Limerick garda warns of dangerous rise in online bullying and sexploitation

Donal O'Regan


Donal O'Regan


Limerick garda warns of dangerous rise in online bullying and sexploitation

Sexploitation is just one of the horrible dangers faced by young people nowadays as our online presence grows and grows – Garda David Higgins

GARDA David Higgins gave excellent advice to parents of children receiving smartphones, tablets and games consoles for Christmas in last week’s Leader.

He spoke of the danger of handing over a device with access to pornography, violent and gruesome video content and unlimited capabilities to communicate with other strangers.

This week the garda with almost 18 years experience expands on this area and the rise in online bullying and sexploitation.

Garda Higgins, who is based in Bruff, said sexploitation is the practice of a user posing as a friend or befriending a person and inducing them to send sexually explicit pictures of themselves with the promise of the same in return. 

“What happens then is the victim, trusting the other person, does this and is immediately compromised. When this takes place among a local environment it can be used as an extreme form of bullying, where the pictures are used to torment and exert pressure on the individual and in some cases can absolutely lead to suicide by the person being targeted. 

“However, it is also being used as a financial enterprise by an extremely technically capable network of criminals. In these cases, the same occurs but then the victim receives a message back that if they don’t pay a ransom, the sexually explicit pictures of them will be shared to all of their friends and family. By this stage the person who has gained trust under false pretences will have noted friends lists from the victim’s social accounts and are willing and able to make good on their threats.

“Anyone, including young teens, can fall victim to these crimes and often the perpetrators are outside the country, operating remotely and covering their tracks as they go. Sexploitation is just one of the horrible dangers faced by young people nowadays as our online presence grows and grows,” said Garda Higgins.

Earlier this month, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee welcomed both Houses of the Oireachtas passing new legislation criminalising the distribution of intimate images without consent. 

In November, thousands of images of Irish women were shared online without consent. It is understood some of the content relates to minors, and was shared by users in a number of online forums. One of the forums where the images were shared was messaging platform Discord. 

Discord said it has a “zero-tolerance approach to non-consensual pornography and child sexual abuse material, and we work aggressively and proactively to keep it off of our service."

Though Discord has been in the news, Garda Higgins said it is no different to any file sharing platform in that at a fundamental level they are designed for users to communicate with each other and it’s up to individual users to exercise responsibility with who they talk to and how.  

“Any messaging app where your child posts videos of themselves has the potential to do and spread as much harm as any other app with the same functions. Parents need to know that while most apps have online forums that are monitored for safe and mannered discourse, they also have the capability for users to set up their own groups within the apps and these private groups are usually not monitored, with the responsibility being held by a person or persons within the group designated as a group admin,” said Garda Higgins.

Anecdotally there is more and more pressure being placed on young people to send sexually explicit images and videos. 

Garda Higgins said he can’t speak to what pressures are being placed on teenagers to send sexually explicit content, but he does believe a huge issue that needs to be tackled in our society is the discussion around consent. 

“Because of the way communication has shifted over the last few years, particularly for younger generations, a person’s online persona is playing an increasing role in how they socialise and form relationships. Due to this, it is becoming more and more common for teens to begin exchanging sexual content with each other, including pictures and videos.

“Until a person reaches the age of 17 years old in this country they cannot consent to a sexual act. It’s that simple. Therefore sharing or distributing images of teenage girls or boys, of a sexually explicit nature, or even possession of that material, is viewed as child pornography. If you possess or share sexual images of someone and you know they are under the age of 17, then you are committing a very serious offence. 

“It doesn’t matter that ‘sure loads of the lads did it too’ or ‘they were OK with sending the pics to me’. I cannot stress this enough, if you share these types of images or videos of someone under 17 then they have not consented. They can’t. And this discussion needs to happen in our homes and in our schools so kids can be educated about this. It’s a life lesson that will serve them well going into adulthood, to be respectful of future partners and to make sure there is consent and respect and trust when conducting yourself both online and off,” said Garda Higgins.

In relation to cyber bullying it isn’t too long ago that at least when school was over you were free from the bullies but now it can be 24/7.

Instead of verbal abuse and name calling, Garda Higgins said it through apps where users can post horrific, abusive comments, usually anonymously, and without ever having to face their victim. 

“Some apps allow users to post anonymous comments about someone which then tend to get shared by other users. Because pretty much every teenager now has a smartphone, the bullying experience is magnified; hurtful and harmful comments directed at someone are now frequently seen by hundreds of people, instead of just the victim and a few close friends. This can take the form of messages, photoshopped pictures of the person or trolling, whereby everything a person does in an online capacity receives hateful, negative feedback on their social platforms. This is happening right now and being perpetuated by children younger than 10 years of age who are not being monitored and have free access to the full capabilities of smartphones and social apps,” said Garda Higgins.

As a father of young children what age would he give them smartphones, tablets, games consoles?

“I personally would prefer that pre-teen kids didn’t have their own devices but I’m also conscious that school work is now starting to be integrated with online platforms, where teachers can upload homework or tasks and the child uploads the solutions. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a great tool and with the uncertainty of school closures over Covid I think we’ll only see their use grow. I think for most parents it’s a choice of how comfortable you are with the devices yourself and how much monitoring you intend to do. 

“I believe it’s wrong and negligent to hand over a device with access to pornography, violent and gruesome video content, unlimited capabilities to communicate with other strangers and with valuable personal information such as home location and bank information to a child without being accountable for how you restrict and regulate the use of that device.

“As well as the dangers I’ve already spoken about, there are criminals out there waiting to exploit children whether it be through blackmail or fraud and these things are happening on a regular basis in Ireland, a lot of the time because the parents don’t know who their child is in contact with.”

Wise words from a garda who is at the coalface of modern technology being used as a tool for evil instead of good.