Parents should be aware of their child’s use of Facebook and other social media sites, warns top police officer

PARENTS are being warned about the dangers facing their children each and every time they log on to the internet as ‘stranger danger’ moves online.

In Essex around 300 investigations are launched each year into cases of ‘inappropriate contact’ between people online, where material – such as indecent photographs and videos - have changed hands.

Det Sgt John Woodley, of Essex Police’s online investigation team (POLIT), this week stressed that perceptions need to change to put a “2012 spin on an old problem”.

Addressing parents of children who attend Felsted Prep, FKS, Stebbing and Felsted Primary schools at a specially-arranged talk on Monday night, he pointed out that the idea of a ‘dirty old man in a van offering sweets’ is outdated.

“Children as young as nine are now totally active online so sex offenders and paedophiles have moved to the internet,” he warned.

“In my 26 years as a policeman I can count on one hand how many times a man in a van stops outside a school, but there is not a day that goes by when I’m not dealing with a significant incident online.

“It is a massive problem and one that needs to be addressed.”

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The Polit team was set up in 2008 and initially targeted secondary school pupils, yet DS Woodley said it quickly became apparent the internet presence of teenagers was “too big”. Now the team visits primary schools in the hope of warning children before they immerse themselves in web activity.

DS Woodley highlighted mainstream sites such as Facebook, Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters, Youtube and Omegle, which children can sign up to and freely use, that parents should be aware of.

However, he discouraged parents from putting bans on their children’s internet use.

“The majority of school children I have spoken to wouldn’t tell a parent if they were asked to, or did, send an indecent image of themselves to a stranger for fear that their parents would stop them from going on the internet.

“Our message is about trying to convince them that if something happens online they need to talk to a parent or adult about the situation and then potentially report it.”

DS Woodley likened parents’ involvement in their child’s internet use as “getting on a train and the parent not knowing where their child is going”.

“The parent has to make a conscious decision to get on the train with the child and travel the journey. It’s only by doing so that you will understand what children are doing online,” he said.

Jenny Burrett, headteacher of Felsted Prep, which hosted the talk, said her own school had a “strong” e-safety policy, but praised DS Woodley’s interaction for highlighting the dangers of children’s safety online.