Web of deceit

The internet has revolutionised opportunities for learning, but it can also provide paedophiles with access to young students. Police Professional reviews what steps are being taken to prevent chat room grooming

Jun 3, 2004
By Keith Potter
Picture: BRC

The internet has revolutionised opportunities for learning, but it can also provide paedophiles with access to young students. Police Professional reviews what steps are being taken to prevent chat room grooming

Children are growing up on the internet and are being encouraged to make use of its enormous learning potential by educational and political leaders alike. UK schools spent £439m on computers in 2003 and by 2006, all schools are set to have broadband.

But the reverse side of the coin is the growing problem of internet paedophilia.

In the last three years, 27 cases involving sexual grooming of young children via internet chat rooms have been reported in the media, according to NCH (the charity formerly known as ‘National Children’s Homes’)

The dangers of chat rooms were highlighted in the high profile prosecution of Toby Studabaker, the 31-year-old American ex-marine who forged a relationship with a 12-year-old girl from Manchester over the internet without her parents’ knowledge.

In April 2004, Studabaker was sentenced to four-and-a-half years after admitting abduction and incitement to gross indencency. He had attempted to to change his guilty plea to not guilty at Manchester crown court but the application was unsuccessful.

The judge, Mr Justice Leveson, told him using the internet to groom children for sex deserved a harsh punishment.

In January 2004 an ACPO-backed report on internet safety revealed that 27 per cent of children gave their email address out over the internet and in one school serving a largely middle class intake, 75 per cent of eight-year-old pupils were accessing chat rooms.

It concluded that a partnership between the police service and schools was vital to minimise the risks to children posed by the medium. “Police forces have experience of the threats to internet safety and an important role in offering authoritative guidance,” stated the report.

There is no doubt that schools generally prefer a dedicated liaison officer who is a familiar face, but there are clear training needs so that the necessary understanding of trends in internet crime is disseminated to officers who can be in the position to advise and support schools.”

Research also shows that despite widespread access to the internet, teaching staff are unaware of the technology available to block sites. Police charged with supporting schools on this issue are aware that junior school children are known to be targeted by paedophiles, yet teachers admit to a certain degree of naivety on internet safety.

As a result, the report called for much closer collaboration between schools and the police to improve safety and protect children from the dangers of the internet.

Stuart Hyde, Assistant Chief Constable of West Midlands Police and an ACPO lead on child internet safety, agrees that there should be greater co-operation between schools and the police on this issue. He told Police Professional that there appeared to be a gap between what teachers and parents were doing to prevent paedophiles trying to gain access to children via chat rooms, and what the police could do to detect paedophiles passing themselves off as children when they go online.

“Sadly, paedophiles are using the internet to find young victims. They can be very skilful in making friends with children and making them believe they are talking to someone their own age,” said ACC Hyde.

The new 2003 Sexual Offences Act will make it easier for the police to prosecute an adult who uses chat room sites to groom a child for sexual abuse. The offender would only have to enter the chat room twice to converse with a child or to arrange a meeting to be arrested, said ACC Hyde.

This is a considerable step forward on previous legislation, where the police had to wait for a paedophile to commit an offence before they could arrest them.

But legislation on its own is not enough to deal with the problem. ACC Hyde says children need to be much more aware of the dangers of being contacted in chat rooms by adults pretending to be of the same age

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