Why is it critical we understand the issue and realities of online grooming? Well, many parents understand the dangers of child kidnapping or assault in a physical space, but online predator behavior is still new and unseen by much of the older generation. However, as technology advances, we will continue seeing a rise in online predators and a diversification of the ways predators go about it.
Online grooming can occur in many different ways and for different reason, with examples of end goals including kidnapping, sexual assault, fraud or online scam. What young people may not know or understand, is how to spot and avoid the issue. They might believe they are being responsible and safe online, but unbeknownst to them are being tricked or manipulated by others.
It is vital we all understand the signs of child grooming online and what to do if we experience it.
What is Grooming?
Grooming is when an individual establishes and develops a relationship with a child, often done by befriending, manipulating, lying to and making promises to the child - avoiding any direct conversation about that user’s real intent.
Typically, predators are seeking to engage in inappropriate sexual activity with adolescents. This could be sending and receiving sexualised images or messages, or assault in the physical sense, and even sexual trafficking groups and exploitation.
Online predators often follow a particular pattern when they’re trying to take advantage of a child's naivety. Their process is typically slow and progressive, as they first attempt to build trust with the adolescent involved.
Unfortunately, successful predators are very good manipulators, and will look for ways to appear as a friend or helpful source of information to children. Although every grooming instance will vary from another, there are common steps, so it’s important we all know what to look out for. Two core pieces of advice for parents are to speak to their child regularly about any behaviour online which they don't like or don’t really understand. Also, your family should look out for and be aware of any other adults in their circle that suddenly spark a particular interest in said child.
Step 1: Targeting
Groomers carefully and strategically select their targets. Usually, they will seek them out through social media, messaging apps or chat functions in online games. They look for children who have relaxed or distant parents, or those kids who appear vulnerable. Predators will lie. They’ll lie about their age, their gender, where they live, what they do and obviously their intentions. When they first approach a target, the conversation will be based upon building trust with the adolescent. They will avidly look for ways to help or offer advice to their target. This could include giving them advice on their home or school life.
Step 2: Engagement
There are many ways online groomers engage with their targets and seek out vulnerabilities with the child. For example, if they aren't popular at school, the groomer might look to give them enhanced attention or offer to listen to any problems they might have. Groomers will give lots of compliments, especially about a child’s appearance, in hope of winning the child over and gaining their confidence and trust. Finally, be aware of gifts - both online and offline. Some predators will look to build a relationship with a child by buying and flattering them with presents. From phones and iPads, so they can chat with them more, to gaming credits and online vouchers that don’t have a physical paper trail.
Step 3: Testing the Boundaries
Grooming is all about good communication. Predators will likely ask questions about the child’s feelings, about their relationships with their parents, family and friends, about their interests, etc. Ironically, poor communication within families often means we collectively miss these somewhat obvious signs. Talk with your child, check in on their messaging and ask them if there’s any online contacts who regularly seek out this sort of information. It’s common for groomers to encourage children to keep secrets and their conversations private, so be alert to your child dodging questions or avoiding conversations about certain online friends or contacts. Predators who want to act physically will also try to get information about their daily schedules, their hobbies, sports and activities, and when they’ll be alone or away from family and friends.
Step 4: Isolation
A groomer’s goal is to take advantage of your child, physically and/or emotionally. As mentioned earlier, trust is everything and the key to making or breaking the relationship. Groomers regularly look for issues and matters that might help cause an issue between the child and their family or friends. In essence, groomer’s aim to influence conflict or force a distant relationship between the child and those typically closest, and in doing so offer to be the better friend, the carer, the listener, the helper, the cool one, and/or the shoulder to cry on. This trickery often works, and can influence a child to be distant, isolated and less forthcoming to share information about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with online. If your child is acting out of character and mutes when they typically wouldn’t, this could well be a telltale sign.
Step 5: Sexualisation
Many online predators want to receive and/or send inappropriate sexual content or messages from/to their targets. Some groomers will operate solely online, seeking out photos, video, messages and audio, whilst others will want to meet in person. Be aware that groomers might often send indecent images of other children to help normalize the situation or verify that they are trustworthy or closer in age to the victim.
Step 6: Control
Once the abuse starts, many people find it difficult to get out of the situation. The groomer will try to make sure that the child seeks comfort in them to enable the inappropriate behaviour to continue. They might even threaten or blackmail the victim, and insist on secrecy to ensure they remain in contact.
What Should Parents Do?
If you think that there is no way an online predator could reach your child, unfortunately, you are horribly wrong. Abusers don't care who they target, and can manipulate a variety of ways and situations to successfully reach children, regardless of their family backgrounds, location or behavior.
Identifying grooming and spotting the signs online isn’t easy, but being aware and understanding of the types of actions typically related to online predatory behavior is a huge head-start. Victims are typically manipulated into staying quiet about their relationship - either earned by trust or threat. Many victims are tricked into thinking they’re behaving in responsible, sensible, fun and safe ways.
Here are some actions you can take with your child to help them get out of a grooming situation if it occurs, and better prevent themselves from future incidents occurring.
- Empower your child to speak openly about what they do online, who they talk to and why.
- Let your child know that you can and want to support them if they are made to feel uncomfortable by another individual’s behaviour; albeit a child or adult.
- Develop a safe environment where your family feels like they can discuss their issues with no judgement. Everyone makes mistakes when they are young and that it is okay. The most important lesson is to learn from them, communicate and avoid issues when possible.
Most importantly, ensure your child understands you want to support and protect them, and help them with any situation, albeit uncomfortable. Never blame them for the actions of a predator, because naivety and/or trustingness is not their fault. They have been victimised by a groomer with intent, so create open conversations about the subject and encourage them to be more aware of bad people, even children, they meet online. Unfortunately, in the digital world, it’s difficult to really know who might be hiding behind an online profile.