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Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley: 'Yesterday a girl (12) described how a boy in her class sent her an explicit pic'

Parents need to monitor children's online behaviour and accept their emerging sexuality, writes Stella O'Malley

Stella O’Malley: ‘It’s much better that we learn to handle our sexuality and our children’s developing sexuality with openness.’ Photo: Steve Humphreys
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Predatory adults are devious in the ways they slowly but surely infiltrate a child's life.

They become experts on the child; they compliment, cajole, tease and laugh with the child and then, slowly but surely, they capitalise on the relationship and eventually push the child into sexualised behaviour.

This is but one of the many reasons why parents need to keep some control over their child's mobile phone usage until they believe their kids are old enough to be able to handle pressurising and unwanted sexual attention.

Only yesterday, in the course of my work as a psychotherapist, a 12-year-old girl described how a boy in her class sent her a d**k pic.

Up until that moment, the girl and boy had apparently been innocently and lightly flirting with each other. There were hidden smiles across the classroom; the boy had given her a bar of chocolate; the girl attended his football match.

Then, suddenly, an explicit picture of the boy's genitals arrives into her inbox. The girl, let's call her 'Ciara', was understandably freaked out - and she immediately wondered whether she had done anything to encourage this behaviour; Ciara was worried that she might have led the boy to believe that this was the next appropriate step in their 'relationship'. Ciara was reluctant to tell her parents about this incident for the same reason that every teenager doesn't want to tell their parents about unsolicited sexual images - she was afraid that her mobile phone usage would be curtailed.

The parents control the keys to the kingdom because the parents usually pay the wifi in the household. They have the power to ensure their children aren't exposed to an extended period of inappropriate attention but too many parents disown their responsibility about their children's online behaviour. When the internet first arrived into our lives, it was like the Wild West. We had no idea what we were doing, most of us made many mistakes and we learnt as we went along. But now we know better. Now we know that the majority of paedophiles will target our children through social media and we can react accordingly.

It's no use parents throwing their hands up in the air saying they know nothing about Snapchat or Instagram, because that just doesn't cut it anymore. Parents need to acknowledge they can have plenty of control over their children's online behaviour if they are willing to extend themselves. Parents can keep the password to the wifi and they can change the password if they wish. They can institute boundaries by using apps that limit children's exposure to inappropriate content. Apps such as iKydz and Net Nanny have the ability to limit certain websites, censor adult content and even allow the adults to dictate when the child can use certain social media - so Snapchat can be turned off at 11pm, just like the TV was back when we were kids.

Yet the most effective way to ensure that your child is engaging safely online is to keep the avenues of communication open. An all-out ban on social media is rarely effective because many children will open secret accounts; and then if something distressing happens, the teenagers won't tell their parents because they weren't supposed to be using social media in the first place.

If the child sufficiently trusts that they can tell their parents about distressing attention without the parents completely losing the head, then the parents can be a real help to their children. If, on the other hand, the child has learnt from bitter experience that their parents will over-react and cause even more upset, then the child will begin to keep secrets from their parents.

The grand plan is for parents to help their child to reach adulthood with a reasonable ability to deflect and get rid of nasty and predatory behaviour. Becoming a teenager means becoming sexual. This is natural. The more parents accept this natural process, the less likely their children will feel the need to keep unwanted sexual attention secret.

When Sandra's usually affectionate and honest little boy suddenly became moody and secretive, Sandra presumed that teenage hormones were kicking in for Brian, her lovable 14-year-old. Thankfully, Sandra had an open and honest relationship with her son and so when she asked him why he had becoming so secretive and possessive over his phone, he decided to reveal everything to his mother.

It turned out that an older man had infiltrated Brian's online gaming network and he had arranged to meet Brian and his pals in the city later that very day.

According to Brian they weren't going to the local disco as planned that night, but instead they were going to this man's apartment to drink alcohol and watch some porn. Brian didn't really want to go but the other boys were really looking forward to it so he was anxious that Sandra didn't expose him as 'the rat'.

Sandra was in a precarious position as she didn't want Brian to lose his social standing but she couldn't allow these young boys go to this man's apartment.

With some subtle phone calls and fervent promises made among the parents, Sandra managed the situation and the other parents pretended to discover the secret by checking their children's tech.

As the full picture emerged, it appeared that the older man had promoted himself as a Steve Jobs-type character with a supposedly impressive head-honcho position in a top tech company. He pretended to be impressed with the boys' gaming skills and suggested heavily that if they continued to impress him he would be able to get them great jobs in certain tech companies in their future careers.

The boys, gullible and impressionable 14-year-olds all, fell for this line and believed their 'gaming skills' were second to none. When the parents went to the police about this man, little could be done as his profile was fake and he had covered his tracks.

Previous generations of paedophiles infiltrated the clergy, schools and sports clubs in order to prey on children. An extraordinary level of access to children was available to sports coaches, teachers and clergymen back then but, although young people will always be dangerously trusting to people in powerful positions, nowadays paedophiles tend to search for their prey from the comfort of their own sitting room.

Going online has become the easiest way to groom children; all the predator has to do is throw enough darts from their laptop and some innocent child will eventually accept their offer of 'friendship'. They praise the target's good looks and their talent. They make the kids feel special. They try their utmost to develop a deep connection with the child so that the child feels involved with the predator, believing that the predator is the only person in the world who really understands them. Over time, the predator might go to great lengths to convince the child that they are complicit in the sexual behaviour; that the adult would never usually behave like this but that this child has a special power over them. It's a heady feeling for a child who has often never experienced sexual behaviour before and this is how they can be lured into behaving in a way that both excites and disturbs them. It is manipulative and profoundly damaging to the child as their entire sexuality becomes based upon lies and deceit and the predator convinces them that they are involved in something special and nurturing.

The targets are often devastated when they realise that they were involved with an emotionally abusive person who cared little about their feelings and was instead enjoying the feelings of power and manipulation. When the situation is exposed, the target is often left feeling ashamed, guilty, exposed and deeply humiliated.

Sex can be complicated. Even for adults in a loving relationship, sex can be laden down with baggage. For teenagers, who are developing into young adults, their sexuality can be a minefield for parents who might prefer it wasn't happening. But we need to open up about our sexuality so that sexual predators can no longer use secrecy as a way to insinuate themselves into our children's lives.

The most effective way to fight against predators who convince our children to keep secrets, is to create an open and communicative relationship that is ready to discuss any topic.

Winston Churchill warned us: "It's not enough that we do our best, sometimes we must do what is required."

It's much better that we learn to handle our sexuality and our children's developing sexuality with openness. We do not want, as parents, to create a situation where teenagers are afraid to speak about disturbing attention because they fear their mam and dad will lose the head, take their phones off them and ban social media.

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist, writer, bestselling author and public speaker with many years' experience as a mental health professional

Sunday Independent

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Stella O’Malley: ‘It’s much better that we learn to handle our sexuality and our children’s developing sexuality with openness.’ Photo: Steve Humphreys