'Helicopter mum' finds daughter, 12, being groomed on app
SARAH is a self-described helicopter parent.
The Central West NSW mother says she always knows where her three children are and who they're with, and when she can't be across who they're talking to, she checks their phone.
But while inspecting her 12-year-old daughter's recent online activity, she discovered something horrifying that she believes could have ended very badly, and now she wants to warn parents about it.
About two weeks ago, Sarah (not her real name) was carrying out a random check of her 12-year-old daughter's iPad - as she does regularly with all the devices her kids use - when she stopped in horror.
Screenshots from a messaging app, Kik Messenger, were captured in the iPad's camera roll.
They showed only bits and pieces of conversations, but it was enough for the horrified mother to piece together what had happened.
In about five separate conversations, men, claiming to be 23 and 25 years old, had been seeking information from her 12-year-old daughter, asking where she lived and how they could meet her.
Then there were the pictures. Vulgar images and videos sent through the app showed people performing oral sex and intercourse with young girls with "scared looks on their faces", according to the girl's mum.
"One couldn't have been older than her," she told news.com.au.
Sarah said as soon as she found the images she burst out crying. After reading through the conversations she concluded her pre-teen daughter had been groomed for about four weeks, and believes if her daughter didn't become scared by the conversations and delete the app, things could have escalated.
"I'm just glad I found it now. We could have been trying to get these messages because she was missing. I'm glad I found it before something more happened," she said.
Sarah said her daughter was scared and embarrassed. She had been disgusted by what she had been sent, and cursed herself for engaging in conversations with strangers.
"I know she's not 100 per cent innocent, because she went on the app, but she is 100 per cent a victim," she said.
"I had to convince her that she's not stupid, she's a smart girl, but people who do this to children online know how to make them say what they want. That's how they work, they're predators."
After turning off the internet access in her home and taking all her kids' devices, Sarah went to the police.
She fretted that the predators could have details about where her daughter lived or went to school, but eventually decided she didn't want to drag her through the process of giving evidence and even a potential court ordeal, and didn't take the matter any further with police.
Sarah's mother, the girl's grandmother, has started a change.org petition to have the app banned and has gained more than 7000 signatures.
Sarah says she knows it's practically impossible for governments to ban apps like these, but she's not willing to let the issue rest and wants her story to be heard by other parents.
"My daughter has now seen horrible, horrible things that I just can't take out of her head now," she said.
"I'd like to see more awareness brought to parents and schools, and people taking it more seriously realising that this can happen.
"She could have been groomed to the point where she took off and was raped and murdered.
"So many people just brush it off when they hear that things like this can happen and they don't take it seriously, but if it can happen to my daughter, it can happen to anyone."
NSW Police Sex Crime Squad Commander Detective Superintendent Linda Howlett told news.com.au online child grooming was "a very real concern".
"Any app, online game, or social media platform that allows the user to be in contact with people they do not know - and have only met online - can put them at risk," she said.
"Online grooming a very real concern, and parents or carers of young people need to make sure they have open conversations about what they look at online and who they're talking to - or who they think they are talking to."
Supt Howlett said if young people using apps are sent something inappropriate or explicit, it is important not to delete the messages, but tell a parent or trusted adults.
"Young people (and adults) should be very careful about providing personal details about themselves to a person that they have only ever met in the online environment," she said.
"Importantly, we urge people to exercise caution if planning to meet up 'in real life' with someone they met online - do you really know who you are meeting?"
Supt Howlett said the "golden rule" for a parent or user of an app who found themselves in a situation like Sarah's was to report it.
"A young person may feel uncomfortable in these situations, particularly if they are sent inappropriate materials, but remind them there is nothing to be embarrassed about," she said.
"By reporting inappropriate online behaviour, they could potentially save another young person from harm."
Though material sent over apps is notoriously difficult to trace and retrieve, Supt Howlett said the Sex Crimes Squad has specialist officer who conduct regular covert investigations online and monitor a range of social media apps and platforms, and the vast majority of social media sites were cooperative with law enforcement.
Cyber safety expert Ross Bark was shocked, but not surprised to hear of what had happened to the 12-year-old girl.
He knows, as a quick google search can reveal, that the app the girl was using has been described as "the de facto app for child predators" and "the choice for criminals who prey on children".
Mr Bark said there were a lot of incidents of grooming over Kik messenger all around Australia and overseas as well.
"What I've seen is a lot of young people are getting on there to talk to their friends, but they get messages from random people, and they don't really know what to do, and they're not confident telling an adult about it," he said.
Mr Bark said among the reasons Kik was a big target for predators was that it was easy to be anonymous, not very well known among parents, and also that it's difficult to retrieve deleted messages.
"Parents have to be educated across all apps their kids are using," he said.
"They know Instagram, they might know Snapchat, but apps like Kik are often missed and that's where you can get in trouble.
"Parents need to sit own with kids and establish terms around what they can and can't use, and they have to have a conversation with their kids around what can happen if they have a conversation with people they don't know."
Carly Ryan Foundation CEO Sonya Ryan, whose daughter Carly was killed by a man she met online who was pretending to be someone he wasn't, said Kik was a dangerous app.
"Unfortunately this type of contact is so common, we are constantly receiving emails and phone calls for help from parents and youth being contacted inappropriately via Kik," she told news.com.au.
"When any app or gaming platform enables private chat it provides the perfect environment for predators to infiltrate the lives of innocent kids just trying to connect."
Ms Ryan said it was important for parents to:
• Maintain open dialogue and constant communication with children.
• Educate yourself about the apps your children are using and be sure privacy settings are maintained.
• Disable location services to your camera and apps in your devices setting.
• Remember, just as in the non-cyber world, some people you encounter online might try to take advantage of you, emotionally financially or physically.
• Make time for real life connections, its important to create balance while exploring the online world ensuring we don't become disconnected from those we care about in our real lives.