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.
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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.
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.