Finding something in common. Telling personal stories. Sharing something just a little bit vulnerable and creating a bond. We all do this to build trust. But what if someone takes that trust to a place where we never want it to go?
What is online grooming?
Online grooming is a term used broadly to describe the tactics abusers deploy through the internet to sexually exploit children. It can happen quickly or over time, but at its core it is a process of exploiting trust to shift expectations of what safe behavior is and leveraging fear and shame to keep a child silent. It is a difficult but important reality to face so that we can take steps to stop it.
Technology did not create grooming—the process has existed in offline abuse—but the variety of platforms in existence, and the prominence of digital environments in our lives, has increased abusers’ reach and opportunity.
Adults seeking to abuse children will go where kids are. As a result, grooming can theoretically happen just about anywhere online.
Predators can reach children in video game chats, possibly creating fictional personas to develop a sense of kinship with victims, or portraying themselves as a trustworthy adult in a place where other adults are largely absent.
With the popularity of live streaming across online platforms, an interaction may start as something that feels harmless to the child, such as encouraging specific dance moves to the latest hit or celebrating a new gymnastics routine. However, this type of action can quickly turn into something more concerning when an innocent moment is captured and shared elsewhere online or the interaction continues on over the course of time, with boundaries being pushed along the way.
Perhaps this is why online grooming can also be one of the most challenging issues to wrap our heads around—it’s so varied, and sometimes it feels like it can happen anywhere that children interact with the online world.
What does the research say?
To understand how grooming happens online, it’s important to remember that young people today have the same wants and needs that they have always had: the desire for self-discovery, a need for validation, and a yearning for attention. Thorn’s research team regularly conducts studies to better understand the first-hand experiences of youth.
In a recent report about grooming, Thorn discovered that nearly half of all kids online (40%) have been approached by someone who they thought was attempting to “befriend and manipulate” them. Distinguishing friend from foe is increasingly challenging. Especially since one in three young people also said that the friends they make online are among their closest confidants.
Grooming relies on exploiting kids’ insecurities and trust—often to get them to take “nudes”. When they oblige, kids don’t realize that they’re actually creating self-generated child sexual abuse material (SG-CSAM). That material can be used by groomers to threaten kids into a form of blackmail called sextortion.
You might be thinking that your child is too young for such behavior, but these conversations should start early. 1 in 4 9-12 year olds see it as normal to date adults. All of this can feel overwhelming, but you are not alone.
Where can I get tools and resources?
Thorn for Parents has discussion guides and resources to help parents be a safety net for their children. From grooming and sexting to learning about digital platforms, there are age-appropriate guides in increasing levels of complexity for you to begin a dialogue with your child.
How can I report CSAM and explicit content?
If any content has been produced or there is a record of interactions with the perpetrator, it should be reported as quickly as possible. Doing so increases the chances of content removal and law enforcement being able to track down the perpetrator.
All information regarding possible child sexual exploitation should be reported to the platform where it was found, as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). If you feel under immediate threat, you should call 911.
For more steps on what to do in this situation, click here.
Preventing grooming can’t be done through a single conversation, and it won’t be accomplished just by telling kids “don’t go online” or by restricting access to technology. Remember that grooming can look a lot like making a good friend—it might not be clear it’s happening for a long period of time.
The fact is that kids are going to be online no matter what adults do or say, and that adds a new layer of risk to growing up. We cannot underestimate the courage and maturity it takes to share our most painful experiences with someone—friend, counselor, or parent—even when prompted. As caregivers and adult allies, we must be working everyday to ensure young people feel safe enough to come to us if a decision they made goes sideways. Not starting these conversations doesn’t protect them from the harm—it leaves them ill-equipped to handle it when it happens.
Building a foundation of trust, where the child feels safe all of the time, can build the safety net kids need to be able to come to you when something scary happens.