What is Online Grooming?
“A course of conduct enacted by a suspected paedophile, which would give a reasonable person cause for concern that any meeting with a child arising from the conduct would be for unlawful purposes.” From the Sexual Offences Act 2003
Frequently child sex abusers groom their victims in recognised stages. As parents and carers we can learn what signs to look out for in protecting our kids.
In order to recognise a threat to our children we must get beyond the idea that child sex abusers are middle-aged male strangers in trenchcoats. The reality is very different. A child is more likely to be abused by someone they know and a predator may be male or female and of any age.
Perpetrators go to great lengths to cultivate a relationship with a child to ensure their cooperation. This cultivation is “grooming” and INTERPOL state that “The majority of sex offenders groom their victims.”
Identifying a Target
Whist predators have different preferences in terms of age, gender and other features, generally search for a child who appears vulnerable in some way.
Be aware of an adult who spends time in places like your local park playground or schools, particularly if they are not with a particular child. Be watchful and do feel able to question anyone to appears to take too close an interest in your child.
Having identified a possible victim a paedophile will frequently attempt to gather information about the child, possibly through conversation with the child, but sometimes with the parents too. Online chat rooms, games and virtual worlds allow relatively easy access. A predator will often try to cultivate a relationship whilst distancing a child from it’s parent by being sympathetic or overly complimentary toward the child, whilst reinforcing negative thoughts about their parent. Some will offer opportunities, eg modelling photo-shoots or soccer trials. Others will quickly identify an insecurity or vulnerability and prey on it eg showering an unconfident child with undue affection and praise.
Be wary if an adult starts asking you or your child intrusive and personal questions. Teach your child that they don’t need to respond with personal data, just because an adult asks; if it feels wrong, it often is. Know which adults take an authoritative part in your child’s life; listen to your child if they talk of a particular adult more than another.
With a relationship established a predator will try to introduce sexual context into the relationship, perhaps through increasingly sexual comments or showing film or images. This can initially cause embarrassment and discomfort and again it’s useful to teach children to recognise their discomfort as a warning signal.
Look out for changes in your child’s approach towards an adult in their life, and for inappropriate sexual interest or comments that they clearly must have heard elsewhere. In terms of online relationships, keep the dialogue going about their interests online, who they meet and talk with.
Some children fear they will be in trouble or will disappoint their parents if they admit to having behaved inappropriately online and this works in an abuser’s favour – try to ensure your kids know that they can tell you without fear of trouble if they have made a mistake and need help. Predators will use this fear and guilt to blackmail a child into doing things they would never normally do.
Initiating the Abuse
Children who are being abused frequently show significant changes in their behavior and character. To protect your child, be informed about the issues, trust your knowledge and intuition and keep the dialogue open with your child. Be aware that the changes in behaviour mentioned may be as a result of other difficulties, eg bullying, but still warrant exploration.
Teach your child to listen to their intuition and act as soon as their alarm bells ring. If online, remind them not to go into private chat rooms with people they don’t know and trust in real life. Ensure they know how to protect their personal information online, eg privacy settings, not publishing personal data, avoiding public chat that gives away their ASL (age, sex and location). If they are approached while gaming or in a virtual world, where possible they should report an inappropriate approach to moderators, and protect themselves by logging out, leaving the world, and certainly not responding.
If you are concerned about an adult your child interacts with, investigate further and, if necessary, act to sever any questionable relationships.