Netsafe calls on adults to have direct conversations with young people around online safety

Online safety organisation Netsafe has called on adults to have conversations with young people around the dangers of being online after an increasing number fall victim to suspected paedophiles.

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Sean Lyons joined Breakfast to discuss concerns around catfishing. Source: Breakfast

It comes after police revealed two girls from Hawke's Bay are among thousands of children who have been targeted by, or fallen victim to, a global sex abuse network.

Police are not ruling out others coming forward after a 21-year-old Irish man allegedly used false identities on social media sites to persuade children to send in explicit photographs of themselves in what's believed to be the UK's biggest catfish child abuse investigation.

The case has prompted calls for New Zealand police for new laws to crack down on predatory behaviour online.

Netsafe director of education and engagement, Sean Lyons, explained that catfishing is when "somebody misrepresents themselves online with the intention of forming a relationship with an individual."

"[It's] possibly something about that misrepresentation’s what's attractive to the other person, so you're basically defrauding somebody around your own identity," Mr Lyons told TVNZ 1's Breakfast this morning.

"At the very basic level, misrepresenting yourself online in New Zealand is forgery, but there are legislations against grooming young people, there are legislations around the production and distribution of objectionable material.

"We have a sweep of legislations that are at the disposal of law enforcement to crack down on these people when they exist in New Zealand."

Mr Lyons said while there is "always room for review" to the country's current legislation, noting that there "are parts where those legislations may not work effectively", he said, "In general terms, those legislations give organisations like ourselves, like the police, the ability to take action when individuals choose to prey on young people, as we've seen in this case."

He said the best way to protect ourselves and young poeple from predatory behaviour online is to raise awareness around its dangers.

"Even the phrase 'catfishing', which has become a part of the vernacular, kind of underplays what this is," he said.

"Effectively, what we’re talking about here is somebody attempting to get a young person to produce child sexual abuse imagery – in this case, of themselves."

He added that it was important not only to have awareness around "being able to understand that that's what's going on", but also "about young people feeling empowered to talk to adults around them" who will "know and understand what's going on, to raise the flag when they suddenly realise that these things are happening".

"It's about the adults who have care for young people knowing where to go to to seek help when they think their children may – even if they're not, but think they may – be involved in situations like this."

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The call comes as two young girls from Hawke’s Bay were caught up in a global sex abuse network. Source: 1 NEWS

Mr Lyons said we "absolutely" need to have more direct conversations with children around the dangers which come with using the internet.

"I think we need to, as adults that have young people in our lives, we need to be not afraid to talk about these things, even if they feel uncomfortable, even if we think it might be embarrassing," he said.

"We need to talk about these things to make sure our young people know that we're interested, know that we have some ability to help them so if they do find themselves in that position where they really don’t know what to do, we become a viable option to help them out."

He said while adults teach children about stranger danger, the area can become murky online, where people can foster relationships with others over a period of time.

"The idea of stranger danger is someone that you don't know. If someone's taken the time to convince you that they're your friend or that they’re romantically involved with you, then that's no longer stranger danger, that's someone that you feel like you know.

"In this case, it would have been someone that that child felt they were in a relationship with – that's not stranger danger, that's friend danger."

Mr Lyons said while he did not want to create panic around trusting friends, we "need to encourage young people to think about the relationships that they have, what makes that relationship and how much they can trust."

He said the conversations "need to be had early on", adding that they are difficult to have "when you're in the middle of a situation."