A child sexual exploitation survivor says that young people often think they are more grown-up than they are, leaving them at risk of grooming from online predators.
Teenager Kyran Peet tells AASMA DAY his story and how he believes the world of social media can be a dangerous place for children and how they should either steer clear or only befriend people they already know.
“In my head, I thought I was a lot more mature than I actually was.”
Kyran Peet, now 19, admits that at the age of 13, he never thought of himself as vulnerable or susceptible to grooming, but in hindsight, he realises he was.
Kyran, who lives in Chorley, explains: “I definitely was naive, but I did not think I was. Like most people going into their teens, I thought I was more grown-up than I actually was.”
Kyran says he now believes that there is no need for children to be on social media such as Facebook - but if they are online, he wants to warn them not to befriend just anyone and to stick to messaging people they actually know.
Kyran was groomed by a man he met through Facebook who lied about his age and told Kyran he was in his late teens when he was actually in his early twenties.
Kyran recalls: “I was 13 at the time and I met this man through Facebook. I think I added him as a friend because we had mutual friends. He began sending me messages and was very complimentary about me and always seemed to be in a similar situation to what I was going through.
“I had just come out as gay and thought I was ready for this sort of relationship.
“He told me he was 18 or 19 - but he was actually 23.”
The man came to Chorley to meet Kyran and stayed with him at his house and Kyran told his mum he was just a friend and was 16.
Kyran says: “We had only been speaking for a couple of weeks before I met him.
“I told everyone he was younger than he was as I was full on falling for him and didn’t want people to think he was taking advantage of me because he was a lot older. But I was unaware he was actually older than he had told me.
“When I first met him, he seemed to be the person I had been talking to online and he seemed genuine for a while. I really loved this guy. It was my first experience of anything like this and I trusted him.
The man would come to visit and stay with Kyran every two to four weeks and Kyran remembers he was very convincing and believable and would have chats with his mum.
Kyran says: “We spent a lot of time together and things moved very quickly.
“It soon became a relationship but I told people it was friendship. As he lived far away from me, each time he came up, he would stay for periods of time before going home.
“Each time he came to visit, I was excited and ecstatic as I really liked him. I was madly in love with him for the duration of the relationship.”
Kyran’s suspicions were first aroused about four or five months into the relationship after he received a message from a girl he didn’t know through Facebook who claimed he had abused her. Then he received another message from a male who said he had slept with this man.
Kyran says: “I spoke to him about these messages but told me these people were making them up and he was very convincing.
“I was too blind in love to believe the other people who were trying to warn me off. I was naive and young and believed him so I was shrugging these messages off.”
Kyran says as well as sexual abuse in terms of having sex with this man, he was also subjected to mental abuse as the man made him feel like he was going crazy.
He says: “There was emotional abuse as he made me feel like I was imagining issues. He fed me with lies and stories for everything I confronted him with and I went through so many ups and downs as he comforted me and told me that these other people were telling me lies.
“He would tell me stories to make me feel sorry for him. He even told me he had been raped and sexually abused when he was younger so there was no way he would do anything like that.”
Things came to a head about seven months into the relationship when Kyran found out about the man’s real age.
Kyran says: “One day, he left his phone unlocked and I saw a message come through from his dad which said something like: ‘You’re 23 now, you need to grow up.’
“It suddenly clicked that he had been lying about his age. I felt really gutted. Part of me was half expecting it but it was still a shock.
“It made me realise that if he was lying about his age then everything else might be a lie, too.”
Kyran went home and told his mum everything and she was shocked to learn about the sexual relationship.
Kyran remembers: “At this point, I was still making excuses for him even though I knew he was in the wrong.
“I had trusted him and believed him and had really strong feelings for him.
“To find out everything was fake and a facade was really devastating.
“I felt betrayed when I found out he wasn’t who I thought he was.”
Kyran went to the police but was still having doubts on whether to proceed with it. Kyran says: “The turning point came when I found out a few weeks later that he was messaging people I knew and asking to meet them.
“I realised this was not just about me and my real motivation for speaking out and taking the case to court was that I didn’t want this happening to other young people.”
Kyran was put in touch with The Children’s Society and says his project worker was extremely supportive and helped him through the difficult time.
He says: “The Children’s Society project worker was really friendly and genuine and I forged a good bond with her. She helped me see things for what they were and cleared up any doubts in my mind about going forward to the police.
“She took me to meet other young people in similar and different situations in a group setting and made me realise I was not alone.
“My biggest worry was about this happening to someone else and that gave me the courage and motivation to go ahead with the court case.
“The court case was a traumatic thing to go through and it was very lengthy and dragged on.
“The Children’s Society project worker came to court with me and helped me with the process. I was very nervous about going to say my piece.”
The man pleaded guilty and Kyran saw his abused jailed. Kyran realised how smooth his experience was in comparison to those who had gone through something similar but not had The Children’s Society to support them.
To show his gratitude to the charity, Kyran trekked through the Brazilian jungle for a week-long expedition taking in rainforest, mountains and beaches.
His endeavour raised an impressive £2,200 for The Children’s Society who Kyran became an ambassador through its young people’s participation programme.
Kyran says: “The trek was the hardest and most intense week of my life, both physically and mentally, but I’m so proud I pushed through and completed it.
“We climbed the Sugar Loaf and Jamanta Peaks working day and night getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and red ants and losing clothing in the rainforest.
“But it was also the most amazing thing I’ve ever done and so worthwhile to raise money for such an important cause.”
Kyran says he wanted to give something back to The Children’s Society because its Lancashire Street Safe service was there for him when he needed help. He explains: “The Children’s Society encouraged me to report what had been happening and advised me about staying safe and supported me through the court case.
“It was an extremely stressful situation but it’s hard to imagine how much more unbearable things would have been without that support. I want other young people to know this help is available.”
Kyran is now rebuilding his life and the aspiring actor is now at drama school in London. He says: “What happened to me has made me stronger as a person.
“It has put everything in perspective and driven me forward with my life.
“With the support of The Children’s Society, I am grateful for how everything has turned out as I am now happy with the person I am.”
Kyran wants to prevent exploitation of young people and believes the internet and social media can be a dangerous place for young people.
He says: “When you are young, there is absolutely no need to speak to people online who you don’t actually know in real life.
“I feel there is not necessarily any need for people that young to be online, but if they do go online, they should make sure their privacy settings are set at the highest settings. I also believe they should only be in contact online with a small circle of friends who they actually know. There is an issue among young people when it comes to the number of friends or followers on social media and there is almost a ‘bragging’ culture so some young people accept friend requests from people they don’t know.
“When you are young, you are vulnerable so don’t fool yourself into thinking you are more mature than you actually are. I now use social media for career reasons, but when you are that young, I feel it is probably better not to use it as there are people on there who are predators. If you are suspicious of anyone or get any warning signs, don’t be afraid to come forward.”
Kyran won the Lancashire High Sheriff’s 2014 Young Citizen of the Year Award, partly in recognition of his support for The Children’s Society in raising awareness about child sexual exploitation.
He took a gap year after he finished his A-levels and did some part-time bar work to help fund travelling including his trek.
Stuart Chaplin, The Children’s Society’s Lancashire area manager, says: “We are all really proud of Kyran.
“Completing the trek and raising vital funds to enable The Children’s Society to help other young people is in itself a fantastic achievement and incredible gesture.
“But the courage he has shown in reporting the abuse he suffered helping to bring the perpetrator to justice and speaking out to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation and The Children’s Society is truly remarkable.”
l Anyone wishing to can still sponsor Kyran for his trek retrospectively at: www.justgiving.com/kyranpeet
Alternatively, find out how to donate to The Children’s Society or support the charity in other ways by visiting: www.childrenssociety.org.uk