While grooming is an issue that pervades the real world, 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 do not understand the risks of speaking with someone whose identity they do not know.
Ofcom figures show that 60% of eight to eleven-year-olds in the UK have a profile on a social media platform, meaning thousands of children could potentially be at risk of online grooming. Figures from Cybersafe Kids also revealed that 26% of children with social media profiles are friends or are followed by people that they don’t know or have never met in real life.
Parents, teachers and other care providers all have a key role to play in protecting the wellbeing of children and vulnerable young people, which includes knowing the dangers of online grooming and how to prevent it. In this article, we explain how to spot the warning signs of online grooming, how it happens and how you can prevent it to keep children and young people safe.
It’s important to note that whilst grooming is an abusive practice that can happen to anyone, in this article we’re going to specifically be focusing on online grooming that happens between a child and an adult.
Online grooming typically involves an older person attempting to get close to a child with the intention of exploiting, harming or sexually abusing them. This abuse might also take place online or it might involve the older person manipulating the child into meeting up and then abusing them in person.
Cases of online grooming tend to be higher than in-person, with the NSPCC reporting an 80% increase in cases over the past four years. This is not only because of young people’s increased use of social media and smartphones but also because it is much easier for abusers to pretend to be someone else from behind a fake online profile.
Online grooming usually involves an abuser building the trust of a young person before exploiting or harming them. This harm might happen at the same time as the abuser pressuring the child to keep quiet about what is happening to them so that the abuse can continue.
The abuse that happens as a result of online grooming can take many forms and may be done in a way that is very difficult to detect. Online groomers often target multiple victims and may have spent years developing an approach that they find successful.
Online grooming often happens when an abuser will seek out a child using an online platform. This might be a social media profile or be part of an online game where players create profiles and personas to interact with each other.
There is a range of different models of grooming, but in all online grooming cases, the abuser will build a relationship with their victim by making the young person feel like they can trust them. They might encourage them to share private things that they claim to understand or make the child feel understood and special for being singled out.
Once the groomer has established a relationship, they will then start to play with the power or control that they have gained. This may start with simple requests, but in many cases progresses to the abuser asking for things like explicit images.
Sometimes, an abuser will then blackmail their victim with this explicit content they possess, forcing them to do or send even more. They will also try to stop the child from telling anyone what is happening, threatening to share the content they possess or playing on young people’s fears of getting into trouble or being told off.
If the cycle of abuse is allowed to continue, some abusers eventually get their victims to agree to meet up with them and continue the abuse in person. This can have a devastating impact on the child, no matter what kind of abuse they are subject to.
In many online grooming scenarios, groomers are not actually strangers but are known to the victim, meaning it can be hard for caregivers to spot the signs of grooming. This is particularly true 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 who interact with children to look out for signs of fake social media profiles, chatroom accounts or a change in behaviour for the child.
Here are some of the most common online grooming warning signs.
One or more of these online grooming warning signs may appear slowly over time, or you might notice several of them if a child’s behaviour suddenly seems to change. In some cases, there may be a totally unrelated explanation for what is going on. But if a child appears to be acquiring new items or is spending time outside the house and doesn’t want to explain why, this indicates that they might be a victim of grooming.
As someone with a safeguarding responsibility, you will likely spend a lot of time with children and therefore be able to notice if their behaviour starts to change in one of the ways mentioned above. Teachers and educational professionals may find it harder to spot if a child is spending time on their phone or being given gifts, but they may notice changes in behaviour or overhear the child talking about someone they’re talking to online.
If you notice that a child is showing signs of being a victim of online grooming, it’s important to take action to keep them safe. If it’s appropriate for your relationship, ask the child about the signs you have noticed and encourage them to share anything that they’re worried about or anything different that they have recently experienced.
You might also find out about a case of online grooming because a young person confides in you about what has happened. In these cases, you should listen without judgement and let the child know that you believe them and that telling you was the right thing to do. You should then report the incident, either to the CEOP, the police or a designated safeguarding lead.
Parents may discover that their child is being groomed online after seeing the messages or finding other evidence of the relationship. In these cases, you can report the activity to the CEOP immediately, or ask for help from the safeguarding lead at the child’s school.
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. If this has happened to the child in question, you will need to report that these images are in the possession of someone else so that they can hopefully be identified and destroyed.
Being a victim of online grooming can be scary and traumatic, and children or young people that have experienced it may require support after the experience to help them overcome the abuse. Counselling services may be beneficial in these cases, which can be accessed through local services.
The best way to prevent online grooming is to teach children and young people about how to stay safe online.
In today’s society, young people are going to have access to the internet at earlier and earlier ages, and there’s no real way to stop this without depriving them of the benefits that going online can offer. Therefore, the best way to prevent them from becoming victims of grooming is to teach them what to be wary of when talking to other people online and share how best to keep themselves and their identities safe.
Children should be aware of the risks of spending time online, and whilst you shouldn’t scare them about the potential consequences, they should realise the severity of what can happen if they’re not careful. By equipping them with the confidence to use the internet safely, you’ll help to stop online grooming by reducing the likelihood that they’ll fall victim to grooming tactics.
It’s also important to let children know that they can talk to you, or another trusted adult, if they see something or do something on the internet that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable or unsure. Cases of grooming can go on for a lot longer if the victim is afraid to speak out about what is happening to them, so encouraging honesty without punishment is important.
Online predators will use a variety of different techniques to target and manipulate children and young people depending on the platform they’re using and the age group they’re interacting with. Common techniques include the predator pretending to be another young person, pretending to share the same interest as a child, complimenting the child to make them feel special, and even sending them gifts to gain their favour.
Grooming in any form is an illegal offence. When grooming involves children, whether the behaviour takes place online or not, the Sexual Offences Act (2003) makes it illegal for an adult to communicate with a person under sixteen for a sexual purpose.
If you work in a school, social care establishment or another organisation that gives you a safeguarding responsibility, you can report suspicions or cases of online grooming by contacting your designated safeguarding lead, who will get in touch with the relevant local authorities. You can also report concerns to the police, or your local child protection services, or you can make an online report to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP).
As a parent or a professional that works with children, it’s sensible to be wary of the dangers of the internet and what people like online groomers can do with the right approach to targeting a young person. However, teaching internet safety and what not to do online is the best way to keep children safe and ensure that they spend time online without being at risk of predators.
At Virtual College, we've worked with Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation to develop a free e-learning course called ‘Keep Them Safe’ to help you identify the signs of online grooming or child sexual exploitation.
We also offer a range of online safeguarding courses that can help you to improve your understanding of how to protect young people and vulnerable adults from all kinds of abuse.