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Grooming and sextortion

We live in a world where technology is a double-edged sword. It has helped us connect with one another and opened new avenues for us, making our lives more enjoyable and easier. 

At the same time, the evolution of the internet has also unlocked unprecedented access to our kids, putting them at risk in new ways.

The physical protective barriers used to protect children have been blurred – or even eliminated – by technology. Connecting with one another and spending time online is a normal and healthy reality for today’s kids. But as many young people find connection, entertainment, and knowledge in their online worlds, some are also exposed to threats like online grooming and sextortion.

Today’s reality: kids are growing up online

Combating online abuse is not as simple as wishing away the internet. Doing so would deny not only the integral nature of technology in our everyday lives—from school to work and play—but also the immense value young people find online.

We now live in a landscape where a child’s relationship with technology and normal sexual development overlap, with a whole new set of experiences online.

“Stranger danger” is a thing of the past

In the past, we were likely warned about “stranger danger”—but socializing has changed in the digital age. It’s common for youth to meet new people online, and Thorn’s research reveals that they don’t see them as “strangers” even though they have never met in real life.

In fact, according to Thorn’s report on ONLINE GROOMING in 2022:


1 in 3

minors report meeting some of their closest friends online.

1 in 7

minors report sharing something they’ve never shared before with an online friend.

LGBTQ+ kids and other marginalized groups face heightened risk

Thorn research also shows that for some youth, online communities are the only places they feel they can be their “true selves.” LGBTQ+ youth, in particular, report that their online communities are vital to them.

For many young LGBTQ+ people, the internet can feel safer, more representative, and in some cases a preferred alternative to their offline communities, presenting unique opportunities to explore and connect more openly than they may be able to offline. LBGTQ+ youth are more likely to respond to messages from new connections online and were roughly 2x as likely to say they had shared something with an online friend they had never shared with another friend.

I think it is normal for people to connect with people online that they haven’t met in person because social media is such a big part of people’s [lives] that people will start to meet people online and form bonds.

– female, 17

Well I knew that I would never meet this person so it made me comfortable to talk about anything. It made me feel excited. It was much more convenient for me because I am not allowed to date.

– female, 12

Modern romance: the risks of “flirting” online

As many young people are finding new friendships online, it’s also viewed as a place for romance and flirtation. Unfortunately, online flirtation is not always limited to similarly aged peers. Many minors report finding it normal to flirt online outside of their age group, and for some, with much older adults.


1 in 4

9-17-year-olds have reported they had conversations of the “flirting, interest in dating, or romantic” variety with people they only knew online.


Data sourced from Thorn 

Perceived normalcy of flirting with online-only contacts



Data sourced from Thorn 


While developmentally normal to explore romantic relationships as young people mature, those occurring in online spaces come with additional risks.

Among these risks is the threat posed by perpetrators intentionally leveraging the perceived anonymity of the internet to meet, manipulate, and abuse minors online.

Understanding online threats

When kids are abused in person, predators often leverage positions of trust—as family members, friends, educators, or other trusted positions—to gain access to their victims. Over time, they build rapport with both the child and the adults surrounding them, gradually isolating them for abuse.

This is the beginning of grooming behavior.

Today, many of the same tactics are also employed online to perpetrate online grooming. Abusers leverage popular online spaces to target potential victims and build trust, including many of the most popular social media and gaming forums. Any platform designed for connecting or uploading content is a vulnerable environment to online perpetrators.

Online grooming

How it starts

Not all instances of online grooming look the same. Tactics to meet and gain rapport often involve shared interests such as music, games, or celebrities. Perpetrators often appear to offer support and connection, potentially fanning feelings of insecurity or isolation, or offering generous flattery about abilities or appearances.

Perpetrators take on a variety of online personas through which they connect with minors. Some take no measures to disguise their age, gender, or appearance. Others impersonate influencers or attractive young people designed to align with their potential victim’s interests.

Perpetrators move kids to more private online settings

Upon establishing a connection, potential victims are often moved to more private settings, leaving the protections of public squares and more prominent content moderation. In a recent Thorn study, roughly 2 in 3 kids reported having experienced an online-only contact asking them to move from a public chat into a private conversation on a different platform.

According to Thorn’s report on ONLINE GROOMING in 2022:


2 in 3

kids reported an online-only contact asked them to move from a public chat into a private conversation on a different platform.


Importantly, there is no set timeline over which these tactics occur. In some instances, the relationship grows over weeks or months. In other cases, particularly involving recent financial sextortion schemes, abuse can escalate with dire consequences within hours.

Misconceptions and risks of online sexual interactions

The topic of online grooming is not unknown to kids and instances may be on the rise.

In 2022, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received more than 80,000 reports of apparent online enticement to its hotline. The number of reports received has increased steadily over the last several years.

According to Thorn’s report on ONLINE GROOMING in 2022:


of children reported having been approached by someone they only knew online in order to “befriend and manipulate” them.


of minors believe online grooming is a common experience for kids their age.

But minors do not always view a sexual interaction with an adult (or even another minor significantly older than them) as fundamentally harmful or high risk. More than 1 in 5 minors report having had some type of online sexual interaction with someone they believe to be an adult. These interactions can include experiences such as being solicited for nudes, being sent explicit messages, or being sent explicit images by someone else.

The rapid rise of sextortion

At times, perpetrators will use the threat of spreading a victim’s intimate imagery to extort additional actions. This is called sextortion.

Sextortion falls loosely into two buckets: threats driven by someone the victim knows offline or by someone the victim only knows online. When the perpetrator is known to the victim offline, the threats often start after a longer period of knowing the person and possibly being in a romantic relationship, and the threats tend to be more spaced out over time. This form of sextortion can present as a form of digital dating violence.

Online sextortion can escalate more quickly than offline sextortion. In instances of sextortion stemming from an online-only relationship, threats often begin swiftly—possibly on the day of the meeting—and can come in rapid succession, often repeatedly throughout the day. The perpetrator may use catfishing or other forms of deception to convince a minor to share intimate images.


Sextortion is happening across a wide number of platforms.

45 %
Nearly half of surveyed minors reported contact with their perpetrator on multiple platforms.

The role of generative AI in sextortion

Worryingly, cases are emerging in which generative AI technology is being used to produce explicit images with which a victim is threatened. This introduces new challenges in safeguarding young people from sextortion, such as eliminating the hurdle of manipulating a minor into sharing intimate images (since they could be produced entirely without their involvement) and undermining their testimony denying the authenticity of the images.

How sextortion takes shape

Threats are most often tied to the release of intimate images if the victim does not comply and share additional imagery. Following this, victims are typically threatened to return or enter into a relationship or meet in person, and in a minority of instances, money is demanded (“financial sextortion”).

Females are at higher risk of experiencing sextortion. While teens are more likely to be targeted, this abuse is not isolated to older minors.

according to THORN’S 2017 SURVEY of sextortion survivors,


1 in 4

participants reported they were 13 or younger when they were sextorted.

Recently, there has been a significant increase in reports of financial sextortion. In these cases, someone is threatened with the leak of their intimate imagery unless financial demands are met. Unlike most forms of sextortion, financial sextortion shows different patterns in offender profile, victim demographics, and abuse motivations.

Importantly, while the driver behind most sextortion threats is sexual or interpersonal in nature, financial sextortion cases are primarily focused on financial gain. Victims are threatened for wide-ranging amounts, and perpetrators frequently leverage cash exchange apps and gift cards to complete the payments.

In addition, unlike most sextortion cases that involve a single perpetrator, current trends in financial sextortion involve organized groups targeting large numbers of victims. Investigators believe the majority of these cases are stemming from groups based in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire carrying out “romance fraud” schemes.

These romance fraud schemes are not believed to be exclusively targeting minors and reports show many young adults similarly impacted. Among minors, male teens are most likely to be targeted in financial sextortion cases.

The reality of threats

Many victims in sextortion cases feel like they have no choice but to respond: more than 2 in 3 victims in a 2017 survey reported they they attempted to comply with demands to make the threats stop. Sadly, for more the majority, the threats continued even after complying.


reported the threats became more frequent in the aftermath.

Sextortion threats are not hollow and they have significant impacts on victims. Victims have reported their experiences led them to change schools, work, and home addresses and led them to seek support from medical professionals. Sadly, some of these cases are also leading to victims dying by suicide.


of victims didn’t seek help as they felt too embarrassed or ashamed.

What’s next?

Online communities hold distinct value for young people: opportunities to explore, connect, and grow in ways not readily available in offline communities. And yet, at the same time, these online experiences introduce new risks that young people are being forced to navigate. Perpetrators are using these same online spaces to target some of the most beautiful things of being young: curiosity, craving for connection, and empathy.

However, digital isolation is not the answer. As we continue to develop safer online spaces that reduce the likelihood of encountering grooming or sextortion, it’s vital to learn directly from young people about the types of relationships and experiences they’re seeking out online, explore how some of these introduce more risk than other, and discuss strategies to disconnect and seek help should things go sideways.


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