10/01/2017

Everyone needs to watch Kayleigh's Love Story and teach youngsters the dangers of the internet

I've been a teenage girl, I know how much of a confidence boost it is when someone compliments you, pays you attention and shows an interest.  When this comes from someone older, it can be even more exciting.

When it comes from someone older - someone much, much older - who is a complete stranger, that's not so exciting.  Or, at least, it shouldn't be.

It's so unbelievably easy for children to engage in a conversation with an older man or woman online.  Whether these people are posing as someone else, pretending to be younger, or simply making out like they're just being kind, it can take just seconds for a child to be lured into dialogue.

I've seen firsthand how easy it is.  Someone I know posed as a 14-year-old girl online and it was terrifying what happened.  Most people were put off when 'she' revealed she was only 14.  Some, however, continued the conversation and began the grooming process straight away.

More and more children - both girls and boys - are being groomed online every single year.

In 2015, 15-year-old Kayleigh Haywood from Leicestershire chatted with an older man over Facebook for two weeks before being raped and killed.  The teen chatted with Luke Harlow on Facebook before they swapped numbers, exchanging 2,600 messages.

She went to visit him at his flat, telling her parents she was staying at a friend's house, in November 2015.  Her body was found in a hedgerow about two weeks after the first message was exchanged.

Harlow, who admitted grooming and engaging in sexual activity with Kayleigh, was jailed for 12 years.  Stephen Beadman was jailed for 35 years for the rape and murder of the teen.  He admitted to raping her after she fled from Harlow's flat, eventually battering her to death.

This week, Kayleigh's Love Story was released online. Leicestershire Police produced the video to warn other children about the dangers of speaking to strangers online.  It was shown to 35,000 school children last year.

The video is heartbreaking.  It demonstrates how easy it is for children and teenagers to be drawn in by these adults.  Every parent needs to watch it. Every teenager needs to watch it.  Every school needs to show it.

Kayleigh's devastating story needs to be shared far and wide to warn children about the dangers of speaking to people online.  To warn them of the signs that they are being groomed and to warn them of the dangers of speaking to strangers and arranging to meet up with them.

Grooming is defined as someone building up an emotional connection with a child in order to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual exploitation or abuse.  To the child, it may seem perfectly innocent.  A kind older man/woman offering to take them for pizza or bowling, showing an interest in them, telling them they look nice, building their confidence.  Before long, the trust is built and sexual references will begin, the whole time the child thinking the older person is just being kind.

Children are often unaware that they are being groomed, often believing that a genuine relationship is being forged.  They are left unaware that what is happening is classed as abuse.

Kayleigh's story aims to highlight to children the signs and urges them to report anything to their parents, guardians, a teacher or the police.

It's so, so important parents drill this into their children.  However, they can preach all they want but there's only so much they will take in and put into practice.

I remember when I was a teenager and my parents first let me get MSN.  I was under strict instructions not to accept anyone I did not know.  Even though my mum and dad told me this time and time again, I still did.

As a teenager - particularly the ages between 13 and 16 - we all think we're invincible.  Thinking we're so grown up and know it all, and that we can take on and handle anything that the world throws at us.  But this is totally not the case.

I was sensible and would never, ever arrange to meet up with someone I didn't know.  Even at 21-years-old when I got Tinder I never arranged to meet up with anyone I'd met through there on my own.

But not everyone is of the same, cautious mindset.  Teenagers nowadays are even more grown-up than I was.  I still was stuffing my bra with tissue, unable to quite find the right shade of foundation to suit my skin tone and passing through the incredibly awkward teen stage with spots, greasy hair and clothes from Tammy.

Now, teenagers are there with their contoured faces, brows 'on fleek', high-waisted jeans, crop tops and could easily be mistaken for being over 18.

It's scary.  Really, really scary.

By them feeling older, acting older, and being perceived as older, it makes them feel invincible and less cautious about speaking to and meeting up with strangers they've met over the internet.

I had incidents when I was on MSN back in the day where someone I didn't know added me on MSN.  I accepted, they started a conversation - the usual 'hey, you ok, what you been up to?'.  Sometimes it would continue: complimenting me on my picture, asking how old I was, asking more about me, asking me to send photos of myself, my interests and hobbies.  If the conversation didn't die out - either due to dial-up internet failing/mum needing to make a phone call/my tea being ready/me getting bored of the incessant questions and intrusions - I'd sometimes chat to strangers for a while.

Then would come a webcam request.  Being young, naive and stupid, I accepted.  As the image loaded, it was usually an old man sat there pleasuring himself in the nude - webcam pointing straight at his private parts.  Straight away the chat was closed and they were blocked and deleted.

Ain't nobody got time for that.

Engaging in any kind of conversation with a stranger was not, and is not, a smart move.  Even though I had my head screwed on and was cautious - never ever meeting anyone I met online - I still was incredibly stupid to strike up any kind of conversation in the first place.  I realised that when the penis pictures/videos started, and I always blocked and deleted anyone thinking that was ok.

Children and teenagers are exposed to even more scary corners of the internet than I ever was as a fresh-faced 15-year-old, a whole decade ago.  With Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Kik, Whatsapp and a whole host of other social media outlets, it's terrifying how open children are leaving themselves.

I had MSN, MySpace, Bebo and a Piczo website, all of which needed a computer to be accessed.  Everything now is available on a phone, making it even more accessible to kids.  They all have fancy, top of the range phones now and are all as glued to them as I was to my computer and MSN.

The ease of access to this grown-up, technological world makes the prospect of them being groomed all the more real and all the more scary.  Blanket banning access to these social networks won't stop it happening.  It will only cause resentment, because all their friends will be on it, so they'll actively look for secret ways to create a profile.

Education is one of the only ways grooming, child sexual exploitation and abuse can be prevented.  Sharing heartbreaking, harrowing stories like Kayleigh's to remind these 'grown-up' and 'invincible' teenagers that the internet is a dangerous place.

Please, please watch this video if you haven't already.  Share it with friends who are parents, share it with teenagers, share it with everyone.  If this video can stop one more child being groomed, one more child losing their childhood - or worse their life - then it saves one more young life being needlessly changed forever.


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