SPOTTING THE SIGNS
For Young People
As you grow up and get older, your world is always changing. You’ll be able to stay up later and your parents might let you stay out. You might get your first smartphone, which opens up a huge world of social media and other apps. You might try your first drink, your first relationship and your first parties or other activities without parents or adults watching. Safe to say you’ve got a lot going on.
Abusers know all this too, and they’re good at what they do. So good, in fact, that many children and young people don’t believe or know that they’re being exploited.
It takes many forms, but it can involve:
- Adding you/messaging you, even if they don’t know you. They might say they know your friends, or even add your friends, to convince you that they’re part of your circle. This might even happen while you’re in your local park or out with your friends.
- Once they’ve made the first contact, they might talk to you about the music you like, what your school is like or what you like doing. This is so it seems like they’re interested in you and on your wavelength.
- They might pay you compliments and ask you to send pictures of yourself to them, or want to meet you in person. This might seem like what you’d do in a normal relationship.
- They might give you expensive things – alcohol, clothes, jewellery, a new phone or even drugs – stuff that you couldn’t normally afford, and certainly couldn’t payback. They can then use these items to get you to do things you might have been unsure about… “Come on, I gave you all that nice stuff and now you won’t do something for me?” You might be offered a way to make easy money by delivering a package or holding on to packages for them. This is often a trick – they set you up by making sure you lose the package (you might get robbed, or they say you didn’t deliver it) and then force you to pay them back by working for free – this is called ‘debt bondage’. The problem is, you never manage to pay it all back – because they want to keep you bonded to them and working for
free. The amount you ‘owe’ and what they ask you to do to repay it usually becomes higher,
more dangerous and more serious as time goes on.
- You may get asked to look after something that doesn’t belong to you. This could be something valuable or even illegal such as drugs.
- You may be asked to go somewhere you don’t know or don’t want to go to.
What you can do
Abusers are clever, but you can make it harder for them to target you:
- Make sure your social media privacy settings are up to date and limit who can see your profile, photos, friends list and other information. The less they know about you, the less likely they can trick you into thinking you ought to know them.
- If you get approached by someone you don’t know, it’s safest not to talk to them or add them as a friend
- Limit the personal information you talk about with strangers or people you don’t know well – the less people outside your close friends and family know about you, the less likely they can trick you into thinking they like the same music or know the same people or places as you do
- If you do go to meet someone in person that you’ve only spoken to online, make sure to tell a friend or adult where you’re going and meet them in a public place
- Don’t accept gifts or favours – it’s easy and tempting to accept them, but it’s hard to return the favour.
- If it’s not a message you’d want your friends or family to read, don’t send it. If it’s a message you’ve received, don’t respond to it.
For Parents and Carers
As your child gets older, it is natural that they will begin to experiment, test boundaries and explore new experiences as they grow into an adult. As parents and carers it is a difficult job to balance the value of allowing these new experiences against keeping children and young people safe from potential harm.
What makes them vulnerable?
Abusers target children because they are easier to control at a formative stage in their lives. They are more easily impressed by displays of wealth, or power, and the action of grooming, where a relationship and trust is formed, leaves the child feeling that nothing is wrong and struggling to consider themselves a victim.
What to look for
Warning signs that exploitation may be taking place commonly include:
- Secretive behaviour (more so than usual) which is met with mood swings and defensiveness if questioned. The mood swings are usually severe – many parents first see that their child seems to have changed personality.
- They stop engaging with their usual friends
- They are associating with men and women older than they are, potentially in a relationship with them
- They have new, expensive items they could not normally afford, such as phones, jewellery or clothing
- They receive messages or calls from unknown people through their phone or online game
- They spend large amounts of time online, often talking to strangers
- They are absent from school or home regularly, sometimes overnight, and are secretive about where they’ve been
- Having an extra phone that receives a lot of calls or messages.
Schools and Teachers
Schools and all staff within them are in a unique position where they see children daily and may see them for longer periods of time than the child’s parent or carer. This means they can be at an advantage when it comes to spotting the signs of exploitation and being able to act quickly.
It is highly recommended that all staff should undergo training around Child Exploitation so that the school are aware of the many forms this abuse can take, signs to look for and to know how best to support a child who is at risk. We can deliver free tailored awareness and education sessions for staff and students – please email
[email protected] to find out more about how we can help you with this.
What to look for:
- A child acquires money, clothes, mobile phones or other valuable items and cannot explain plausibly how they obtained them
- Young girl carrying large amounts of condoms
- Any child carrying large amounts of money, drugs, or carrying a weapon
- Any child experiences health problems – sexually transmitted diseases, or signs of physical altercations such as cuts or bruising.
- A child has a fantasy relationship, eg they believe they have an amazing older boy or girlfriend
- Rumours around school of an older relationship or involvement in gangs
- A young person begins to travel a lot – this is an indication of being used as drug mules or that they’re being sexually exploited
- A child becomes involved in a gang or isolated from their usual friends
- Unexplained or regular absences from school, or being excluded
- Evidence of self harm or changes in their emotional wellbeing
- Secretive behaviour
- Over familiarity with strangers
- Dressing in a sexually provocative manner or sending sexualised images
These are not an exhaustive list and exploitation can occur without any of these indicators being present.
Following a family break-up, 13-year-old Lucy went to live with her dad, new partner, and their younger children. Feeling like she didn’t quite belong in her new home and becoming increasingly isolated from her family, she began searching for affection elsewhere.