Online grooming has become easier and more accessible for abusers to manipulate and take advantage of children all behind the secrecy of a screen and a fake identity. Let’s find out how we can protect our children and educate the public on online groomers.
Whether we like it or not, there’s no denying how involved social media and the Internet are with our daily lives. As technology and social media continue to reach younger age groups, there is a growing risk with online grooming. While kids and teenagers use online platforms to keep in touch with friends and play games, abusers are hiding behind screens attempting to manipulate and sexually exploit minors.
This activity can either remain online through exchanges of sexual and explicit images and conversations or by meeting up in real life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, recorded cases of online grooming have jumped 70 percent (NSPCC UK). Other research from the Internet Watch Foundation has found that 2021 was the worst year on record for online child sexual abuse cases.
As the pandemic created more time for children to spend online, online groomers used it as an opportunity to search for children to target. Today, non-profit organizations, like Bridging Freedom, are aiming to educate, raise awareness, and hold our communities accountable for our children’s safety both in-person and online.
Learn more about online grooming, who is targeted, how to spot a groomer, and how we can continue to prevent it.
What is Online Grooming?
While online grooming is a newer term, is it not a foreign one. Grooming has been around well before the Internet and social media. Instead of an abuser pursuing or “befriending” a child in person, they are able to do this discreetly online.
Online grooming is a tactic used by abusers who aim to sexually exploit children through a variety of mediums. Online grooming behavior is much easier to spot as an adult, rather than a child who is being manipulated. Online groomers can use tactics like impersonation, blackmail, and earning emotional trust to hook in their victims. The following are some examples of what online grooming can look like:
- Sexual conversations with a minor via text, phone call, or direct message on social media.
- Sending or asking for sexual images from a minor.
- Asking a minor to participate in or watch sexual activities via webcam or video call.
It is important to note that many children do not realize they are a victim of online grooming. They may have feelings of loyalty, admiration, or fear towards their abuser. These are all emotions stemming from manipulation and intimidation tactics used by abusers. Check out the YouTube video below to learn more about online grooming.
If you or someone you know may be in an online grooming situation, we encourage you to reach out to a trusted adult or visit InternetMatters.org for a variety of free resources to help.
Who is Targeted?
Online groomers target children of all backgrounds, ages, and genders. Some online groomers may target one child specifically while others may choose to reach out to many children online. Regardless of the number, both types of abusers aim to sexually exploit children online.
In order to protect our children and community, we believe it is important to share statistics of demographics that tend to be the most at-risk for being targeted. Let’s take a look at who is the highest at-risk statically so you can protect your kids.
- The age group at the highest risk is between the ages of 12 and 15.
- 84% of reported online grooming cases involved minor girls (The Guardian).
- 16% of reported online grooming cases involved minor boys. Just because the majority is female does not rule out male victims.
- The most used platform for online groomers is Instagram (NSPCC). Abusers have better access to personal information, photos, and direct messaging through the app.
- During the “grooming phase”, abusers like to create an emotional bond with a victim to lure them in and create trust. They will target children and teenagers who are emotionally vulnerable, lonely, or have an estranged relationship with family.
It is important to note that just because a child may be at-risk that does not mean every child on the Internet could be exposed to an online groomer. Regardless, children should be educated on what an online groomer looks for so they can be extra cautious.
How To Spot an Online Groomer?
Online groomers can come in a variety of different identities. While many tend to be adult males, online groomers are not limited to just ‘one type’. Whether the abuser is male or female, friend or stranger, teenager or adult, online groomers all use the same tactics to manipulate children. They tend to rely on emotions and false empathy to lure in the trust of children.
Often, abusers will use a false identity in order to keep them extra hidden from the public eye. In these cases, some children may be chatting with a “kid” that appears to be their age. In reality, there is a much older person hiding behind the screen. Since these cases can be more difficult to identify, here are some tips for how to spot an online groomer.
- Asks if a child is alone in the room.
- Asks about a child’s personal information like address or school.
- Tells the child to keep the groomer’s identity and conversation a secret.
- Constant communication via text messages, DM on social media, or other social media platforms.
- If contacting via social media (like Instagram), contact pictures and bio make look like they are pretending to be somebody else. You can look for blurry pictures, no location tags, few followers, no tagged pictures, etc. They typically won’t have many mutual friends if they are a complete stranger.
- Inappropriate conversation involving sexual language or photos.
Watch this informational YouTube video about the different stages and signs of a groomer. This can be applicable for both grooming and online grooming.
How We Can Prevent Online Grooming?
At Bridging Freedom, the biggest takeaway we want to give you is how we can prevent online grooming. While we can all read statistics, the biggest form of help comes from taking action within your home. It can be easy to want to over-protect them from hearing about these cases and incidents, but the reality is that it can happen to them too.
Our children need to be educated at home about strangers online, social media, what they are posting, as well as, what is online grooming. Yes, it can be an uncomfortable conversation to have, but it is 100% necessary in order to protect them. This conversation not only aims to educate them but provide a safe space for them to talk to you about it. They will be more inclined to report online grooming to you or suspicious online activity if they know they won’t be shamed for it.
Unfortunately, many children don’t speak out because they feel ashamed about it. They may feel like they have been betrayed, lost trust, or are scared of what could happen. We cannot let our children go through this pain alone. If you are looking for some good ways to go about this conversation, take a look at this YouTube video below.
Once you have a conversation with your kids, it is important to implement online safety features on any social media platform or an Internet game. This will allow your kids to continue to use their networks and games with peace of mind.
You can also teach them how to report suspicious behavior or block accounts that make them feel uncomfortable. All of this can be started just by initiating the conversation. If you are wondering what age is appropriate to have this conversation, the answer can be different in every family.
A good rule of thumb is to start having the conversation at a basic level when your kids start using the Internet, online games, and/or social media. As they get towards the 12-15 age range, it is especially important to have a more serious conversation so that they understand the signs of an online groomer and how they can stay safe.
Conversation Starters for Your Family
- How do you know you can trust someone?
- Should you accept friend requests from someone you don’t know, even if they appear to be your age?
- Have any of your friends talked about receiving inappropriate text messages or images from a stranger or someone they know?
- Who can you come to talk to if someone is making you uncomfortable online or in-person (family member, friend, teacher, counselor, etc.)?
- What should you do if a stranger or someone you know is sending you inappropriate messages or images?
- Has anyone ever sent you a message that has made you feel uncomfortable?
- Is there anybody in mom and dad’s life that makes you feel unsafe because of something they have said?
- Do you know where to find the report and block buttons on your social media pages and apps?
- Can you trust mom and dad to help you if you want to talk about something personal?
- How can we (parents) make you (child) feel safer to ask us serious questions?
- Online grooming resources | Internet Matters
- The Stages of Online Grooming: Inside the Mind of a Predator | Bark App
- Children and Grooming / Online Predators | Child Crime Prevention & Safety Center (losangelescriminallawyer.pro)
- What Parents Need to Know About Sexual Grooming | NSPCC
- Everything You Need to Know About Online Grooming | The Innocent Lives Foundation
- Online grooming: What it is, how it happens, and how to defend children | Thorn
- Learn about online grooming to support children | Internet Matters
Bridging Freedom | Restoring Stolen Childhoods
Our team serves as an advocate for restoring stolen childhoods. At Bridging Freedom, we aim to combat domestic minor sex trafficking through our restoration programs for rescued victims by providing a therapeutic safe homes for victims.
Aside from providing services for victims, Bridging Freedom aims to educate the community about the horrors going on behind closed doors. Through partnerships with Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking, Tampa Bay FBI Innocence Lost Initiative, and St. Petersburg College Center for Human Trafficking Awareness, Bridging Freedom can help provide victims with a safe place and connect them to necessary resources.
In order to allow us to continue doing what we do, Bridging Freedom relies on the generosity and collaboration of our community of supporters. If you would like to be a part of our group of supporters, you can donate at the page here.