Online grooming is when someone uses the internet to build a relationship with a child or young person, with the intention of exploiting them. They may manipulate, pressure, or trick the young person into sharing personal information, or explicit images or videos of themselves.
Many of us enjoy interacting with and talking to other people online. Social media sites have made this kind of communication easy and talking with others is a great way to feel connected and part of a community.
However, not everyone is who they say they are – especially on the internet. For some children and young people, this can be a difficult concept to come to terms with, especially when they feel like they can trust and confide in the people they’ve met online.
As online platforms continue to develop, and with online grooming crimes rising by more than 80% in the last four years, it’s important that parents and caregivers know how to identify grooming behaviour.
Disclaimer: this article contains descriptions of grooming, sexual abuse and other sensitive topics that could be distressing for some individuals.
What is Online Child Grooming?
Most online grooming definitions refer to the process of building a trusting relationship with a child or young person on the internet, and subsequently using that relationship to exploit them.
They may be a stranger, or someone the child knows in real life and will often use the online platforms children use to build rapport and make a connection. Children can be groomed online through:
- Social media networks
- Gaming sites
The predator may also ask the child for their phone number (if they have a mobile phone), so that they can message the child or young person directly using text, or a messaging app like WhatsApp.
Types of Grooming
Online groomers target children and young people for various reasons. Some of the most common types of online grooming are:
- Sexual Abuse. They may encourage the child to share sexually explicit messages, images, or videos of themselves.
- Radicalisation. They may try to convert the child to support or become involved in extremist ideologies.
- Theft. They may attempt to obtain personal information about the child’s family, such as financial information.
These different types of grooming are not mutually exclusive. A predator may have multiple intentions when grooming a child – depending on what they think they can get out of the situation.
How to Identify Grooming Behaviour
So, what does online grooming really look like? And what are the signs of grooming that parents and caregivers should look out for?
Below, we’ve broken down the online grooming process step-by-step, including how a predator might develop a connection and relationship with a child.
We’ve also included some tips for what parents and caregivers should look out for, and what you should do if you think your child is being groomed online.
Creating A Persona
The first stage of online grooming often involves the creation of a persona. It’s important to note that not all online predators use a persona. However, due to the nature of online platforms, the internet can sometimes make it easier for predators to gain access to children or young people – as they can pretend to be someone they’re not.
Some groomers use fake images or names, impersonate celebrities, or adopt a mentor persona to get close to the child. Others may imitate someone who is already close to the child in real life, such as a family member, school friend or trusted authority figure – like a doctor, or teacher.
Tip: Review your child’s internet usage regularly and make note of any new connection requests, friend invites, messages, or interactions from accounts you don’t recognise. Likewise, be suspicious of any interaction your child has with celebrity figures or online influencers, and make sure to always look for the ‘verified’ symbol that most social media sites have.
Establishing A Connection
Next, the predator will begin to form a connection with the child. Online abusers will often establish a connection with a child or young person by pretending to share similar hobbies or interests.
They may compliment the child on their skills in an online game or reach out about a recent picture they have posted on their social media. They may also reach out with an exciting or exclusive offer for your child to gain their interest.
Tip: Keep an eye out for any changes in your child’s internet usage and device usage. Are they suddenly texting much more than usual? Are they being secretive about their online activity? Most social media sites and online platforms have built-in parental controls that you can make use of. Your Wi-Fi will also have certain configurations you can set that will limit which websites your child can access.
Filling A Need
Once this connection is established, the predator will begin to deepen the emotional connection they have with the child or young person by attempting to find and fill any needs the child has. According to a 2012 study, this is the most dominant stage of the online grooming process.
The predator may talk to them about their family and school life or try to find any insecurities that the child has. They will then provide the child with comfort or companionship, talking them through their issues, and providing advice where needed. They may even provide financial support or send the child gifts, to strengthen the relationship.
The groomer may also form a romantic relationship with the child – especially if this is something the child or young person appears to need. They may shower the child or young person with compliments, flattery and praise in order to fulfil their own agenda – this is sometimes known as “love bombing” them.
Tip: Look out for physical and emotional changes in your child. Does your child have money, or new things like clothes, games, or gadgets that they can’t or won’t explain? Are they expressing views that don’t align with things they have said in the past? Have they mentioned an older boyfriend or girlfriend that you haven’t met? These could be indicators that your child is engaging in a dangerous relationship online.
Isolating The Child
As the relationship develops, the next step involves isolating the child from their real-world connections. The predator will build a relationship with the child that is deliberately separate from other aspects of the child’s life.
They may assert that they have a ‘special bond’ with the child, or that they are the only one who really understands them. They may also sow doubt about the intentions or feelings of the child’s family or friends by questioning relationships and manipulating situations to make the child feel like they cannot turn to their family or friends for help.
Tip: Be conscious of any changes to how your child is interacting with the people in their life. Does your child appear more withdrawn or aloof than usual? They may avoid conversations or spend more time in their room or out of the house. It may also be worth speaking to their school about their performance, and how they are interacting with their teachers and peers.
Desensitisation And Exploitation
At this point, the predator has established what seems like a deeply trusting relationship with the child. They may begin to introduce intimate and inappropriate behaviour and conversations, in an effort to normalise them.
This includes asking intimate questions about the child, describing explicit activities, or even sharing explicit content directly with the child. Modelling this type of behaviour desensitises the child and encourages them to reciprocate.
The abuser uses the trust they have built in their relationship with the child to coerce or pressure the child into giving them what they want. This often involves the child sharing explicit images and videos of themselves. They may also try to get the child to meet them in real life.
Tip: Pay attention to any sexualised behaviour, language or knowledge of sex that is not appropriate for your child’s age. Some curiosity is natural but be aware of sexual behaviour that is non typical. NSPCC Learning’s guide on sexual development and behaviour in children shares useful information on what normal child sexual behaviour looks like.
Unfortunately, once a child has shared images or videos of themselves online, they lose control of the content. Anything that the child shares as a result of grooming can sometimes be used to blackmail the child.
The predator may also use shame or blame tactics in order to control the child and the situation, all with the goal of preventing the child from revealing the abuse and exposing the groomer. Blackmail may also be used to pressure the child into further sexual exploitation.
Tip: Be vigilant of your child’s emotional state, and how they react to certain questions. A child that is being groomed may be emotionally volatile as a result. Are they experiencing mood swings more often than usual? Have they had any unusually explosive outbursts?
Safeguarding Against Online Grooming
Any child can be at risk of online grooming – regardless of their gender, age, race, or location. That’s why it’s important to develop an open line of communication with your child to ensure they understand how to be safe online.
Online and Offline Friends
Have a conversation with your child about the difference between online and offline friends. Explain to them that online friends can still be a stranger, no matter how friendly they seem – and that you should never agree to meet with online friends in real life.
Help your child to compile a list of all the differences between people they might know online, and people they know offline. What kind of things help us trust someone? And how can we know someone is who they say they are?
Talk to your child about the warning signs and red flags that might suggest someone is not to be trusted. Warning signs include asking for personal details or to send photos or videos, asking to meet up offline or asking to keep certain things secret.
Discuss with your child: What are normal things to talk about, and what things are not appropriate to talk about? Why might it be dangerous to meet someone offline, or send them personal information or photos? And what should we do if we think someone online is displaying warning signs?
Make sure your child knows that they can come to you if they need help. Some children and young people worry that their parent or caregiver will react badly if they seek help, which can prevent them from doing so.
Reassure your child that they can come to you for help, no matter what has happened. You will be there to support them regardless, and make sure they are safe online.
You should also make sure you’re both aware of where the report and block buttons are on different online platforms, and how to use them. Read about video social networking sites parents should know about here.
Reporting Online Grooming
It can be distressing to think your child or young person might be being groomed online. It can also be incredibly distressing for your child – which is why it’s important to act quickly and seek support.
If you think your child is at immediate risk, call 999. You can also call 101 if you think a crime has been committed.
If your child is being groomed online, you can also make a report to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection service (CEOP). CEOP is a division of the National Crime Agency who help deal with reports of online abuse, including grooming.
Once you have made a report, one of their Child Protection Advisors will get in contact with you. They will help guide your next steps, supporting you to keep your child safe.
You can make a report to CEOP here.
Childline also offer a free counselling service for children and young people who have been affected by online grooming. Children and young people can talk to a counsellor online or over the phone. Conversations with counsellors are completely confidential and offer valuable one-to-one support.
Find out more about getting support from ChildLine here.
When it comes to safeguarding against online grooming, the most important thing is to make sure your child knows how to keep safe online. Being aware of the signs of grooming and paying attention to your child’s internet usage will also help protect your child from online predators.
At Compass, the safety and wellbeing of our children and young people is our top priority. We work tirelessly to ensure that our children and young people’s needs are kept at the heart of every decision we make.
All our foster carers are provided with extensive safeguarding training, ensuring that the wellbeing of the young people in their care is protected both online and offline. To find out more about fostering with us, get in touch with our team today.