• Internet communities can give kids a sense of belonging, but they can also open them up to potential abuse, writes Samuel Leighton-Dore. (Digital Vision)
When I was 12 one of my only friends was a 40-year-old man on the internet.
By
Samuel Leighton-Dore

16 Dec 2019 - 1:15 PM  UPDATED 10 Jan 2020 - 9:21 AM

Growing up, I was allowed a non-negotiable one hour of screen time each day. How I used my hour was up to me and I was frugal with each of the 60 minutes.

On Sundays and Mondays, my hour was allocated to watching the entirety of Australian Idol. On other days, I would allocate 30 minutes to watching Neighbours, followed by 30 minutes of free internet use (which involved disconnecting the home phone line and kick starting the dial-up modem).  

The internet had become a safe haven for me; a place where I could escape the name calling and pre-teen thuggery that had defined my seven years of primary school.

As digital safety and the threat of predators lurking in video games and chatrooms invokes fear in the hearts of parents everywhere, my own experience in the pre-smartphone era is a cautionary tale of the vulnerability of teens and pre-teens to grooming online.  

I would arrive home and drop my bag to the floor by the computer, eagerly logging on to various fan forums under my long-running username 'redsox' (no affiliation with the Boston baseball team, I just had a pair of red socks I liked), excited to chat about the musicians and TV shows which, at the time, gave my life joy and meaning.

The internet had become a bit of a safe haven for me; a place where I could escape the name calling.

Some of the friends I made online during this time are still in my life today. They are people I've phoned in an emergency, people I've grown up chatting to, people who have supported my various creative endeavours. A few will even be attending my wedding early next year. The relationships were real and deep - and sometimes they were with people much older than me.

Like 'Dice'.

Dice was a man in his mid-forties. I was twelve turning 13. I knew his age, because I had met him at a concert meet-up. He was unshaven with salt and pepper hair and a little pot belly that occasionally poked out from beneath his button-up shirt. And while I didn't know much about him (whether he had children or a partner, for instance), I didn't really care. He was a forum administrator (important!) and I enjoyed the attention he gave me - checking in on my day, asking my opinion on the latest Australian Idol elimination - and relished the novelty of a grown-up having similar interests to me.

Soon, our friendship developed beyond the internet forums we frequented. He gave me his mobile phone number and would ask me to call him when I got home from school, when parental supervision was clouded by a flurry of dinner preparation. Before long, the sound of Dice's gravelly voice greeting me down the line was a source of comfort. He felt a bit like a school counselor, only he was cool and knew I was special. We'd debrief on our days. We'd gossip about other forum members. We'd bitch and groan about my parents - how they wouldn't understand our chats.

Soon, our friendship developed beyond the internet forums we frequented. He gave me his mobile phone number and would ask me to call him when I got home from school.

As all of this was going on, my parents were worried. Of course they were worried. They were worried because I'd barely survived primary school. They were worried about the impact bullying might have on me in high school. They were worried because I had struggled to form any meaningful friendships and spent so much time alone, retreating into myself. 

For them, my new internet friendships were cause for trepidation, but also a source of some comfort. I was visibly happier, I referenced actual people - friends! - by name. I made plans for the weekend (concerts, mostly) and introduced my parents to other people my age in attendance.

They knew about Dice, peripherally, but didn't know his age. As the calls continued, however, he slowly became a larger blip on their radar. Who was this friend? Why hadn't they met him yet? They began closing in, asking more questions about my computer use, openly checking my internet history (something they had always done in secret).

Then came the phone bill.

It was around 7pm on a weeknight when my parents called me into the dining room. My mum was midway through paying the bills, She had highlighted a long list of calls on our phone bill.

I was used to my mum looking worried, but now she looked REALLY worried. My calls to Dice had totaled around $400 - landline to mobile was expensive at the time. But her primary concern wasn't the money.

"How old is Dice?" she asked. "What do you talk about?"

"I dunno, he's like, older, I guess," I replied.

"He's just a friend. We talk about stuff."

I don't remember the exact words mum used, but she didn't mince them. She explained that Dice might want something different from our friendship than I did; that it wasn't normal for adult men to spend so much time speaking with boys my age.

I never spoke with Dice on the phone again - and he soon faded from my online social circle. It turned out other forum members had made complaints about him - inappropriate touching at meet-ups, certain lines of conversation making young members feel uncomfortable.

He might not have abused me physically or sexually, but he earned my trust when I was 12 years old.

And now, when I think about it, that's just as scary.

Samuel Leighton-Dore is a writer and visual artist based on the Gold Coast. He writes for SBS Pride and his new book How To Be A Big Strong Man is available in Australia now. 

To seek immediate assistance for unwanted contact and grooming contact the Office of the eSafety Commissioner esafety.gov.au/.

Kids Helpline is Australia's only free, private, and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25. Counselling is currently offered by phone 1800 55 1800 , Webchat, and email

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