Liam Shields is every parent’s worst nightmare. The 29-year-old from Desborough, used social networking sites including Facebook to befriend children as young as nine before persuading them to perform sex acts on webcams.
He had created fake online profiles to lure the children to become his Facebook friends then pressured them to send him naked photos.
Last week he was convicted of 42 charges relating to sex offences against boys and girls. Police believe this is just “the tip of the iceberg”.
Following the case, Northamptonshire Police issued a warning to parents to keep a close eye on their children’s safety online.
Det Con Katy Tyrrell said: “This case has illustrated that it is absolutely vital that parents and guardians know what is happening with their children online at all times.
“More often than not, young children are being allowed to take their camera-function laptops into their bedrooms and to go online without any parental supervision or monitoring taking place.
“But would parents and guardians who allow this to happen then also allow a complete stranger into the privacy of their child’s bedroom? Almost certainly not, but it amounts to the same thing.”
The case follows an Evening Telegraph special report that revealed the number of referrals received a month by police in Northamptonshire for online child exploitation has risen from about four a month in 2008 to 25 a month last year.
A poll commissioned by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre showed around 80 per cent of children aged between five and 15 in the UK are regularly online every day, while OFCOM findings for the same age group reveal that 61 per cent of parents fail to set adequate online controls or didn’t have filters in place to keep their children safe.
The findings also show that 95 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds now have internet access at home through a PC or laptop – up from 89 per cent in 2010. More than 40 per cent of five 12 to 15-year-olds have a smartphone. And social networking is one of the most popular activities, undertaken by 50 per cent of teen smartphone owners on a regular basis.
CEOP says it is vital that parents understand in the same way children should be wary of unwanted approaches from strangers in the real world, they should also be careful if approached online.
The anonymity of the internet can encourage children and young people to take risks or act in a way they would not normally, and this can make them vulnerable to people who wish them harm.
Parents need to talk to their children about giving out too much personal information, posting inappropriate photos and comments and befriending people they don’t know.
Peter Davies, of CEOP, who is also the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead for child protection, said: “The internet offers some fantastic opportunities for young people to learn, socialise with friends and explore their interests.
“All we are saying is have fun online and enjoy the benefits the internet can bring, but in these early stages we ask parents to talk to their child and make sure their online safety is built in to everything they do.
“Every day we see the effects on children’s lives when things do go wrong, so please work with us to keep our children safe and empower them to know what to do if things go wrong.”