| Grooming

Friendly to scary: The progression of online predatory behaviour

| 24 Aug 2022

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 danger zone when seemingly friendly individuals target children with malicious intent – online predators are a real threat. How do you recognise 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 teenagers but younger children primarily as well. According to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the pandemic worsens 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 significant part of the material comes from situations where “children are manipulated into recording their 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 recognise 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 and boys since queer children may view the internet as a safe space to express their struggles. Still, even though these groups are the most commonly targeted, the grave issue of online grooming involves all kids – a predator may approach any child. 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 its victim, the communication 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 is considered more dangerous; these are the groomers. They aim 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 the targeted child says and is interested in all the victim’s hobbies.

However, this apparent amiability covers a whole range of manipulative techniques. Predators often use mirroring methods: they talk about innocent topics, discuss current trends, behave naïve, etc. 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 an 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 quickly pressure the victim into risky activities. 

3) Isolating children

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, makes the victim more vulnerable and lowers the risk of the abuser getting caught. Predators commonly try to isolate their victims by degrading the parents during a conversation, saying: “your mother/father would not understand that, but I will.” Moreover, Spectrum Labs demonstrates that 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 bodies. The criminal may offer personal pictures to make the kids believe there is nothing wrong with sharing sexual content. Before asking for explicitly erotic material, predators often try to “desensitise” their victim by introducing sexuality into the conversation, asking about the child’s previous sexual experiences, and sending sex-oriented jokes or 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 their gathered information 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 weaponised. 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 to make the victim believe in their friendship’s authenticity. The criminals may even directly contradict their malicious conduct and belittle their abilities by saying that they are too far away to be dangerous or that they are also parents/grandparents and 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. 

How can a parent find out their child is being groomed?

Unless you directly control your child’s device or have a very open relationship with them, it may be challenging to determine whether they have encountered a predator online. Since groomers often isolate their victims as much as possible, your kid may be secretive about their dangerous encounters online. However, Child Crime Prevention and Safety Center suggests that there are some behavioural patterns you can look for: “There may be signs that a child is being groomed by an online predator, including spending an increasing amount of time online, becoming secretive about their online conduct, switching screens or closing tabs or windows whenever a parent is close, using sexual language they would not be expected to know and becoming emotionally volatile.” Additionally, there may be material evidence – if your child receives money or gifts from someone you don’t know, it may be a warning sign.  

What can a parent do to prevent grooming?

Communication is key. Without demonising the online space, talk to your children about the internet, the social media they use and the people they follow or talk to. Discuss the dangers online, the behaviour of predators and the fact that any information, photos, or videos shared online can be used against them. Try to explain what grooming is, for instance, by using educational videos or real-life examples so that your kids can recognise predatory behaviour should they ever encounter it.

Additionally, talk about sexuality. Share with them that it is normal to develop and explore certain feelings and urges, but encourage your child to do so safely. Understood.org suggests: “Talk to your child about how flirty conversations may seem exciting at first but can quickly escalate and lead to feeling uncomfortable or used. Point out common ways people flirt online. These include talking about what you’re wearing (or not wearing) and discussing celebrities’ sex lives.”

Above all, don’t let these parent-child conversations become a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Talk to your children regularly and observe changes in their behaviour and knowledge to adapt the discussion to fit their own experiences. Even though it may be uncomfortable, talking about sensitive subjects and providing a safe space to explore them may help you both prevent risky situations and resolve them quickly. If you feel like your child is in a phase of rebelling against you as a parent, make sure they have someone else to confide to – a sibling or a friend.

Want to learn more?

To better educate yourself and your children about staying safe online, visit Digital Matters - a free online learning platform developed by ESET UK and Internet Matters.



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