Children these days are digital natives who are able to pick up adapt to new technologies at a startling rate, especially messaging platforms and social media. Despite this, there are many aspects of internet safety that children are insufficiently equipped to deal with. Online child grooming – or cyber grooming – is an especially serious risk that needs to be addressed.
What is online grooming?
Simply put, online grooming means the attempt to establish trust with a child or young person over the internet with the intent to manipulate, exploit, and sexually abuse them. This abuse may involve physical contact, but not necessarily. For example, groomers may also pressure their victims to exchange sexually explicit photos and videos.
One of the most dangerously insidious elements of online grooming is the systematic development of trust with children. In this way, groomers seek to encourage complex feelings of affection, loyalty, and confusion, which they can exploit.
How does online grooming happen?
Bear in mind that not all experiences are exactly alike; there can be various signs of online grooming. However, there are certain patterns of behaviour that occur in most cases of online grooming, which can help you identify risk and safeguard your child.
- Adopting a fake identity: Groomers often create fake profiles on social media, chatrooms or other communication platforms and pretend to be a child or young person.
- Building a friendship: In order to build trust with the victim, groomers normally seek to develop a friendship with them first. Since victims believe they’re talking to a peer, groomers try to relate to them by claiming to have similar hobbies and life experiences.
- Exploitation and sexual abuse: Once trust has been established, groomers begin to sexually harass children. This may initially involve asking the victim about their sexual experience, but then develops into sending the child sexually explicit messages, photos or videos, as well as pressuring them to do so. There is also a real danger the online groomer will try to meet their victim in person.
- Coercion and blackmail: The groomer may use any sexually explicit material they receive in order to blackmail their victim into staying silent, or to take part in other illegal activity such a drug running, a practice known as County Lines..
How to prevent online grooming
One important aspect of protecting your child from cyber grooming is to teach them not to take everything they experience on the internet at face value. Make sure they understand that some people are not who they say they are, and instill a healthy degree of skepticism in them regarding communicating with strangers online (e.g. via online games, chatrooms, social media).
You may also wish to consider setting rules of conduct for your child’s internet usage. For example, tighter privacy settings on social media, or no meeting strangers from the internet without parental supervision.
However, remember to discuss the reasons for these rules with your child, and to avoid banning internet use outright or spying on them. It’s crucial that they understand what consequences their online behaviour could have in the absolute worst case, while simultaneously understanding that you trust them. This trust will help foster a dialogue between you, and make your child more likely to open up if they have any particular online grooming safety concerns.
Finally, you can leverage the SafeToNet app’s Safety Indicator to keep an eye on the risk level of your child in real-time, without invading their privacy. You will also be notified if SafeToNet detects signs of online grooming, or other forms of danger such as suicidal thoughts.