Children can be left terrified when online ‘friends’ turn out to be something else entirely in real life.
Facebook, Instagram and other social media were used in nearly 1,500 cases of child grooming last year, new figures obtained by the NSPCC reveal.
Lucie (not her real name) is from Sussex, and has bravely come forward to tell her story:
“I don’t really feel as though I had much of a childhood. My mum and dad were abusive towards each other and they split up when I was very young.
“Things were very unsettled and I had to grow up fast.
“I’ve had access to the internet for as long as I can remember. I spent a lot of time in front of the computer when I was younger because I was quite distant from my parents.
“When I was ten, I found a website where I could chat to people who were alternative like me. They were all much older. I started talking to a guy called Jason (name changed) and he told me that he was 21.
“I spoke to him for a few years and I saw him as friend. He was a mysterious older figure and it was really enticing because I didn’t really have many friends and I wasn’t close to my family.
“Our conversations soon went from chatting about music to talking about sex.
“We started texting and Jason asked for topless photos of me. I remember thinking at the time that it might be wrong but we’d been friends for a long time so I thought it would be fine.
“No one had ever spoken to me about abuse before.
“When I was 12, I met Jason in real life. I remember feeling excited but I was quite scared too. The first time we met I took a friend with me.
“Jason turned out to be an absolutely terrifying man who was much older than 21. He was nothing like I’d ever imagined him to be. My friend was really scared so she went home.
“I remember not wanting her to leave me alone with him.
“I couldn’t get away from Jason after that. After we met, it went from online grooming to sexual abuse.
“I didn’t want to be involved with him anymore but he would always blackmail me. He would make it seem like I was the one doing something wrong.
“When I was 13, I tried to kill myself and I was in hospital for a long time. Shortly after this, my parents found out about Jason and they contacted the police. Part of me was relieved.
“But they were angry with me and blamed me just like Jason said they would. I felt like it was all my fault.
“My experience of dealing with the police was quite traumatic to be honest. They weren’t very sensitive and they didn’t seem to have the kind of empathy you need to have when dealing with children.
“It was so hard to be honest and confide in them when they were so stern. I got treated like it was my fault and they didn’t listen to me.
“I remember doing video statements and the police officer asking me really explicit questions about what had happened. “I felt that it wasn’t the right language to use when talking to a child.
“I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the abuse and I didn’t get any therapeutic support at all for two years because my family wouldn’t let me.
“When I was 15, I set my legs on fire and I had to go to hospital. I started getting treatment from children’s mental health services partly because what had happened was so severe.
“The doctor and nurse that I had were lovely but I didn’t feel as though I had an advocate in the absence of my parents. I’d make decisions about treatment on my own.
“I didn’t have any help dealing with the emotional side of things. By that point, I had developed bulimia. I think if I had been treated when I was younger I might have avoided the eating disorder.
“Between the ages of 15 and 17, I went through many different kinds of therapy that didn’t work for me including counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
“Finally, when I was 17 I was referred to an NHS psychotherapist called Karen (name changed) who I saw for two years. Psychotherapy was so right for me.
“She helped me to realise that certain things were connected like my PTSD and my bulimia. Everything made much more sense. She wouldn’t push me to talk if I didn’t want to.
“She really did go above and beyond for me. She’d respond really quickly if I needed her and offer me extra sessions if I needed them.
“When I was 18, my case was finally referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). There was one really nice police officer who was supportive throughout.
“I remember him coming to my house, sitting on my sofa while I read a letter that told me that the CPS weren’t going to prosecute. If it hadn’t been for him I would have only found out via a letter in the post.
“There was no obligation for anyone to actually come and tell me. He said that a statement I had given when I was younger was different from a witness statement given years later by someone else so they couldn’t take the case further.
“That was the only reason I was given and I was furious.
“I was devastated because I’d given them so much evidence. I was most upset for the other children that he might go on to hurt. I couldn’t do anything for them.
“I first got involved with the NSPCC through a website for young people called The Site. I’ve done quite a few things through the NSPCC’s Youth Participation programme.
“I met with the Home Secretary with a group of young people which was a really good experience. We all knew we were there because we’d been abused or were close to someone who had been abused.
“There was that silent recognition between us. To know those young people believed me was really important. It really made me realise that it was the abuser’s fault and not mine.
“For other young people who have experience abuse, I would say it’s very important to tell someone.
“If you feel like it’s not right then it’s not. Even if it’s something small like your partner not letting you wear certain types of clothes or listen to certain types of music.
“That can be the start and that’s not how you want your relationship to be.
“There is always someone you can talk to even if you’re not in a position to tell your parents.
“You can call ChildLine confidentially or speak to an adult you trust, like someone at school.
“If you tell someone who is in your life, they might need to pass it on. But that’s ok because that means that what is happening is serious and you were right to speak up about it in the first place.
“They can help you to get the support you need.”
If you are worried about a child, even if you are unsure, contact professional NSPCC counsellors 24/7 for help, advice and support on 0808 800 5000.
If you are 18 or under Childline offers free, confidential advice and support whatever your worry, whenever you need help. Call 0800 1111.