Police have launched an investigation into an online predator posing as a teenage girl to lure boys as young as at least 13 into sending nude selfies online.
The imposter, going by the name of Ella, used a profile photo of a girl with long brown hair. The person used social media platforms including Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook to befriend at least 321 young people, many from schools in Canterbury.
The profile said the girl went to Christchurch Girl's High School but the school confirmed there was no student attending by that name and they had been in touch with police.
After befriending and striking up conversations with some of the students, the imposter sent boys sexually explicit videos and photos.
The boys were then asked to reciprocate by sending back nude images of themselves.
The Herald is aware of at least two boys who sent nude photos.
Staff from the Online Child Exploitation Agency of New Zealand (OCEANZ) contacted Facebook last month resulting in all of the user's social accounts being closed.
The police spokesperson said their information indicated that the person responsible was based in New Zealand.
The spokesperson said inquiries to establish the identity of the person were still ongoing and they were keen to hear from anyone with relevant information about this case.
Christchurch Girls' High principal Pauline Duthie said the school was alerted to the profile by the police.
Duthie said she had also contacted another Christchurch school to warn them about the account.
The school was aware a large quality of pornographic material was being exchanged among high schools kids, she said.
Duthie said the school held regular online safety courses for students and parents and taught their girls to act "safely and responsibly online".
The head of a Christchurch school, which the Herald has not named to protect the victim, said it had been working closely with a student and their family. The school was unaware of any other victims.
"Our focus has been on providing appropriate support for the student and they have been offered counselling," the school said.
"Educating students on cyber-safety and being good digital citizens is of paramount ... and there is an extensive programme in place working with students across different year levels around 'protecting and respecting' themselves online."
The head of another Christchurch school said they were not contacted by police but were aware of the online profile.
"We talk to our boys and parents frequently and bluntly about the dangers of the cyber world."
NetSafe director of outreach Sean Lyons said it was becoming increasingly easy for groomers to hide their true identity online.
He said teenagers were particularly vulnerable because of their burgeoning sexuality and their interest in using social media for companionship and courtship.
Overseas research shows almost all (99 percent) of the victims of online sexual abuse to be between 13 and 17 years old with most being either 13 or 14 years old.
But Internet safety consultant John Parsons believes the age of the children affected by online abuse and grooming is getting younger as children are given access to internet enabled devices at a progressively earlier age.
Parsons' cyber safety work is now extended to include working with 5- to 7-year-olds.
In July 2015, a new offence was introduced to the Crimes Act to tackle online grooming. Under section 124A of the Crimes Act, indecent communication with young person under 16 is a crime.
But data from Ministry of Justice showed that, in the past 10 years, only child groomers who had met or attempted to meet their victims were brought before the courts.
Research says most incidents of sexual abuse are not detected, reported, or investigated.
The Department of Internal Affairs' recommendation to the parents is to move away from censorship and to encourage their children to become "street smart".
"To tell children to stop using these services would be like telling them to stop attending school because students are sometimes bullied."
The department also advises parents to spend time with their children while online and get them to go through what they are doing and how they access online services.
"Children and teenagers need parental supervision and common sense advice on how to be sure that their experiences in cyberspace are happy, healthy, and productive."
The department says the cyberspace might pose some danger to children and teenagers but it is also an incredibly exciting place for them to explore, be creative and grow.
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633 Youthline live chat
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• NetSafe: 0508 NETSAFE (0508 638 723), www.theorb.org.nz