In recent years, the digital landscape has witnessed a concerning rise in online dangers, posing significant threats to individuals, especially children and adolescents. the proliferation of online predators has grown more sophisticated, exploiting vulnerabilities in social media and gaming platforms to target unsuspecting youth. These dangers highlight the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to educate and protect individuals from these evolving threats, making initiatives like those undertaken by the Breck Foundation increasingly crucial in safeguarding online communities.

On our most recent episode of Inside the Sweeps, we are joined by Erica Thornton, CEO of the Breck Foundation, where we will delve into the critical topic of online safety. Erica brings her expertise to the forefront as we explore strategies to protect children and adolescents from the increasing dangers of online predators, and other digital threats. Join us as we discuss the foundation’s mission, initiatives, and practical advice for families navigating the complexities of the digital age.

Alison Bussey
Hi and welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us on our podcast Inside the Sweeps. Today, I’m very much looking forward to talking with our guest. We are joined by Erica Thornton. Erica, could you please introduce yourself to our audience and tell us about your role at Breck Foundation and what inspired you to get involved? 

Erica Thornton
Hi, I’m Erica Thornton. I’m the chief exec of Breck Foundation. I’ve been here only for six months, so yeah, it’s a new role to me. Thank you for inviting me here today. And the inspiration to start here, I mean, I have a background in sort of in youth work really. I’ll be youth worker at heart. 

I started off my career as a police officer for a couple of years. That we really wasn’t for me, but I did learn so much about it and went into sort of youth offending and worked and then went into working with charities around missing children, and exploitation, and from there I’ve kind of had various roles, but I’ve come back now to this area where I feel a real synergy and fit with me and my experiences. I lived experience and also just what I’m very passionate about supporting young people.  

I have children of my own who are obsessed with the internet and everything to do with online and gaming and such like. So yeah, it was a real honor to be accepted to join this organization, and I actually heard Lorin LaFave Gordon, our founder, I heard her speak about nine years ago, I think at a conference, and it’s never left me. 

So, I just jumped at the chance to apply for this role when it came up, and six months, and here I am. 

Alison Bussey
That’s amazing. So, some of our listeners might not know how Breck Foundation started and the powerful story behind it. Can you share the story of Breck Foundation with us? And what is Breck Foundation’s main mission? 

Erica Thornton
Absolutely. Breck Foundation is, sadly is born of tragedy. It was started by uh Lorin LaFave Gordon and her family, they are the family of Breck Bednar, and 10 years ago Breck Bednar was 14 at the time, and he’d been groomed for over 12 months online by a predator who was not much older than himself and he was groomed and via a gaming platform and a great gaming server. 

And unfortunately, the predator did lure Breck to his flat. And in February 2014 and he was murdered and out of that tragedy, Lorin decided that she had to make something good come from that. So, she really had to think, how can I stop this from happening again? How can I prevent anyone from going through what I’m going through right now? And so, one of the main things she thought of is if Breck had known, if Breck had understood what was going on… They did try to tell him, and the family were very wary and conscious of the person who was grooming Breck. They were listening in on the conversations, they were concerned by Breck’s changes in behaviour… Lots and lots of things that that led them to believe that Breck was being groomed. They spoke to police, to family, to school, and so when this eventually happened, Lorin said, I don’t want this to ever happen again. So, I want to go into schools, I want to educate and empower young people to spot and notice the signs of grooming, or even just notice the signs when something’s not quite right, when something feels a bit iffy. And yeah, so sat at the Breck Foundation, and it started off with Lorin and friends and family, going into schools and educating, and telling Breck story. And I think that’s the powerful point of why we’re here. 

So, we go into schools, and we deliver presentations to children from year five, which is sort of like ages 9 and 10, from there and above. And we go in and we deliver sessions to them in school type of full year groups or just small classes. And we use Breck story as a powerful way of educating them and getting them to see that it could happen to them. Or it could happen to a friend, and this is how you spot it, and this is where you go to, and really empowering them to reach out and just put their hands up and say, hey, this doesn’t feel right or I’m worried about my friend. 

And we also do lots of other things as well around. So, we have different projects, and we have a play and another thing such like and we also use peer Breck Ambassadors to educate their own peers and deliver sessions in schools as well. 

So various things that we do, but ultimately our vision is a world in which children and young people can live and play and learn online safely. And I think that’s the key thing is we don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t go online, or children to feel like they shouldn’t be gaming. We know you will. We know they will, so it’s about how we we’re not going to stop that. 

Alison Bussey
Yeah, they’re not staying off. 

Erica Thornton
Yeah, it’s not going to happen. So how do we make sure that on those gaming sites, when they’re in that chat room, when they’re on that social media platform, that they are safe. As safe as they can be because they have the tools and they’re empowered to speak out if it doesn’t feel right. 

Alison Bussey
Yah, we just said you know; we’re not going to be able to keep kids off of the internet or gaming platforms, all those kinds of things. And the digital world seems to continually be changing. I mean anything to do with technology seems to just move so quickly, and access to the Internet, you know, brings entertainment, we get Education from it, but we also know that there are big risks, especially for kids as we’ve mentioned. 

So as tech grows and people use the internet, new danger seems to pop up all the time that parents and teachers need to watch out for. From your view at the at Breck Foundation, what are the biggest online threats to kids today and how have you seen those dangerous change overtime? 

Erica Thornton
Well, there’s definitely been a big sort of increase over the last few years, and I know you’ve talked about it on previous post podcast as well around sextortion and particularly of young boys and young men. 

So that’s obviously where a predator, particularly organized crime groups, will target young people and either ask them for images and they send it to them willingly because they think it’s friend or they think that they know someone and then extorting money out of them, threatening them to share their images across friends, family, school network, to shame them, to embarrass them. 

And ultimately saying, I want some money, or I’m going to share this share this image. But I think that the scarier growth around AI, which AI technology is incredible and can be used for so much good, but like with anything, it can also be abused. And people are now deep faking images. You could say to our children, you know, never send your image online, never send that and now it almost doesn’t matter because the deep fakes are so brilliant that it would be believed that was their image. 

So, I think that’s a big increase. And just generally, I think the increased risk, but then the understanding of that risk isn’t increasing fast enough at the rate. So, the general public or parents, or carers, or communities, maybe not at seeing that threats and still thinking there’s that stereotype attached to an online predator. 

You know you’re not talking to some creepy old man like he’s a stranger. You it could be speaking to anyone in Breck’s Killer was only 17 at the time when he started to groom Breck, and he was eighteen when he when he and when he was convicted. So, it just shows you, you know, it doesn’t have to be a certain age. 

So yeah, I think those would be the main things. And just as technology gets smarter and quicker, we need to grow with that, and we need to get ahead of it. And I think there’s some brilliant organizations out there, really trying to do just that, and trying to get ahead, and trying to find out how can we solve this? How can we mitigate a predator getting to my child and such like. 

Alison Bussey
So you mentioned the threats and then also kind of keeping up with those and the education around them. Are there any specific tools or strategy that you’d recommend for parents to keep an eye on and guide their kids with their internet use? 

Erica Thornton
Yeah. So, we also, I said earlier about was talking to children in schools. We also deliver to parents, carers and teachers as well, so the whole school community. And so, when a school contacts us and asks us to come in, and that will usually be face to face when we’re speaking to the students, but then we also offer online sessions, so the online sessions could be for the parents.  So, parents will take, you know, come along and see what your child is going to be given, what we are teaching your children around online safety. And I think the key tips we give to parents is to talk, to have open conversations with their children. Not to think, oh gosh, that’s too scary for me, I don’t understand it, they use all these technical terms, they may be in decoding, you know, all this stuff that could go over our heads. And it’s actually, you know, go and be inquisitive, ask them what their favorite game is, why do they like it? Really kind to just sort of to know how powerful it is for you to, for your child to think, oh my God, they care, they’re interested, you know, I’m going to tell them about it.  

And when I when I first got this job, I have got an older child at university, but the other two were 15 and 14 at the time. And then they were saying things like oh no, do you think I’m going to get groomed now? And I said, no, no, no. You know, it’s those straight away those blockers come up with a child when they’re like, no, I don’t want you to talk to me about this. I know about this; I learn about this at school. So, okay, well, tell me, what do they teach you at school? You know, really trying to find out what their understanding is. And then once you’ve started opening those lines of conversation, it’s just going to get a little bit easier every time. And then if there are scary things in the news, or if certain stories that you want to talk to them about, it’s not going to come out of nowhere. But then, of course, there’s the practical things like how to block and report, how to make sure there’s parental controls on your Wi-Fi settings, on your computers, you know, making sure that if they’ve got accounts and things, that that’s age appropriate. 

There are so many things on the website, on the internet, that are there to support parents, to demystify things, to explain what sort of games are and really dive into them and understand why your child’s playing it, what they’re going to be learning about, what the chat rooms are like, VR. And come to our website as well, because we do have a lot of resources for parents and stuff and we’re always updating it with as and when new technology comes in. 

Alison Bussey
That’s awesome. You’re mentioning some resources, so you’re speaking to kids of many different ages. How do you make sure the resources are age appropriate? As you mentioned, some of the you know talking about some of the content can be a little scary. Like, how do you make that age appropriate for the conversations for resources, sorry. 

Erica Thornton
Sure, so it it’s a good point. We do go into schools, and like I said, we talk with children from a young age right up until, you know, 18. And therefore what we tell an 18- or 16-year-old is going to be different to what we tell an 8-year-old, a 9-year-old, right? It’s more about how we explain Breck story. So, for example, our education is really rooted in that lived experience and sharing the, sharing the story of Breck, to keep children engaged in the reality of it, and that this is something that happened, and it may be somebody that they can relate to. 

So, we potentially won’t tell some young people, the more detailed, the more graphic detail of how he was groomed and maybe how he was murdered. But we will tell them about unsafe relationships, and control, and if somebody asks you to do something and for you and they will give you, you know for that that kind of conversation. And also, a lot of their campaigns across children’s charities and such like an organization, it’s about affirming that kind of trust your gut. 

Like when something feels fluttery and the tummy, you say to my children does it feel fluttery in the tummy? That’s probably because you’re, you know, your body’s telling you that’s not quite right or, you know, and it’s really trusting that. So, we also, you know, we talk to them about not sharing their private information, you know, how to keep their profiles private, we also talked to them about, have they seen any bad behaviour online. So, we asked them, and we discuss with them, you know, what’s your experience and actually that’s brilliant because then they have that peer education and they all chip in and they’re like, oh, yeah, that happened to me, or I heard that happened to my friend, and then it starts up this conversation off this real-life story and experience. 

Other things about, you know, if anyone asked for a photo, you know, don’t reply to it. Don’t send it, and really don’t reply to people, like be brave like think no, this doesn’t feel right. I’m going to hold my hand up. I’m going to tell a teacher and there’s no shame attached to that, and I think that’s the huge point really is that it’s a lot of shame is attached to, especially around sextortion and things like that, that a child feeling like they can’t then speak to a parent, or a teacher, or a friend, and say this has happened to me because this fear of being judged. And so, it’s really teaching children from a young age what that feeling is like and that they can trust, and these are their trusted adults. These are the people in their circles that they can trust. And obviously as they get older and stuff, they become more familiar with what that means and who they can actually trust. 

So, and then of course, like secondary school children will get more details will get different forms of grooming, so they’ll be taught about radicalization, for example, gang activity, nudes. You know, so, we sort of, and we give more information as they get older as to age-appropriate information. 

Alison Bussey
That’s awesome. So, Breck’s storie is really rooted in grooming. And I’ve seen recently how it’s becoming an increasingly serious issue, and now with sextortion, we did see that there was a recent report from the NSPCC of an 82% rise in online grooming crimes against kids in the last five years, which is an alarming statistic. 

So, what do you think can be done to prevent kids from falling victim to online grooming? And are there any specific social media, or gaming platforms, or spaces online that parents or teachers should be especially cautious about? Do you think? 

Erica Thornton
I think, you know, most grooming is reported to happen on social media, so at that that is where our children are mostly active and mostly communicating with their friends. But it can happen anywhere you know. So, I think what we will always come back to is education. 

So, there is a point at to which we as a very small charity in new in the UK, a small foundation, small team, there’s only so much we can do to impact that bigger picture, to impact, to stop people from grooming, to stop the predators. What we can do is, we can educate and support the young people to empower them and for them to spot the signs. So, I think that’s really our key. 

And so, you talked about what steps can be taken to prevent them falling victim, is for them to know all about it, like it shouldn’t be something we shy away from, that we don’t consider to be part of the education. You know, online safety isn’t part of the UK school curriculum. Which when you think, 98% of young people have access to the internet and spent their time online, well, of course you know that we should be educating about that in schools, and it should be a priority and not just a tick box exercise, and it shouldn’t be boring. And I think that’s what we also bring as a charity is and other charities delivering this work as well as to make it fun, make it engaging, make people remember, remember when Breck Foundation came into my school. I remember that I remember what they told me, I remember the story of Breck, I would hate that to happen to me, I’m going to do everything I can to ensure it doesn’t.  

So, putting all those places with the young people. But then also really is about the community. Even for people who don’t have children of their own, they may have nieces, nephews, neighbours, cousins. We all are connected in some way to a child, it’s all of our responsibility. When I used to work in child exploitation, it was like we have people have to know about this. They have to know this is happening, and they need to know what’s happening, and how to spot the signs, and that it could happen to anyone. And it doesn’t discriminate. 

So, I think that’s again, in order to reduce a child’s risk of being groomed is that their entire circle around them, their neighbours, their friends, their teachers, their aunts, their uncles, their grandparents, all understand what grooming is and would be able to spot if something was happening, and be able to talk to the child about it. 

Alison Bussey
Exactly. Well, I mean, we’ve talked a lot about the education piece. When it comes to talking about, you know, grooming and keeping kids safe online. Fortunately, there are also various technologies or ways we can use technology or software that can help parents and educators. 

Which technology solutions does Breck Foundation suggest for online safety and how do these tools help in monitoring or protecting kids’ online activities? 

Erica Thornton
So there is one umm piece of technology that we’re familiar of at the moment and an organization that we work closely with and they’re brilliant. They’re very supportive of our work. They’ve supported us over the last few years in delivering some of our projects across the UK and it’s called Schools Mobile 

The technology that they have, there are other organizations out there also doing the same thing. But it’s your clever techie people, parents, carers, aunts, uncles who’ve gone, hang on a minute. I’m really good at this. I’m really techie, I know I’ve got an idea. I could make an app; I can do this, and this could really work. And they’ve got together, and they’ve created this incredible piece of technology that basically schools can sign up to, a parent can just download it, or this whole school download it. And it’s a way of tracking on the child’s phone, any malicious content, or any unsafe content, and it’s sort of it blocks it from coming in, but it also flags what it is and it sends a report to the parents so they can see how many times in a day that harmful or malicious content was being sent through their child’s phone or attempted to get into their child’s circle, you know, into their spheres. And schools who sign up to it, obviously, then it means that the whole school, and it’s more than the firewall.  

There’s lots of things. I mean, gosh, I remember 10-8 years ago trying to download some app on my phone to control when the internet was on, or when my child was on it. And all I remember is that every time my daughter went on to it, it would like it would change all of our apps all over a screen, and then there be this huge fear because all of her apps had moved around, and they were in the wrong place, and it had deleted some. And so, you know, and I remember thinking at the time, oh gosh, it’s so complicated. Why is it so complicated? Then that is what’s got better and better over the years.  

And now there are some fantastic tools like Schools Mobile out there doing it, but it does rely on a parent or carer. Actually, putting that on their child’s phone, and explain to your child why we’re doing this. We’re not tracking you; we’re not stopping you going on Instagram, we’re not stopping you going on at all the, you know the sites that they go on. But we’re trying to do is mitigate the risk and to sort of reduce the chance of that harmful content getting through. So again, that alone is not going to stop it, but it’s all those little pieces. But that alongside the education piece, it is super important. 

Alison Bussey
Exactly. I think it’s kind of a multifaceted approach, right? It’s not just one answer, it’s having some technology, it’s having the education, it’s having those open conversations that are all kind of coming together to help kids stay safe. 

So, as we kind of start to wrap up our talk on online safety, I think it’s important to share some practical tips for parents and kids to stay safe online. So, what advice would you give parents and kids to improve their overall online safety habits? 

Erica Thornton
Oh, come to a Breck talk. I mean, yeah, I mean, go find out. Go to your child’s school. Ring them up, go online, have a look at their PSHE policy, that safeguarding policy. See what their commitment is to online safety. Ask your child, have you ever read online safety sessions at school? Find out, do you remember them? Was it boring? Did it engage you? Tell me about it. 

When I first started at Breck Foundation, and I was telling my children about the interview, my daughter went oh, my God, I remember that. I remember that I they came to our school, or we watched the documentary years ago and it’s never left me. And that was, I think it was three years that she’d seen it before, and she could still could vividly remember it. So, if they can remember the online safety session, they’ll remember it for the rest of their life, and they’ll and they’ll tell the people. 

So, it really is a practical step that you can do is to find out what your child is being educated to at school. Recommend Breck Foundation or other charities that maybe in this sphere in in your in your community, in your locality. And really go online, come on to our website, go on to other websites, Childnet for example. Find out what practical, technical tools you should be using, what boxes you need to tick on the privacy settings. Make sure that everything on your child’s gaming console, or on their phone is set up to keep them safe as best as best they possibly can. 

Alison Bussey
So in addition to some of these tips, I think we’ve touched on it a little bit, obviously having good communication between parents and kids is really, really important. Are there any tips or on how parents can keep open conversations with their kids about online activities or any strategies that you’d recommend to helping kids feel comfortable talking about any online challenges or concerns they’re having? 

Erica Thornton
I guess the biggest thing is for the child to not think you’re being nosy and that there’s that you have an ulterior motive, right? So oh, hang on, how come they’re all of a sudden interested in what game I’m playing? You know, so I think that’s really so, you know, be honest, say look, I’ve realized I don’t know enough about this. I know that when you walk down the street to go to the shop, I know how many houses you’re going to pass, I know how many roads you’re going to crossover. I’ve lived here for X amount of years. I’ve got a pretty good idea of the nature of the people that live here, or I know which road you shouldn’t go down at night, or we know our next-door neighbour, they’re called XYZ, right?  

Well, what I don’t know is pretty much what you do from when you walk in your bedroom to when I see you at teatime or when I see you at nighttime. What you’re doing online? Who are you talking to? So, there’s a huge part of your life that I’m not aware of and I don’t want to know everything. 

Don’t tell the conversations, but just give me a bit of an idea of, you know, what are those roads you’re going down? What’s the game like you’re playing? You know, who do you interact with? How many people do you chat with? What are they like? What are they doing? What are they up to? Do you know them? Do you know their names? You know, all of that and just say hold your hands up, be honest, because children, they see it. They’re not deaf, they will see right through it if you if you have this ulterior motive. 

So that’s a really good strategy. And you know, sit down, play the game with them. I mean, I loved playing games as a teenager and you know, it was always into my Nintendo on my little Game Boy and all that stuff, like obsessed, obsessed. So, if I start playing get a Mario Kart or something with my son, I’m like, I’d therefore I’d be there for hours. Like I love it. But it’s not something I would choose to go and do. 

But when you sit down and you get involved, it’s another way of socializing and interacting with your child because that is their world. And it may not be, but if it is, then that’s a positive thing for them. So, embrace it and yeah, learn to love it and be open with them. And I guess, just try not to let it feel forced. And take the pressure off them, like to kind of prepare yourselves with some questions and maybe try and get a bit of education beforehand. So, you’ve got a fair idea about it. And then just say oh by the way, you know if ever you do feel a bit unsafe, these are the sort of places you can go to, or have you checked out this this website? It’s really good. It’s really educational if there were any things you feel unsafe about, have a look at it, you know, in your spare time. 

So yeah, just yeah, just get involved, I think.  

Alison Bussey
Yeah, I think that involvement and that engagement your mentioning, even if you’re not trying to talk about something, I think showing that interest initially kind of will make it a little bit easier later if you’re kind of starting to ask like a little more serious questions because you’ve already been involved in something they’re interested in. So, we’ve been able to share with our listeners now about Breck Foundation and are there ways people can help out or support like volunteering or fundraising? We’d love to know how our audience can get involved and help protect kids from online risks. 

Erica Thornton
Yes, there are many ways that you can get involved with Breck Foundation. So, we’re UK wide, so we can go into schools across the UK. We don’t have and a huge team, but we are growing. So, we’re growing our freelance team, who can go out and to be into the into all the counties and devolve nations of the UK. 

But we do offer online, we’re looking at going out internationally now and speaking some British schools overseas. We are available, and people can get involved by, you know, coming and speaking to us, and asking us to come to their school, or to come to their business, we go to a lot of corporates as well. So, come book us for your business, maybe you have like a lunch and learn session in your organization for example. I don’t know if that’s what everyone calls it. That’s what I call it. 

Alison Bussey
Nope. Yep. 

Erica Thornton
And it’s a really great thing. It opens up so much conversation in the office afterwards because there is so much then to talk about. Also, what’s your community doing? So, asking around in your community and getting us involved in that would be fantastic.  

Follow us on socials. You know, we’re really trying to increase our social media reach and so please, you know, like and subscribe and follow us on all the all the platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok) and we’re often posting like, examples of how parents can be towards their children, or keep safe, or if there’s something happening in the news, for example, we will give our take on that.  

And then of course we’re charity, we’re always looking for funding, donations, and we’re very fortunate that people are very generous and do often give us give us lots of donations to ensure that we can carry on doing the work we do. So, we have a thing called Breck Foundation friends, BFFs. So, if you feel like you want to be a BFF, you can sign up and donate monthly as little as a pound, and donate monthly towards, and then you get a bit of a club going there. And we have a newsletter that goes out every three months to the Breck Foundation friends. So, anything like that. 

Oh, and if you’re a runner, if you love running, we’ve got some places. If you fancy coming and doing the London landmarks half marathon in April next year, get in touch because we’ve got places for that, and we also would be happy for anyone who’s got a place in a local run, and they want to raise money for us. We would happily pay for their place, and they can run for us and raise money and that way. 

So, so many different ways, but just get in touch. If we’ve ignited something within you today, hearing about the foundation, please get in touch because I’m sure they’ll be a way that we can support you or work together. 

Alison Bussey
We’ll definitely be sharing your website and your socials with this podcast as well, because I mean, I think your message is universal. It’s not just, although it happened in the UK, I think being able to have access to those tips and stories you share is for anybody, as our audience is fairly global.  

As we wrap up, I just want to see if there’s any closing comments or thoughts, you’d like to leave our audience with today. 

Erica Thornton
I guess I was thinking about the people, the type of people or industries and stuff like that, that listen to your podcast and I just want to thank anyone who’s taking the time to listen today because it feels like we’re at a stage now, especially in the UK, we’ve just had the online safety bill is now an act and there’s lots of movement around that and it feels like although it may not be enough, that there is a real push and drive for change. 

And I think people that come and take the time to listen to podcasts like this, to educate themselves around online safety, around what is out there, how could I do more, is so powerful and yes. So, just thank you to anyone listening, and please keep learning, keep reading about it, it’s ever changing, it’s super-fast, we’ve got to keep up with it. 

And yeah, just do what little you can in this in this big world to make a difference. 

Alison Bussey
Thank you so much, Erica, for joining us today. We really appreciate you taking the time to have this important conversation with us and that we can share with our listeners. 
Thank you again. 

Erica Thornton
No worries. Thank you.