| Grooming

Friendly to scary: The progression of online predatory behaviour

| 03 Jan 2023

For children nowadays, the internet is a place where they can relax, play games, educate themselves and meet new friends. Unfortunately, the online space can also become a zone of danger when seemingly friendly individuals target children with malicious intent – online predators are a real threat. How do you recognize when the person behind the other screen wants to harm your child?

Grooming is a tactic used by online sexual abusers who scout for victims online. It is a lasting danger that affects mostly teenagers, but younger children as well. According to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the pandemic has further worsened this problem. In 2021, the foundation “confirmed 252,000 URLs containing images or videos of children being sexually abused, compared with 153,000 in the previous year.” The IWF further explained that a major part of the material comes from situations in which “children are manipulated into recording their own abuse before it is shared online – with the fastest-growing increase occurring among seven to 10-year-olds.” So, how can you and your child recognize an online predator? Get familiar with the process of communication that is typical for grooming.

Read more: Coercion, trolling, and abuse. Keep your children safe when they’re meeting people online

1) Searching for the victim

Online predators often use websites that enable them to determine the victims’ age and initiate communication quickly, such as online chats and social media. On the internet, criminals may use their age as a tool to establish dominance, but they may also try to blend in with the children by creating fake accounts that imitate the victim’s age group. Predators frequently target young girls, but also boys who are questioning their sexuality since queer children may view the internet as a safe space to express their struggles. Still, despite the fact that these groups are the most commonly targeted, the grave issue of online grooming involves all kids – any child may be approached by a predator. An online sexual abuser often takes on the role of a potential “teacher” or a helper, a new friend who makes the targeted kid feel attractive, validated, and appreciated. 

2) Mirroring and compliments

When a predator approaches their victim, the communication usually follows one of two patterns. Some criminals immediately bring up matters of an erotic nature and ask for sexual services from the targeted child. If the kid ignores their attempts, they proceed to another victim. The second type are considered more dangerous; these are the groomers. Their goal is to establish a lasting relationship from which they can continually benefit. In the first stages of communication, they commonly use kindness to get the victim’s trust. A typical sign of predatory behaviour is extreme interest and praise. The groomer agrees with everything that the targeted child says and takes interest in all the victim’s hobbies.

However, this ostensible amiability covers a whole range of manipulative techniques. Predators often use a method called mirroring: they talk about innocent topics, discuss current trends, behave naïve, etc., basically, they turn themselves into child-like figures. This makes the criminals seem harmless and trustworthy in the child’s eyes. Predators also use friendly behaviour to establish their dominance. They often take interest in their victims’ fears and triggers – and when the targeted kid becomes emotionally fragile, they act as responsible adults, listen to their worries, and calm the child down. By these acts of “kindness”, the abusers hope to create a bond in which they hold dominance, and thus can easily pressure the victim into risky activities. 

3) Isolating children

Right from the beginning, predators often ask their victims about their family relations. “Are you close to your parents? Are they home right now?” The abusers tend to choose children whose parents are not present in the child’s life. The absence of a parent, which might not be physical but emotional not only makes the victim more vulnerable, it also lowers the risk of the abuser getting caught. Predators commonly make an effort to isolate their victims, for instance by degrading the parents during a conversation, saying: “your mother/father would not understand that, but I will.” Moreover, as Spectrum Labs demonstrates, the abusers “will try to make kids feel like co-conspirators in the abuse” by phrases such as “Your folks would kill us if they found out.”

4) Demanding more

After the relationship has been established, groomers commonly ask the targeted children to send them proof of their affection, such as photos or videos including their body. The criminal may offer personal pictures in return to make the kids believe that there is nothing wrong with sharing sexual content with each other. Before asking for explicitly erotic material, predators often try to “desensitize” their victim by introducing sexuality into the conversation, asking about the child’s previous sexual experiences, and sending sex-oriented jokes or even pornographic content.

Apart from that, a predator may also request a personal meeting.  When a person wants to meet your child alone or at a remote location, you should always view this as a warning sign. If the child refuses, the groomer may attempt to obtain the victim’s personal information, such as where they live or go to school. Predators often check the child’s accounts, and then stalk their friends and family to get the data they seek. They may also inconspicuously make the child share this information without even knowing. A groomer may, for instance, ask: “I live in this city. Have you ever been there? Is it close to you?” After getting the sensitive details, they may use them to “accidentally” walk past places where they intend to surprise the child and lure them into a more private location.

5) Threats and manipulation

Finally, the initial friendliness is gradually substituted with threats and manipulative requests. At this stage, groomers may use the information they have gathered to manipulate their target. These criminals can bully their victims by suggesting that the private photos will be published or sent to the child’s family or friends. They may also threaten to come to the child’s home or school and physically hurt them. In these situations, psychological extortion is likewise commonly weaponized. A groomer may claim that they are ill or in pain and that the victim can help them – for instance, by providing specific pictures. 

A predator may sporadically move back to their previous compassionate behaviour, so as to make the victim believe in their friendship’s authenticity. The criminals may even directly contradict their malicious conduct and belittle their own abilities by saying that they are too far away to be dangerous, or that they are also parents/grandparents, and that they would never hurt a child. Finally, predators sometimes manipulate children by offering goods in exchange for specific information or content. The propositions may include money, gifts, or even forbidden products such as drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol.