THE crackdown on the online exploitation of children has stepped up in Cumbria.

With a recent increase in cases of children groomed or targeted by paedophiles online, efforts are underway to ensure youngsters are aware of the dangers.

Tackling sexual exploitation on the frontlines in Cumbria is Amy McQueen, team manager of the NSPCC’s Protect and Respect service.

Based in Carlisle, the service helps children in the county process and deal with the effects of abuse they have suffered, something Amy says is increasingly carried out online.

“With technology and the internet being the way it is nowadays I think the perpetrators of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse do use the internet as a means of targeting and grooming vulnerable children,” she said.

“The use of the internet in these cases is definitely increasing the risk and enabling perpetrators to use technology as a way of exploiting people.”

Amy explained that exploiting children through the internet is often done in a complex and manipulative way, to the extent that young people often don’t realise it is happening.

“Child sexual exploitation is often a hidden crime. The nature of grooming and the process that perpetrators go through into tricking a young person into believing they’re in a loving relationship is often very complex.

“A young person might often trust their abuser, and don’t realise that they’re being abused.”

Online safety experts from Google paid a visit to Brampton Primary School last week to help offer guidance to pupils for staying safe online.

The school’s deputy headteacher Chris Armstrong explained the vital importance of properly preparing today’s young people for exploring the internet.

“There are more and more young people, not just using technology but accessing things that might not be age-appropriate, whether it’s games or apps or social media,” said Chris, 38.

“We as teachers can’t ignore that reality. They’re doing it so we need to skill them up to deal with it effectively.”

Recent figures from the NSPCC suggest almost a quarter of young people have come across racist or hate speech online, and more than 2,000 Childline counselling sessions in 2017/18 tackled the harrowing theme of online sexual abuse.

But in spite of the very real dangers the internet poses, Chris urged parents not to overlook the positive aspects of the web.

“Some people might say not to let young people on the internet. But you can’t look past the fact that internet is an incredible invention.

“You can access this entire new world of information and opportunity. It’s easy to lose sight of that the midst of all the dangers and pitfalls. It’s all about teaching them to access it safely.”

Chris said the two Manchester-based Google representatives both entertained and educated the Brampton children who took part in the day, all aged between seven and 11.

“It was really fast paced and dynamic”, he said.

“The kids really enjoyed it. I was quite impressed with our kids on the whole.

“A lot of our children - the responses the children gave before we started the session was very positive. It demonstrated that they knew quite a lot already.”

He added that the importance of online safety means it is one of the school’s computer education priorities.

“It’s not the sort of thing we would just do for one day and then forget about it. The climate is so dynamic online that you’ve got to be constantly looking for the most up-to-date resources.

“There’s a lot of advice readily available for parents, and we try and collect worthwhile guidance on our website.”

Staff at the Brampton school endeavour to stay up-to-date with the rapidly shifting online culture in which the children are embedded.

“If we hear children at school referencing a particular app or site we’ll hunt for the guidance on it, and let the parents know,” Chris said.

“Parents aren’t always aware of what’s going on in the online world.

“Some children are so much more savvy online than older generations that parents and carers might not quite grasp either the dangers or the opportunities that are out there on the internet.

“So it’s important parents stay as aware as possible too.

“They have a responsibility to understand the world their children inhabit.”

Chris said he was encouraged by Google’s proactive approach to tackling the issue of child online safety.

Rosie Luff,Google’s online safety public policy manager said: “We were delighted to visit Brampton Primary School.

“We want to prepare children to have a safe and positive experience online.”

Google’s safety education was developed in partnership with family internet safety experts Parent Zone.

“It is essential that children learn to think carefully and critically about what they do and see online.

“Parent Zone has teamed with Google to teach younger children the essential tools they need to become safe and confident online explorers, helping them be resilient, kind and positive in this digital age”, said Vicki Shotbolt, founder and chief executive of Parent Zone.