THE parents of a teenage girl who was sexually groomed by an older man have launched a campaign to raise awareness of predators lurking on the internet.
The couple have kick-started the initiative in an attempt to encourage schools to educate youngsters about the potential dangers they may face online.
It comes after their young daughter was targeted by a man, which resulted in him pleading guilty to three charges of sexual activity with a child and one of meeting a child following sexual grooming.
He received a jail term, a Sexual Offences Prevention Order and was placed on to the sex offenders’ register.
As part of the campaign, the girl’s parents, who live in Northumberland, have urged as many people as possible to sign up to a specially-created Facebook group.
The victim’s mother, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, said: “We feel that there isn’t sufficient understanding or education relating to online grooming, the processes involved and the impact on the victims and their families.
“Having gone through this, we discussed with many adults and children about their understanding of what grooming actually is, with very many of the adults not able to explain what it is and the vast majority of the children were unable to do so.
“For the avoidance of doubt, grooming is defined by CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) as a process used by people with a sexual interest in children to attempt to engage them in sexual acts either over the internet or in person.
“It was incredible to learn from our discussions with local schools that this area of online safety is not given a huge amount of time in the curriculum, if any.
“We feel that children should be educated in this area specifically, as they are about online bullying.
“From bitter experience, we feel children should know more about this so that they can protect themselves.”
She said that online social-networking sites and chatrooms enable children to come into contact with a wider group of people.
While she admits that only a ‘very tiny fraction of these contacts might be anything to worry about’, she feels that ‘children should be made aware of when these acquaintances pass a line and become inappropriate or dangerous’.
The victim’s parents said the offender’s actions had a ‘huge impact’ on the family.
During the court case, which was held over a year ago, prosecutors told how the offender had known the girl and the pair had started to chat online and she began to trust him.
But over time, things intensified, as the man made sexually explicit comments and requests, and persuaded the girl to meet him.
His crimes only came to light when the victim’s father found messages on his daughter’s computer.
Her parents believe that if she had been educated properly, she would have been able to ‘identify the earlier stages of the grooming and question why this man might want to become friendly with her’.
The victim’s mother said: “Our daughter has undergone 18 months of counselling with the children’s charity Barnardo’s to gain a better understanding of the grooming process and to make sense of the impact it has had on her and the whole family.
“We have received a lot of support but believe there is a great deal of ignorance surrounding the issue of grooming.
“The campaign is designed to raise the awareness of grooming and to ensure that the appropriate training is given to professionals who are then able to educate our children and that by educating our children about these dangers they are able to recognise the early stages of the grooming process and report it to their parents.
“Of course it is very ironic that we are using a social-networking site to raise this issue but these social-networking and communication sites are designed to bring us closer together and to communicate more easily and therefore are ideal when used for the right purposes.
“In this way we feel we can use a tool that has been so damaging to us as a power for good.”
The Facebook group, called ‘like to start educating our schools on sexual internet grooming’, has already attracted hundreds of supporters.
One person who signed up to the cause wrote: “I fully support this campaign and believe we should all be talking about it to our children no matter what age.”
Parents and children have been urged to visit the website www.thinkuknow.co.uk