Online grooming has been defined in a variety of ways by research scholars and dedicated institutions, a comprehensive version of which goes as follows:
“A process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults and the environment for the abuse of this child. Specific goals include gaining access to the child, gaining the child’s compliance and maintaining the child’s secrecy to avoid disclosure.”
While literature on the deeper impacts of grooming and perpetrators’ modes of operation are few, they are insightful and handle matters of, perhaps, greater urgency. This article explores available and relevant material to draw out such matters and areas of import, like information on how grooming is done online, groups at higher risk of being groomed for sexual purposes, and possible prevention and protection mechanisms.
The ‘What’, the ‘Who’, the ‘Where’, and the ‘How’
As explained by the definition provided earlier, grooming is a process carried out by sexual predators to take advantage of, especially but not limited to, minors. The advent of internet-facilitated platforms has made it easier for online predators to get direct and close access to children and teens. A study by the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) finds that there are as many as 750,000 sexual predators online at any given time. Such predators use a variety of techniques to identify vulnerable minors, gain their trust, guarantee their silence, and manipulate them to achieve their fantasies.
While some studies find that minors facing other personal issues, like those hailing from broken families or victims of bullying, are likelier to be considered vulnerable and chosen as targets by perpetrators, others digress with the view that there exists an ‘ideal victim’. Nevertheless, studies find that LGBTQ+ youth and adolescents face the highest risk followed by minors between the ages of 9 and 12. Of adolescents, teen girls are found to be at greater risk than boys. The higher risk posed to adolescents is explained by studies as resulting from the larger amounts of time they spend online. It is also posited that teenagers have a greater drive for attention, which, combined with the desire to explore one’s sexuality that heightens at that age, makes them more open to participating in high-risk exchanges.
More worryingly, research has proven that children, often, do not consider new persons they meet online ‘strangers’ and that they are, mostly, considered ‘online-only friends’. A study by Thorn finds that, while LGBTQ+ minors and teenage boys had more online-only contacts than the rest, nearly all minors spending significant amounts of time online had at least one such contact. Grooming is done on and across a multitude of platforms ranging from email and social networking sites to gaming sites and dating apps. It is also surprisingly common for minors engaging in conversations with online-only contacts on open platforms to be invited to more private spaces for personal chats by the latter.
Sexual predators make use of various methods to establish contact with minors and to gain their trust. Mostly, children connect with their online-only contacts through common interests. Many minors interviewed by Thorn for their study said that they prefer connecting with people their age. Online sexual predators, however, use deception as a tool to connect with minors, often pretending that they are young. Furthermore, Whittle et. al. (2013) recognize 5 stages of grooming that predators utilize: establishing a friendship with their target; developing it into a relationship; assessing the risk associated with the target; ensuring that the target is exclusively theirs; and enacting their sexual fantasies. Offenders identify and learn of a potential target’s interests, likes, and dislikes and manipulate these to form a bond with them. They use praises, flattery, gifts, money etc. to maintain minors’ continued attention. Praises are, predominantly, based on physical characteristics and often sexualized. One way or another, it has been studied that predators always, inevitably, bring sexual material into their conversations with minors. This is done in the form of flirtatious remarks, sending unsolicited sexual imagery, and requesting sexual content of the minor. Usually, offenders begin with desensitizing minors to sexual imagery by sending them unsolicited material and, slowly, works their way towards asking for photos or videos.
Worrying Statistics and Ways Forward
The aforementioned research conducted by Thorn reveal some startling statistical facts. The study finds that 1 in 4 minors share sexually explicit content with online-only contacts and participate in sexually natured video chats. Worryingly, 1 in 8 minor aged 9-12 have also been found to engage in such exchanges. More disturbing, perhaps, is the large percentage (40%) of minors who receive ‘cold solicitations’ online, including 29% of minors aged 9-12. 4 in 5 minors had friends who posed to be older on internet-facilitated platforms to access adult-only materials and services. Of children posing to be older online, 80% were observed to have connected with online-only adult contacts, 65% of whom were subsequently asked to join other spaces for private conversations.
Surprisingly, large percentages of minors are aware of the risks posed by interacting with previously unknown persons online but they find it less risky than offline scenarios because options are available to block/ignore these persons, if and when they feel uncomfortable. LGBTQ+ minors and teen girls were found likelier to have such uncomfortable encounters online with 26% of all minors reporting that conversations with online-only contacts turned uncomfortably sexual after a while. Unsurprisingly, minors were found to be 3 times likelier to block a person than report them for such behavior. However, significant percentages of minors were found reluctant to break contact with persons who made them feel uncomfortable.
Several minors feel that the internet is the only place where they can be themselves for which they are willing to face any risks. While it has been observed that minors frequently find highly valuable, good relationships and friendships online, the risks associated with engaging with online-only contacts must be acknowledged. Oversharing and letting their guards down on social networking sites expose minors to sexual predators and give the latter material to manipulate. Studies have repeatedly found connections between online grooming and other crimes, like creation of child pornography, sexual assault, and child trafficking. Educating children of the gravity of such issues and their connection to minors’ own online lives is necessary to the fight against online sexual crimes. More importantly, children must be taught to detect, recognize, and report behaviors that make them uncomfortable. Relatedly, it is necessary to establish sufficient and efficient reporting mechanisms for children and parents to approach in case of an issue. Offenders can always find ways around being blocked, so children must be made aware of the importance of reporting their experiences instead of ignoring them. Above all, it is essential to foster safe spaces within families for children to recount any negative experiences they may have had. Such spaces can help shift the child’s focus from feeling ashamed to feeling not at fault and, most essentially, supported.
ICMEC. Online Grooming of Children for Sexual Purposes: Model Legislation & Global Review. 2017. Accessed 16 November 2022. https://www.icmec.org/online-grooming-of-children-for-sexual-purposes-model-legislation-global-review/.
Lorenzo-Dus, Nuria, and Cristina Izura. ““Cause Ur Special”: Understanding Trust and Complimenting Behaviour in Online Grooming Discourse.” Journal of Pragmatics 112 (2017/04/01/ 2017): 68-82.
THORN. Online Grooming: Examining risky encounters amid everyday digital socialization. 2022. Accessed 16 November 2022. https://info.thorn.org/hubfs/Research/2022_Online_Grooming_Report.pdf.
Whittle, Helen, Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis, Anthony Beech, and Guy Collings. “A Review of Online Grooming: Characteristics and Concerns.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 18. (2013/01/01/ 2013): 62-70.
Whittle, Helen, Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis, Anthony Beech, and Guy Collings. “A Review of Young People’s Vulnerabilities to Online Grooming.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 18. (2013/01/01/ 2013): 135-46.
Article by: Nasreen Basheer, Intern (Batch 2022)