‘They were withdrawn and secretive' mum of two children groomed on Snapchat warns other parents

‘They were withdrawn and secretive' mum of two children groomed on Snapchat warns other parents

A MUM whose two children fell victim to an online abuser has warned other parents to look out for the signs.

Zoe, whose name has been changed, spoke out today, on Safer Internet Day, to share her experience of online grooming and the devastating impact it has had on her family.

Two of her children were groomed online by a man posing as a child their age using the social media app Snapchat.

It has had a “huge impact” on the family, who are based in Northern Ireland, she confirmed.

“It’s been really tough,” she admits.

“You never think something like this will ever happen to your children.”

Zoe said she knew nothing about the abuse until the police contacted her.

“I had no idea what was going on until the police contacted me saying they had evidence to believe my children had been groomed online by someone they had met on Snapchat, who was pretending to be a child around the same age as them,” she explained.

“As a parent, hearing that was devastating. Totally earth shattering.

“You don’t see this happening at the time, you don’t pick up on the warning signs and at that time my children also didn’t understand that they had been victims of crime.”

She added: “It’s had a huge impact on our family. I continue to grieve the life they could have had, had they not went through this and their innocence taken from them.”

Today she has urged other parents to look out for the warning signs that their child might be being targeted online.

“Looking back, there were changes in their behaviour,” she said.

“They became more withdrawn and secretive.

“This is something I wish I had addressed and asked more questions about,” she admits.

“I would urge other parents out there to not be afraid to have open and transparent conversations with their children to warn them that not everybody online is who they say they are.”

Online sexual offences against children are on the increase in Northern Ireland.

There were 2,300 sexual offences against children recorded in 2023, 200 of which relate to grooming and sexual communication with a child.

Some 848 offences related to taking, possessing, sharing or publishing indecent images of children were reported in 2023, a 40.6 per cent increase on 2022.

Detective Chief Superintendent Lindsay Fisher from the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch, said: “Often groomers hide their identity online and may pretend to be the same age as a child.

“They may use fake profile pictures, pretending to have similar interests and offering gifts to gain the trust of the child before steering the conversation to a sexual nature.

“Once trust in established, a groomer may use power and control to make, force, blackmail, guilt or trick a child into doing what the groomer wants.

“They may persuade a child to take part in online sexual activity including sharing explicit images and videos and livestreaming sexual acts.”

She added: “Recognising the signs of online grooming can be hard as often child predators are incredibly manipulative and tell children not to talk to anyone about it.

“Sometimes children don’t realise they’ve been groomed and may believe they are in a ‘relationship’.”

Today the PSNI and Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) have launched a social media campaign aimed at young people and families to raise awareness about online dangers and reporting pathways.

The messaging aims to help them understand some of the dangers that children may encounter online and encourages the public to report incidents to the police and signposts to local sources of support.

Independent Chair of the SBNI, Bernie McNally said: “Some young people might feel embarrassed or nervous about speaking out about what has happened to them.

“Through this latest campaign, we want them and those who care for them to know that they aren’t alone, that they will be listened to and crucially, that support is available.”

He added: “These latest figures provide an important insight to the local picture and help us to understand the scale of the problem that children are experiencing and that police and safeguarding agencies are responding to.

“The rise in recorded offences may reflect an increased willingness and confidence from the public to report child abuse and we hope that continues.”

For more information and advice on how to keep your children safe click here or visit SBNI's Online Safety Hub.