My 12-year-old received sexually explicit photos on her phone – yet I tried my best to keep her safe

phone images
phone images

Our daughter, Lucy, was the last of her friends to get a smartphone when she started secondary school last September. My husband and I thought carefully about giving her an iPhone as she was only 11, which seemed young, and we’ve made a point of not being on social media ourselves. But we eventually decided that if we put restrictions in place blocking her from using apps such as Snapchat and TikTok, and set screen-time limits, we would be able to control her usage and keep her safe.

Lucy seemed to be responsible with her phone but then, six weeks ago, I checked her screen time on the parental controls which show up on my phone and saw that, according to the stats, she hadn’t been using her phone. I knew this wasn’t true, as I could hear her on it upstairs. We asked to take a look and discovered she’d set up a new iCloud account and was accessing all the apps we’d banned. It was that easy. Apple doesn’t ask for a password or send out an alert to parents telling them their child is using a new account. If they want to get around parenting restrictions, they can. 

The discovery explained so much about Lucy’s behaviour over the past couple of months. She’d become withdrawn and less affectionate, spending more time in her room, which I’d put down to her age. Over the next few days, I kept her phone with me and watched the screen flash up with reams of Snapchat messages from men and boys. Of course, when I asked them if they knew they were communicating with a 12-year-old, they didn’t reply.

Snapchat is a dream for a paedophile because all messages are deleted after a few seconds but thankfully our daughter had screenshotted some of the messages she’d received, including one from a 14-year-old boy who’d sent her sexually explicit images of another young girl. He’d been love-bombing her with promises of a relationship, marriage and children and was trying to encourage her to send similar images of herself. Whether she did or not, I’ll never know. She promised she hadn’t, but refused to give me the code needed to access the “For My Eyes Only” folder on her Snapchat.

She told me she was in love with this boy. My husband and I demanded she tell us everything she knew about him. I then set out to his school about half an hour away from where we live. I can’t tell you what an enormous relief it was when it turned out he was a schoolboy rather than a 40-year-old man pretending to be one. I read on the NSPCC website that the police don’t take action when a situation involves two children but his school asked me to report the incident anyway, particularly given there was another girl involved, too.

The policeman I spoke to was blunt: he told me that if a child has a camera phone and access to the internet, they will end up posting sexual photographs online. It’s peer pressure. Over time they’ll see so many sexual images of other children that it becomes normal in their minds. Terrifyingly, Lucy had turned her location services on – another man she was chatting to had told her to, ensuring that all these predators knew exactly where she lived.

Eventually I did manage to get into that folder on her Snapchat, but it was empty. She’d obviously told all her friends to delete incriminating evidence, too, as when I warned their parents, none of them found anything suspicious.

I needed Lucy to know that she was in trouble. She needed to know that what she was doing could have serious implications. A fire had been lit; her TikTok history showed that she’d started to access self-harm images, suggesting she was poised to go down a very dangerous road. I’ve since learnt that algorithms cynically set out to find out your trauma, so they can push it at you and you’ll click and click and click.

I wanted the boy to know he was in trouble, too, but equally I didn’t want his life to be ruined over it. I told the police I wanted them to frighten the life out of him and his parents but no more. He was only doing what every other kid is doing.

Lucy has never asked for her phone back. We also removed her Xbox from her room as it has access to apps and the internet. If she wants to play, it can be down in the living room when we’re all around. It’s only been a few weeks but it’s as if a cloud has lifted. She’s a child again, playing football and writing stories. She even asked us to get her model horses down from the loft. Parents give kids phones to make them more independent, spread their wings, but when she had a smartphone she spent all her time in her room.

None of Lucy’s friends’ parents have followed suit, though. A few weekends ago she came back from a sleepover saying they’d all been on TikTok, which made us angry but we realise we can’t stop it. What we can do is make sure she’s safe at home, with no access to images and videos that are harmful.

It has to start with us, the parents. We can’t let TikTok bring up our kids. We can’t give them camera phones at a time in their life when they’re most self critical and stand by as they get judged for their smallest imperfections. Social media is a popularity contest and there’s no way I want Lucy, or my son, Henry, 10, getting caught up in it until they are old enough to know their own mind. The 12- and 13-year-old boys on Lucy’s Snapchat feed were posting pictures which they claimed to be of their topless, ripped torsos. Every adult knows that boys that age do not have six packs but our kids are caught in an alternative reality.

I truly believe this is the current generation of parents’ Jimmy Savile moment. A kid who spends their life on their smartphone is like a person who has seen war; if we don’t insist on a reckoning, our children are going to look at us and ask, why didn’t you protect me?

Thankfully, I think we got to Lucy just in time. She’s rediscovered the genuine joys of life: she cuddles us up with us on the sofa to watch a film; she listens to Spotify on a device with only music apps, and when she calls her friends, it’s on a basic flip phone. If she’s missing out on a few online conversations with her friends, this is a small price to pay. As the policeman told me, handing a child a smartphone is giving them pornography but telling them not to look at it.

As told to Anna Tyzack