Last updated: 13.03.24

Unveiling the Threat: What Do Safeguarding Experts Say About the Alarming Rise of Online Grooming?


In today's digital age, the internet has transformed the way we connect, communicate, and interact with others. While online platforms offer countless opportunities for learning, entertainment, and socialisation, they also present unique challenges, particularly when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable individuals from harm.

One such challenge is the alarming rise of online grooming, a pervasive form of exploitation that preys on the trust and vulnerability of children and young people. Online grooming involves the deliberate manipulation and coercion of individuals, often minors, for the purposes of sexual exploitation, trafficking, or other forms of abuse. In this blog, we look into the definition of online grooming and the recent data from the NSPCC regarding online grooming crimes against children in the past 5 years, which shines a light on the rise of online grooming, empowering individuals, families, and communities with the knowledge and resources needed to recognise, prevent, and combat this pervasive form of exploitation.

What is Online Grooming?

Finding something in common, telling personal stories, sharing something just a little bit vulnerable and creating a bond - we all do this to build trust, but what if someone takes that trust to a place where we never want it to go? Online grooming refers to the process by which an individual, typically an adult, establishes a relationship with a child or young person over the internet with the intention of exploiting them sexually, emotionally, or for other purposes. Grooming often involves gaining the trust and confidence of the victim through manipulation, deception, and coercion.

The process of online grooming typically follows a series of stages including targeting potential victims, building trust and rapport, testing boundaries, isolating the victim, and exploiting them. Online grooming can occur on various online platforms, including social media, chat rooms, gaming platforms, and messaging apps. Perpetrators may use fake identities, manipulate privacy settings, or exploit loopholes in online security measures to conceal their identity and intentions.

It's important to recognise that online grooming is a form of abuse and exploitation, and victims may experience significant emotional, psychological, and physical harm as a result. It can happen quickly or over time, but at its core it is a process of exploiting trust to shift expectations of what safe behaviour is and leveraging fear and shame to keep a child silent.

Technology did not create grooming - the process has existed in offline abuse in a variety of platforms, and the prominence of social media in our lives has increased abusers’ reach and opportunity.

Has online grooming risen over the years?

The recent data from the NSPCC reports that there has been an 82% rise in online grooming crimes against children in the past 5 years alone.

One in four of crimes, in this time period, was against children in primary school. In fact, roughly 34,000 online grooming cases against children have been recorded by UK police since the NSPCC first called for social media regulation in 2017. 

The spectrum of online platforms being used for grooming is vast, with the NSPCC highlighting that 150 different websites, apps, and online sites were used to groom children. A staggering 26% of these offences take place on Snapchat alone.

Specifically, traffickers are using social media platforms to release professional-looking adverts to recruit young people, with children as young as 7 being involved in illegal activities such as drug running, according to media reports.

But, despite this, and overwhelmingly, half of parents and guardians admitted to never logging in to access their children’s online social media accounts, according to recently released data from Statista. Given the rate at which children are being groomed online has grown at an alarming rate in recent years, there’s a call for more to be done to protect children from succumbing to harm via the internet.

What training is available to teach us more about this?

Here at Virtual College by Netex, we are specialists in online learning, offering a multitude of safeguarding courses. We have had over 20,500 allocations of our free Criminal Exploitation and County Lines course since its launch in 2022. If anything, this demonstrates that there has been a recent demand for understanding more about county lines and other forms of child criminal exploitation, as well as knowing its signs and indicators.

Alongside this, our paid online Child-Exploitation and Extra-Familial Harm course has had 8,252 allocations since its launch in 2020, which was during the rise in online grooming reported by the NSPCC. Nearly 40% (39%) of these allocations have occurred from the beginning of 2023 to the present, showing that, now more than ever, learning about child exploitation is a priority for many.

We also have a vast library of resources where you can learn more about laws, legislations and get downloadable tools to help you along your learning journey. You can access our library of blogs, case studies and guides here.

What do the safeguarding experts say? 

Whilst the Online Safety Bill recently completed passage through Parliament towards the end of 2023, meaning that it is now law to address harmful or illegal content online, helping to protect children’s online safety, there’s still much to be done to raise awareness of child online grooming in the public.

According to Mary-Ann Round - a specialist in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults - steps still need to be taken to protect the safety of children, and this isn’t just in the hands of the government or individual online sites:

“The question we all need to ask ourselves is do we know where children are interacting and what information they are sharing? In today’s world where technology and social media dominate how we communicate, it is important to have conversations with children and young people about how to stay safe online and identify who they can go to if they are worried or need support.

As children spend more than half of each year in school, educational bodies must have these conversations, with it being imperative that teachers are up to date on their safeguarding training to spot the signs of online grooming.

With the UK government this month issuing a new mobile phones in schools guidance policy, set to improve behaviour and minimise disruption in classrooms by prohibiting mobile phone use in schools across England. While this helps to reduce digital time, this may mean that it becomes more difficult for teachers to spot when online grooming may be taking place. 

For all individuals, whether parents, caregivers, or education professionals, Mary-Ann explains that the best thing that can be done to help identify online grooming and safeguard children is to “listen to what young people are telling us and do not be afraid to ask questions to find out more. 

“Take time to discuss where and who they are interacting with and do not be afraid to talk about people that they have met online who might not be who they say they are, explaining how easy it is to pretend to be someone else to gain their trust.

“These conversations can feel challenging, therefore undertaking training to help us have a wider understanding of grooming is so important.”

What are Safeguarding Children Boards doing to tackle online grooming?

We reached out to one of our customers, Bradford Safeguarding Children Board, whose Multiagency Safeguarding Training Coordinator Lindsey Hussain shared the actions they are taking to tackle online grooming, in light of the current climate:

“We have just started up a safeguarding children’s voice group, and a couple of my colleagues and I are going into schools teaching small groups of children about online grooming including, and capturing, their voices on this subject. This is in the early stages, and we are set to work closely with Barnardo’s in the summer”

We at Virtual College by Netex encourage people to ensure that their safeguarding training is updated regularly to stay current on the advancements of online grooming as our digital world continues to evolve. 

As leaders in online training, from beginner to advanced level, in a range of topics and professional qualifications, we offer a free “Level 1 Child Criminal Exploitation and County Lines” course for all individuals to learn more about county lines, how to talk to a child about county lines and criminal exploitation, and recognising its signs. Alternatively, our “Child Exploitation and Extra-familial Harm” course is CPD certified, teaching learners about assessing the process of online grooming, its threats, and what to do in its event.

Virtual College by Netex is an expert in online learning and offers a range of online accredited, children, adults, and everyone safeguarding courses. These cover all areas of guidance, legislation, and best practice. You can find more information about our available safeguarding courses here.