Online grooming typically involves an older person attempting to get close to a child with the intention of sexually abusing them.
While grooming is an issue that pervades the real world too, the internet provides perpetrators with a platform where they can easily pretend to be someone else due to the anonymity of online profiles. These perpetrators are emboldened by the knowledge that there will be children out there who are do not understand the risks of speaking with someone whose identity they do not know.
NSPCC figures show that almost one in four eight to 11-year-olds in the UK - and three in four 12 to 15-year-olds - has a social media profile, meaning thousands of children could potentially be at risk. These figures also state that one in four young people have been contacted by an adult they didn’t know, with a third of these young people being under 13 years old.
Parents, teachers and other care providers all have a key role to play in protecting the wellbeing of children and vulnerable young people, and Virtual College provides a range of e-learning safeguarding courses to help improve understanding of the risks.
In many cases, groomers are not actually strangers but are known to the victim, meaning it can be hard for caregivers to spot the signs of grooming, particularly if the relationship is being conducted online where conversations are typically private. Sometimes, a child will simply believe that they have a new boyfriend or girlfriend and won't recognise that they are being groomed at all.
Therefore, it is down to parents, teachers, youth workers and others in a position of authority who interact with children to look out for signs of fake social media profiles, chatroom accounts or a change in behaviour for the child.
For example, if they start acting secretive, begin to withdraw from activities they used to enjoy, experience more nightmares or become aggressive, it's essential to try to find out about their online activity.
Perpetrators of online grooming often try to bribe children with gifts to gain their trust, asking victims to send them sexual images or videos in return. They may then try to blackmail them by threatening to post these online unless the relationship continues, leaving the victim feeling confused, angry, scared and worried.
At Virtual College, we've worked with Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation to develop a free e-learning course to help you identify the signs of online grooming or child sexual exploitation. Take the course yourself by clicking here to register, and make sure to keep up with our important updates and articles on wider safeguarding measures.