Independent Appeal: It's not just girls who fall victim to abuse online

Matilda Battersby reports on a pioneering project that helps victims of paedophiles and highlights a neglected threat to boys

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The Independent Online

Matthew, 14, met his "boyfriend" online. This man was considerably older, bought Matthew gifts, took him out drinking and gave him drugs. Matthew, who lives in care, loved this man, thought they would run away together, and couldn't understand when his carers banned his internet access, confiscated his phone and tried to stop them from meeting.

Matthew would abscond from care to the meet the man. He told his carers: "I want to be free to do what I want. He loves me, he cares for me. He is there for me all the time."

It took years before the manipulations of this paedophile were exposed to Matthew for what they really were, so damaging was it to his understanding of love, relationships and sex.

Matthew was groomed on the internet, after trying to explore his sexuality, and discovered at an early age just how popular he could be with men online. He is among many boys who have received specialist support from Street Safe Lancashire, a project partly funded by the Children's Society – one of the charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – which helps runaways and teenagers at risk of sexual exploitation.

The pioneering support project, which works across agencies such as social services and the police, helps child victims to come to terms with what has happened to them. Since it was set up nine years ago, reports of child sex abuse in Lancashire have rocketed in number – not because there is an unusual slew of such cases in the county, but because sex abuse is being recognised and reported properly.

From April to October this year, there were 864 reported cases of child sexual exploitation in Lancashire alone. Of these, 104 cases were against boys and young men. While sexual exploitation is more common against girls, it is increasingly being recognised as something that can happen to boys and young men.

Stela Stansfield, service co-ordinator for Street Safe Lancashire, says: "There are still some areas in this country which refuse to recognise child sexual exploitation as an issue for girls in their area, so it is even harder for boys to come forward about it."

The youngest male victim Street Safe Lancashire has worked with was nine. "He met a man online gaming. Imagine the scenario: you play games, meet people on the internet and in exchange for points you use webcams, allow certain photographs, do a bit more and suddenly there's blackmailing power because you don't want your mum or your friends to see that photograph of you, do you?" Ms Stansfield said.

Victims come from a range of backgrounds. A child from a wealthy and supportive background can be exploited via the internet just as easily as a neglected and impoverished one. But vulnerable individuals who do not live in family environments, or like Matthew, have been placed in care because of violence and abuse at home, are at greater risk because they are more likely to run away.

Ms Stansfield says: "In every town there is that flat, that house, where you can go and get drugs, where you can get some food and they may even let you sleep and doss a bit. Sometimes you can stay overnight. But you have to pay them somehow and there will be guys there who take advantage."

She says it is doubly difficult for boys and men to disclose abuse because of notions of masculinity. "In their minds men are not supposed to be raped, they're not supposed to be abused," she says. "There's an element of shame, of course, because they think they're supposed to be strong and protect themselves. It tends to go unreported for longer, so there are mental health problems that go with it."

With the help of Street Safe Lancashire, Matthew's abuser was convicted. Support workers were then able to reveal to Matthew the man's real age, that he had a wife and children, and that Matthew was not his first victim. Matthew was "shocked" and "disgusted". He is now doing "really well", continues to receive support from Street Safe Lancashire, and attends college.

Appeal partners: Who we're supporting

Save the Children

Save the Children works in 120 countries, including the UK. They save children's lives, fight for their rights and help them fulfil their potential. Save the Children's vital work reaches more than 8 million children each year - keeping them alive, getting them into school and protecting them from harm.

The Children's Society

The Children's Society provides vital support to vulnerable children and young people in England, including those who have run away from home. Many have experienced neglect, isolation or abuse, and all they want is a safe and happy home. Their project staff provide essential support to desperate children who have no-one else to turn to.

Rainbow Trust Children's Charity

Rainbow Trust Children's Charity provides emotional and practical support for families who have a child with a life threatening or terminal illness. For families living with a child who is going to die, Rainbow Trust is the support they wished they never had to turn to, but struggle to cope without.

At The Independent we believe that these organisations can make a big difference to changing many children's lives.