Online child sex offenders use chat rooms, gaming sites and social networking services to make contact with young people with the intention of persuading them into online or offline sexual activity. Often referred to as “online grooming”, this is a criminal offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre acknowledged in 2008 that social networking websites – which integrate personal profiles, email, instant messaging, games and photo sharing – enable information-gathering on a child and grooming to take place in one online environment.
With digital cameras, camera phones and webcams becoming increasingly popular, young people could be at heightened risk if they post sexually-provocative images online or share them via a mobile, for example. In some cases, they might do this at the request of someone they have met online.
At the most basic level, online grooming is the process of using internet communication tools such as instant messaging apps or social networks to gain the confidence and trust of children.
What is online grooming?
Despite being in the headlines on a regular basis, many parents still struggle to fully understand what online grooming is, the effects it has on their children or how to prevent it. Online grooming is a form of predatory behaviour, because the ultimate goal is to exploit the child involved.
Generally the ultimate goal of an internet predator is to encourage children to participate in sexualised activities. This may take the form of exposing themselves on webcam, emailing suggestive photographs of themselves, or even meeting the predator in person and becoming the victim of direct sexual abuse.
How is the grooming of children different online?
In many circumstances, grooming online is faster and anonymous and results in children trusting an online ‘friend’ more quickly than someone they had just met ‘face to face’. Those intent on sexually harming children can easily access information about them and they are able to hide their true identity, age and gender. People who groom children may not be restricted by time or accessibility to a child as they would be in the ‘real world’.
How does online grooming work?
Normally an abuser will make initial contact with children via a chat room, social network or other place in which kids commonly meet and chat. The predator will usually pose as another child of the same age and try to establish a rapport.
Over time the predator will try to build up trust with their victim using gifts, compliments and simply by ‘being there’ to listen to their problems. Over time, online conversations will become more sexualised and the child will be encouraged to share intimate details and photographs of themselves. Often predators will then try and arrange a meeting ‘in real life’ to escalate the abuse.
Groomers design what they say as they go along, tailoring their flattery or offers as they learn about the victim. Here are some tactics young people can watch out for (these are themes for which there are many variations, tell your children!):
- “Let’s go private.” (leave the public chatroom and create a private chat or move to instant-messaging or phone texting)
- “Where’s your computer in the house?” (to see if parents might be around)
- “Who’s your favorite band? Designer? Film? Gear?” (questions like these tell the groomer more about you so they know what gifts to offer – e.g., concert tickets; Webcam, software, clothes, CDs)
- “I know someone who can get you a modeling job.” (flattery, they figure, will get them everywhere)
- “I know a way you can earn money fast.” (one of the tactics that snagged Justin Berry, 13, into what became his Webcam prostitution business, reported by the New York Times)
- “You seem sad. Tell me what’s bothering you.” (the sympathy angle))
- “What’s your phone number?” (asking for personal info of any kind – usually happens at a later stage, after the target’s feeling comfortable with the groomer – but all online young people should not give out personal info online)
- “If you don’t… [Do what I ask], I’ll… [tell your parents OR share your photos in a photo blog / Webcam directory / file-sharing network]“ (intimidation – used as the groomer learns more and more about the target)
- “You are the love of my life.” (what “Amy,” 15, fell for before traveling out of state to meet someone who’d groomed her – see “Amy’s Story” at Netsmartz.org)
How do predators groom children?
Children put themselves at great risk by communicating online with individuals they do not know in person. Internet predators intentionally access sites that children visit and can even search for potential victims by location or interest.
If a predator is already communicating with a child, he or she can piece together clues from what the child mentions while online, including parents’ names, where the child goes to school, and how far away the child lives from a certain landmark, store, or other location.
Online grooming is a process which can take place in a short time or over an extended period of time. Initial conversations online can appear innocent, but often involve some level of deception. As the predator (usually an adult) attempts to establish a relationship to gain a child’s trust, he or she) may initially lie about his age or may never reveal his real age to the child, even after forming an established online relationship. Often, the groomer will know popular music artists, clothing trends, sports team information, or another activity or hobby the child may be interested in, and will try to relate to the child.
These tactics lead children to believe that no one else can understand them or their situation like the groomer. After the child’s trust develops, the groomer may use sexually explicit conversations to test boundaries and exploit a child’s natural curiosity about sex. Predators often use pornography and child pornography to lower a child’s inhibitions and use their adult status to influence and control a child’s behaviour.
They also flatter and compliment the child excessively and manipulate a child’s trust by relating to emotions and insecurities and affirming the child’s feelings and choices.
Remember: The ultimate goal of the “groomer” is to arrange an in-person meeting to engage in sexual relations with the child or Predators/abusers will:
- Prey on teen’s desire for romance, adventure, and sexual information
- Develop trust and secrecy: manipulate child by listening to and sympathizing with child’s problems and insecurities
- Affirm feelings and choices of child
- Exploit natural sexual curiosities of child
- Ease inhibitions by gradually introducing sex into conversations or exposing them to pornography
- Flatter and compliment the child excessively, sends gifts, and invests time, money, and energy to groom child
- Develop an online relationship that is romantic, controlling, and upon which the child becomes dependent
- Drive a wedge between the child and his or her parents and friends
- Make promises of an exciting, stress-free life, tailored to the youth’s desire
- Make threats, and often will use child pornography featuring their victims to
How to prevent online grooming?
The best way to prevent online grooming is to engage in honest and frank conversations with children. Parents need to lay guidelines for what is and is not acceptable, and encourage their children to approach other web users with a healthy degree of scepticism and caution. Starting online chats with strangers from the position that they could be lying, should help your children be more wary of requests from online predators.
Parents also need to watch their children’s behaviour carefully, particularly for significant changes in attitude for example; if young people become more secretive about their web use, or hide their phone and delete messages.
Keep your children safe online
Teach your children the five key Childnet SMART rules which remind young people to be SMART online. You should go through these tips with your children.
S – SAFE; Keep safe by being careful not to give out personal information – such as your name, email, phone number, home address, or school name – to people who you don’t know online.
M – MEETING someone you have only been in touch with online can be dangerous. Only do so with your parents’/carers’ permissions & when they can be present.
A – ACCEPTING e-mails, IM messages or opening files from people you don’t know or trust can be dangerous – they may contain viruses or nasty messages.
R – RELIABLE; someone online may be lying about who they are, and information you find on the internet may not be reliable.
T – TELL your parent, carer or a trusted adult if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried.
How to report online grooming?
Where a child is in immediate danger, such as going missing to meet someone from the Internet, you should ring 999 immediately and report the incident to the Police. In all other instances of online grooming, you should make a report directly to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), a national body set up to keep kids safe from online grooming. Use the CEOP reporting tool to submit details of your suspicions and any evidence you might have of online grooming taking place.
If you are affected by anything you have read or are concerned about someone you know…. Please feel free to get in touch with us.
For further information regarding Child Sexual Exploitation teams in your area click on http://www.nationalworkinggroup.org/
All above information and research was gathered from the following sources:-