The internet can be a great resource, but it can also be a dangerous place where predators prey on children. As children gain access to the internet through smart devices, social media, and online gaming platforms, they become more vulnerable. Nowadays, predators often use the internet to groom and sexually abuse children.
If you remember our last series about identifying modern sexual exploitation, we included a post that explained grooming and what it may look like in a real-life setting. However, with the increase of younger online users, we feel the need to shine a light on online grooming and how to promote safety for your loved ones.
Here is everything you need to know about online grooming including how to tell if your loved one is a victim.
Before jumping into online grooming, we want to refresh your memory about grooming in general. Grooming is when an adult forges a relationship with a child by filling a need in their life or take advantage of a child’s vulnerabilities. This is a process that can occur over a period of time to ultimately exploit children through sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or trafficking. This can happen in person or online. Not to mention, children can be groomed by people they know, family members, or strangers of any age or gender. Over time, the groomer normalizes sexual and intimate conversation thus making it acceptable to take actions they normally would not.
Online Grooming Explained
Online grooming can happen on social media, gaming sites, or any site that allows individuals to communicate with one another. Since this kind of grooming happens online, the signs may be harder to recognize.
Try thinking about grooming, specifically online grooming, as a long game. Predators will take time to build trust and a relationship with your loved one. It is a process of coercion and manipulation.
Childline, an online service in the United Kingdom that helps young people with personal issues, shares some fantastic insight about online grooming and how predators maneuver themselves into your loved one’s life. They site six signs of grooming as:
- Sending your child many messages
- Telling the child to keep their conversations a secret
- Asking questions to see if a child is alone in a room
- Sending sexual messages that could be disguised as compliments or questions about past sexual experience
- Trying to get personal information about the child or where they live
- Manipulating children to send photos or blackmailing them with photos the child may have already sent
Similar to in-person grooming, online grooming works by building trust between the predator and the child. That said, the distinction between online grooming and grooming in person is that online predators can lie about their name, age, gender, life experiences and everything else. So, while the child may think they know who they are talking to, they could have no idea who is behind the screen.
Goals of the Predators
Think U Know, an education program from the United Kingdom, explained that predators aim to sexually abuse children, but there are two main ways they go about doing this. The two ways include:
- Online sexual abuse
- Meeting in real life
When the Predator’s Goal is Online Sexual Abuse
Online sexual abuse is when the predator gets the child to perform sexual acts/take sexually explicit photos and send them to the predator, or the predator gets the child to engage in similar acts through a webcam.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or NSPCC, says predators groom children online to commit sexual abuse by having the child…
- Send or post sexual photos for the predator
- Participate in sexual activities by using a webcam or smartphone
- Engage in sexual conversations
Because of the previous grooming that led up to this point, children do not feel as if they have a way out. Plus, the abuse can escalate. The predator can hold photos or videos over the child to ensure a continuation or increase in number or severity of the images.
In these situations, predators use a variety of methods to maintain control over the children. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command, or CEOP, explains that predators will maintain control of the child by blackmail, isolation, blaming the child, or bargaining with the child (i.e., saying that if the child does what the predator asks, the predator will stop asking—this is a lie).
When the Predator Wants to Meet IRL
The other goal of the predator may be to meet with the child in real life to sexually abuse them. For these predators, it is not enough to simply communicate online and receive virtual sexual abuse material.
When children are stuck with these predators, aka individuals the children thought they could trust, the danger to the child increases tremendously. In these instances, children can be sexually assaulted, raped, injured, abducted, forced into sex trafficking or prostitution, or killed. These predators are especially twisted.
While all occurrences of online grooming are dangerous and severe, meeting in real life has the potential for more and greater consequences.
Your Loved One’s Behavior and Indications of Grooming
Now that we understand what online grooming is and how it works, we want to touch on spotting the signs that your loved one may be a victim of grooming.
Some signs include:
- Secrecy about who they are talking to
- Unusual distractedness or preoccupation
- Withdrawing and appearing quieter or sadder
- Abrupt mood swings
- Inability to turn off phone resulting in worry or stress
While some of these behaviors can scream teen angst, it is important to stay on top of the changes in behavior to ensure your loved one’s safety.
The reality of this situation is that children are in a cycle of abuse and shame where they feel isolated and like they have no way out. Whether it is because they are being blackmailed, or because they’re afraid of their family finding out, these children do not understand or feel like they can get help. This is what predators want.
Victims are isolated and can feel ashamed by what is happening to them. Therefore, your vigilance and readiness to protect your loved one can make all the difference.
Here at the Innocent Lives Foundation, your loved one’s safety is our top priority. We want to stop this unnecessary trauma and victimization.
The ILF is dedicated to unmasking anonymous online predators to help bring them to justice. We work closely with law enforcement by developing comprehensive files about perpetrators, so that law enforcement can move forward with prosecution.
Children should not be stripped of their innocence, so we do everything we can to stop the predators that try to take it away.
Stay tuned for our next couple of blog posts for more information about where online grooming happens, what to do if your loved one is being groomed, and how to protect your loved one from online predators.
Photo from Crossings