The case of a 42-year-old Queensland man charged with 931 child sex offences after allegedly posing as Justin Bieber online to groom young fans has alarmed child safety experts, who say parents should be doing more to warn and protect their kids about the dangers of online predators.
The man allegedly has been posing as pop star Bieber for several years, using Facebook and Skype to "solicit explicit images from young children", according to police. Bieber is, coincidentally, in Australia right now.
The federal government's Children's eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant told The Huffington Post Australia that her office was disturbed by the reports.
"It's extremely concerning that Australian children are being groomed in this way, being led to believe that they are communicating with a famous celebrity and asked to provide compromising images that can be used against them – we call this 'sextortion'," she said.
"This predatory behaviour plays on the trust they're placing on their idols and is precisely why parents need to continue to be engaged in their child's online lives."
Cyber safety expert and former police officer Susan McLean said such schemes, while shocking, are not unheard of. She said parents needed to speak candidly with children about the potential dangers of speaking to strangers online, and called for schools to do more in providing education programs about online predators.
"Most would respond with 'how dumb are these people [who were targeted]?' Most think they'd never be naive enough, but these predators are persistent, they keep going until someone falls for it," she told HuffPost Australia.
"This incident should raise awareness, and give parents the perfect opportunity to bring up this article and talk to their kids and have a conversation. I know it's hard to watch 24/7 what your kids are doing online. Let's say your kid talks to someone tonight. They might do it tomorrow, and the next day, but you'd hope within a few nights you'd amble along and see what they're doing. You might not stop it at day one but you'll stop it before the crimes are committed."
"They got the bad guy but they still have an amount of victims here, kids who have been humiliated and harmed. This is a crime of opportunity. If you don't give the offender the opportunity to harm, it can't happen."
McLean said parents should have open, honest conversations with their children about the issues at play online nowadays regarding predators and strangers, and encourage their children to speak up if they have issues or problems.
"It's about giving consistent messages, like what to do if something goes wrong, about coercion, and encouraging a culture of speaking up if you see it or are worried about it," she said.
"It needs a multi-faceted approach. We cant put our head in the sand any longer, online predators need to be addressed."
"We need to be talking to our children early and often about stranger danger online, just as you would for the offline world. We need to ingrain in them that it's easy to pretend to be someone you're not online, so not to trust strangers trying to befriend them, even if they say they are the same age as them," she said.
"Continue to reinforce messages with your child, that if they ever feel uncomfortable online, they should tell you right away so you can help them block and report the user. Taking away their internet access is like taking away their lifeline, so they'll be less likely to share with you if they think they'll be penalised for the initial mistake they made."
In terms of how parents and educators can do better, McLean called for schools to more heavily involve themselves with education and awareness programs around online dangers.
"These programs are hit and miss, they're up to each school. Some schools might talk about cyber bullying and nude photos, but not many will talk about grooming by pedophiles. They might not feel comfortable, they might not know much about it. There's a problem with one-dimensional cyber safety programs," she said.
"It needs to not be just specific issues. It has to be about a responsible use of technology, no matter what comes before them, so they will know how to deal with it. We should be raising a generation of children who are respectful and responsible, to make good decisions on and off line."
"We need to be clear about this. We can't just talk about 'a creepy person online', we need to talk about people online who might betray their trust. Just don't talk to people you don't know, that removes a lot of risk."
Grant said parents should monitor their children's social media and online activity in early years, as well as giving them information about how to verify the identities of people online.
"Before we hand children devices, we need to set the right privacy settings, know the apps their using and talk to them about the rules of engagement, particularly when communicating online," she said.
"We need to be talking to our children early and often about stranger danger online, just as you would for the offline world. We need to ingrain in them that it's easy to pretend to be someone you're not online, so not to trust strangers trying to befriend them, even if they say they are the same age as them."
"When it comes to celebrity accounts on social media, always look for the verification – a blue tick – so you know it's their official account. Unfortunately fake accounts are easy to make so unless they have a blue tick, you can consider them a phoney."
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