they had previously desired the most. Alternatively, if there is an emotional need being met, the child can become defensive, passive aggressive or disengaged as their needs are being met elsewhere. This can especially be the case for teenagers. Younger children may become or more self-sufficient, seeming disinterested.

Stage 4 – Isolating the child Abuser will often make negative comments about parents, friends and teachers ensuring that the child feels they are disliked, misunderstood and alone. The aim is to stop the Child confiding in their friends, teachers or in their wider support network. Abuser will encourage the child to stop engaging in normal routines and activities, suggesting to the child to find ways to disengage with their support network.

Children can often be withdrawn, angry, upset, often choosing to spend time away from family and friends. They can be more reluctant to go to school and become more confrontational or difficult. They can also seem more emotionally unpredictable and experience mood swings. Younger children may seem confused and unsure what to do when they are being asked to complete tasks.

Stage 5 – Sexual contact The abusers will then encourage the child to share sexualized images via a mobile phone, webcam or a website. They also may engage in sexualised chat within chat facilities. Sometimes they will share pornographic images or videos too and ask the child to watch them. Children may start to close their bedroom door or hide their screen, seem sulky, withdrawn or they may be scared. They may wash more frequently, begin to self-harm or engage in risky behaviour. Younger children may begin to wet the bed again, have more anger or mood swings, become clingier and find being separated from their parents more challenging. All children may appear to be more anxious, experiences panic attacks or nightmares.

Stage 6 – Maintaining control Often abusers will use threaten behaviour to control the child. Either threatening the victim with sharing the sexual images they have shared or threatening to hurt their friends and families in order to share them into doing what they are told. Abusers may also threaten to send images to parents workplace, or threaten the child to come to their home to begin the abuse there. Children can sometimes appear robotic, isolate themselves, stopping talking to others, self-harm, use substances to numb and in extreme cases even run away. Younger children can regress, begin to pull their hair out, and they also may experience nightmares.

When working with previous clients they reflected these behaviours at these stages. But, it’s important to remember however that your child is individual and therefore they may have different responses than the examples above.

During lockdown it may be harder to notice these differences in behaviours. The current situation makes it so difficult for parents to be aware of the signs of grooming as children are already showing a wide range of different emotions caused by the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health. In many cases, they are struggling with home schooling. They are trying their best to hold it all together, but our reliance on technology has increased the opportunity for groomers to reach our children.

I believe that there are simple things that we can do to keep our children safe online. Firstly, you should be honest with them in an appropriate way. Talk to them about how people online might pretend to be other people, ages or genders. Talk openly about the differences between real life friends and online friends. Check how they are doing. Ask them what they are needing. Ask if there is anything you can do for them.

Most of the popular app’s Facebook, Tiktok, Youtube and Instagram have an age restriction of 13 years old. When I reflect on this, I am shocked at how many children at my daughter’s primary school had access to these apps when they were under 10. I think I should also highlight that it’s not just about what they are sharing, but it’s about what they can see or are able to access too. At 10 their emotional resilience was not developed enough to cope with the materials that they potentially were open to.

It is important to be aware of in the terms and conditions before allowing your children to use them. Giving in to ‘pester power’ may normalize these applications because it seems like everyone else’s

children are using them. It can diminish the warnings signs, but it is important to gauge your own child’s capability to understand their actions and the consequences for engaging in the game or app.

As parent, it’s important that we don’t continually punish ourselves for trying to get through things. We often feel guilty and punish ourselves for getting things wrong. The most vital things we can do is remember to connect with our children, really pay attention to the chats about their games, apps and programmes and to check in on how they are feeling, what they are worried about and what’s new for them.

Being a parent has never be as tough as it right now. Remember we are human, and we can only ever do the next right thing for us.

There are also really good tips on the ways we can take more precaution online at internetmatters.org:

1: Check the privacy settings for all devices.

2: Review what sites are visited, games, apps and chat logs regularly.

3: Have an open-door policy so that you can always see the screen of what your child is doing.

4: Encourage your child to stay safe by not sharing any personal information.

If you think your child may have been groomed or you would like some support. Please see the list of support options below:

Childline – 0800 1111
NSPCC – 0808 800 5000