Reports of online child grooming for sexual purposes have spiked as technology continues to develop and children's access to the internet increases.
More than 50% of child grooming victims are between the ages of just 12 and 15. Most are young girls. It is estimated that there are around half a million child predators active online on a daily basis. According to the National Center for Education Studies, 94% of children between the ages of three and eighteen have access to the internet. While the internet did not create child grooming, it does make it easier for adults to anonymously prey on children.
Because of the danger this poses to children, it is important to know the signs of online child grooming and be aware of the methods predators use to sexually abuse children. It is also imperative to educate children and make them aware of what constitutes inappropriate behavior from others online.
Defining Child Grooming
Samantha Craven et al provides the following definition for "child grooming":
"A process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults and the environment for the abuse of this child. Specific goals include gaining access to the child, gaining the child’s compliance and maintaining the child’s secrecy to avoid disclosure. This process serves to strengthen the offender’s abusive pattern, as it may be used as a means of justifying or denying their actions."
The objective of the groomer is to build a relationship with the victim. Achieving trust is the first step in sexually exploiting a child. This can be done in person, online or a combination of both. Predators frequently use children's own innocence and ignorance of sexual abuse to groom them.
Coercing Children: The Grooming Process
It starts innocently from a child's point of view. An adult might connect with a child either in person or through social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp or online chat rooms. After identifying and connecting with the victim, the adult will proceed to gather information on the child in order to become "friends."
The predator's goal is to develop a kinship with the child. Predators might take on the role of an authority or dominant figure, a mentor or a romantic interest. It is common for the predator to learn about the child's interests and identify the child's weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Children are vulnerable, especially when they feel lonely or suffer from a low self-esteem. Predators prey on children's vulnerabilities and exploit their insecurities. Common tactics include showing an interest, providing advice, flattery, pretending to be younger and purchasing gifts. Ultimately predators befriend and make the child victims feel cared for. They would contact their victims frequently and compliment them on their looks. After gaining the child victim's trust, the predator would gradually attempt to lower the child’s inhibitions by bringing up topics on sex or asking questions pertaining to sexual experiences and sexual interests. It is also not unusual for a predator to send the child victim pornographic material.
When a child resists, the predator will attempt to overthrow the child’s resistance by being persistent, feigning sadness, pressuring, bribing or guilt tripping the victim in order to achieve compliance. It is also common for predators to blackmail or use threats of violence to sexually assault a child online. However, predators usually try to build a relationship with the victim and use more subtle approaches. After gaining trust, the predator will encourage online sexual activity, such as requesting nude images from the child or cybersex via a webcam. The child is essentially coerced into performing these acts and manipulated into performing them willingly. This is one of the main reasons why many cases go unreported. Most children do not even realize they are victims of online sexual abuse during the period it takes place. In fact, some victims might even form a bond with their groomers and are persuaded to stay silent.
Online sexual abuse might also turn into physical sexual abuse. Some predators may attempt to meet up with the child victim with the aim of sexually abusing them.
Facilitating secrecy is a significant step for child predators. This is achieved through threats or blackmail. Many children are manipulated into thinking they will be punished if the abuse is disclosed, or even taken away from their families. A predator may frequently use the child's "love" for him or her as a means to facilitate silence. Children usually do not comprehend the abuse they suffered and do not see the predator as a criminal. As such, some child victims do not wish to see their groomers punished. The predator might also threaten to leak nude images or videos he or she received from the child victim to get the child to refrain from reporting the abuse.
Parents and guardians need to educate their children on the dangers of online sexual grooming and abuse. Children need to be informed of their rights from an early age and advised on how to practice online safety.
It is important for parents and guardians to build a relationship of trust with their children. In doing so, they will create a safe environment for their children to have conversations with them or approach them when something concerning happens. However, it is important to remember that the potential for sexual abuse cannot be eliminated. In any event where an adult learns or suspects a child is being groomed online, he or she should immediately report it. A child under the age of eighteen is unable to give consent to sexual activities. Under the U.S Criminal Code, persuading, enticing, coercing or inducing a child ("child" refers to any person under the age of eighteen) to engage in any sexual activity is a criminal offense. Further, in 2019, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child launched certain guidelines aimed at assisting States to combat child sexual exploitation. Grooming is a form of child sexual exploitation and constitutes an offense under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
Signs of online grooming may include unexplained gifts, receiving messages from a person the child only knows online, spending more time alone, not willing to share what they are doing online or becoming secretive or sudden increase in internet or social media use.
What you can do
Social media has made it easier for predators to connect with children and gain their trust with the goal of sexually exploiting them. Predators identify what is lacking in a child's life and attempt to provide them with whatever it is they lack. They provide the child with validation and try to isolate victims from their families. It is important to take preventative measures by educating children on the danger certain people may pose online and report any online sexual grooming. Equally important is to create a safe environment for children and reassure them that they can trust you.