Online Grooming: Minimising opportunity, minimising risk

Updated: May 9

This article was written by Kayelene Kerr from eSafeKids.



The internet and technology have transformed the way we learn, create, connect and are entertained. Our children have access to the world and the world has access to our children. Whilst there are many benefits for our children being online, there are also risks. The increase of children online has seen a corresponding upward trend in cases of online grooming, child sexual abuse and exploitation, sextortion, youth produced sexual content, image based abuse, exposure to pornography and other harmful and hurtful content.


The internet poses a particular challenge, as those seeking to victimise children take advantage of the relative anonymity online interaction provides. As the internet and technology continues to advance, the opportunities for child sex offenders and other financially motivated criminals to sexually exploit children will continue to increase.


In a recent Australian study only 3% of parents believed online grooming was a risk to children. Paradoxically 1 in 3 Australian children have reported unwanted contact by a stranger. Law enforcement estimates there is 750,000 predators online at any given moment.


This has created an ideal criminogenic environment as there are abundant opportunities for crimes to be committed, the presence of highly motivated offenders, not a great deal of coordinated and effective regulation and an absence of adequate parental supervision, education and conversation.


What is online grooming?

The term ‘grooming’ refers to actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending and influencing a child for the purpose of sexual abuse or exploitation.

Child sexual abuse and exploitation is often a process, not a one off incident. The abuse often occurs in an ongoing and escalating manner.


In the case of online grooming, it is when a person makes online contact with a child/young person with the intention of establishing a relationship to enable their sexual abuse and exploitation. Grooming behaviours are designed to establish an emotional connection which lowers the child’s inhibitions in order to gain access to them. In this respect grooming involves psychological manipulation that can initially be very subtle, but which is often premeditated and ultimately can be drawn out, calculated and controlling.


The criminal offence occurs in the communication phase so no physical contact with the child need ever occur.


In an online environment this may involve;

  • Sending the child pornography or child sexual abuse material.

  • Asking or encouraging a child to take photos and/or videos of their own or someone else’s private parts.

  • Asking or encouraging a child to perform sexual acts on themselves or someone else.

Sometimes the intention will also be to meet the child in the real world or for the purpose of sextortion. I'll write more about this in another blog.


Offline grooming may take place over days, weeks, months or even years. Online grooming may take place in a matter of minutes, making children particularly vulnerable.


Online child sex offenders can be any age, gender, from any background and any country (remember the internet is global and borderless).


Some online child sex offenders are sophisticated and use multiple online identities and platforms, whilst others will cast a wide net and contact many children with the hope of entrapping some of the children contacted.


What is the intention of online grooming?

The three most common intentions of online grooming that I’ve observed over the last 25 years are to:

  • Obtain child sexual abuse material/child exploitation material.

  • Meet a child in an offline environment (the real world).

  • Extort the child for monetary gain. This is often referred to as sextortion.


Where does online grooming happen?

Online grooming can happen just about anywhere children go online. All games, apps, website and platforms have the potential to be used by others to harm children. Any platform that allows communication with others, either written or verbal, has the potential to be used for online grooming, for example, gaming sites, social media platforms and messaging apps and platforms like Messenger, WhatsApp or Skype. Online child sex offenders use these platforms to initiate contact with a child and will then often invite the child to another, more private platform.


Minimising opportunity, minimising risk

The following behaviours can increase a child’s susceptibility to online grooming.


· Unnsupervised online activity

· Devices used in bedrooms and bathrooms of homes

· Accessing platforms that are age inappropriate

· Accepting friend/follower requests from people they don’t know

· Using online and/or in game chat

· Communicating with people they don’t know

· Using a sexually suggestive name or profile photo

· Posting sexualised photos


Children with low self-esteem, lack of confidence and naivety are more at risk and more likely to be targeted by online offenders. Strengthening relationships with offline friends and family can decrease a child’s vulnerability.


It’s important to understand

Grooming can leave a child feeling trapped. The child may be tricked, threatened, manipulated or coerced into keeping the abuse a ‘secret’, feeling they are somehow responsible and thinking they will not be believed if they tell.


Offenders are also known to use attention, affection, praise and gifts (virtual or real). These factors may inhibit a child telling a trusted adult that they are in an unsafe situation with an unsafe person. At times grooming can be difficult to distinguish from innocent and innocuous actions.


We can talk with someone about anything no matter what it is

Parental participation, supervision, education and conversation is vital and can reduce the opportunity for an offence to be committed and increase the risk of detection if an offence has been committed.


Many children who find themselves in an unsafe situation online don’t talk with trusted adults, not because they don't want to, because;

  • Fear getting in trouble

  • Fear loosing the device/app

  • Sometimes what they see or hear, are sent, asked to send or shown is embarrassing and awkward for them to talk about.

Visit the eSafeKids Members’ Community to access conversation starters to open the lines of communication and address factors that inhibit children talking with a trusted adult.


Managing your reaction

Often when children/young people are victimised they feel alone, scared, ashamed, confused or embarrassed. Sometimes they’ve been lied to, tricked or threatened. The cumulative effect of this is difficult for an adult to manage and it’s amplified for children and young people. In some cases, a child may be dependent on the abuser as they feel valued, have developed a friendship or ‘intimate’ connection. In other cases, offenders will turn a child against their family, so that even when faced with reality, a child may be unwilling or unable to see the reality.


If you learn that your child is in an unsafe situation or has made a poor decision online, you may feel overwhelmed, upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed or even scared. If you have the opportunity, take some time to calm yourself first. If this is not possible, ensure your child knows that you love them, there is nothing that will ever change how much you love them and that you will always support them.


You could frame your response as;


“I’m not angry at you, I’m angry with the situation”

“I’m disappointed in what you’ve done but I love you and will support you.”


“Have you thought about how you could respond? If not let’s work on that together.”


Offer ongoing support and a listening ear, and seek professional assistance if needed


Child friendly language:

Children may be connecting to the internet from the comfort and relative safety of your home, but when they connect to the internet they have the potential to come into contact with any number of several billion people, not all of whom have legal intentions or a moral compass.


An important part of education and conversation is talking to children about online grooming and providing them with some age and developmentally appropriate information about pornography and child sexual abuse/exploitation material.


The language I suggest for primary school aged children is 'private photos' and 'private videos'.


No one is allowed to:

* Take photos or videos of your private parts.

* Ask you to take photos or videos of your private parts

* Show you private photos or private videos

* Send you private photos or private videos

You’re not allowed to:

* Take photos or videos of your own or anyone else’s private parts.

* Ask someone else to take photos or videos of their private parts.

* Send or ask anyone else to send private photos or videos.

* Show anyone private photos or private videos.


Importantly, if they do make a mistake or find themselves into a tricky situation with a tricky person, a person who behaves in a tricky way or uses tricky words, they can speak with one of the trusted adults or contact the Kids Helpline.


My recommended child friendly book for primary school aged children is The Fabulous Friend Machine.




Tips
  • Supervise children, particularly primary school aged and children/young people with learning difficulties and disabilities.

  • Participate in your child’s online world, consider co-viewing and co-playing.(Keep an eye out for a video that is coming about participation)

  • Engage in ongoing age appropriate conversation (Visit the eSafeKids Members’ Community and read the Supporting & Inspiring Family Conversations series)

  • Provide ongoing age appropriate education (Visit the eSafeKids online book shop for child friendly books to assist you.)

  • Get to know the games, apps and sites your child uses/visits. Learn about it and their features, identifying those that may allow access to your child. A great way to do this is to ask your child to show you how it works and where they’d report it if they encountered an unsafe person or concerning content. If they don’t know, learn together!

  • If there is a chat function, consider disabling it or communicate your boundaries eg) No chat or no chat with people you don’t know.

  • Consider parental controls (Visit the eSafeKids Members’ Community for a comprehensive list.)

  • Teach children about safe and unsafe secrets. (Visit the eSafeKids Members’ Community and read the Supporting & Inspiring Family Conversations series.)

  • Teach children to listen to their body cues and warning signs (To learn more, visit the eSafeKids Members’ Community and read the Supporting & Inspiring Family Conversations series)

Report

In Australia, if you suspect online child sexual abuse/exploitation or online grooming has occurred, report it to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation. Read our blog on what to do and how to do it here.


In Australia, if you see illegal (child sexual abuse material) or harmful content online, report it to the eSafety Commissioner. Read our blog on what to do and how to do it here.


Case study

If you’ve been to an eSafeKids Cyber Safety & Digital Wellness workshop, you will know that I share real cases, not to ‘fear monger’ or cause distress, but to provide parents, carers, educators and professionals with real examples to use when talking with children/young people. I often put these examples into child friendly language to assist children identify unsafe situations, respond to unsafe situations (in the moment and after), and access help and support from a trusted adult.


Case study overview:


A 24 year old Sydney man posed as a 16 year old girl on Instagram, Snapchat, Skye and other online platforms. He manipulated and blackmailed 49 children aged 8 to 15 years into sending child sexual abuse/exploitation material (CSAM/CEM).


This online child sex offender posed as a teenager to get sexually explicit photos from teenagers online, and later threatened to share the images with their friends and family if they did not send him more photos. He was jailed for 9 years and 6 months. Read more here.


When children and young people find themselves in tricky situations online, telling a trusted adult and asking for help or support can be really hard! It’s fantastic to see the father of a boy who spoke up, acknowledge how difficult it was and how courageous his son was.


Statement from the victims father:


This statement was provided to the Australian Federal Police by the victim’s father.


“My son was the victim of an online paedophile. It took him weeks of extortion and exploitation before he could speak up. I am glad my son had the courage to speak up and show me what was happening. We were able to take screen shots and send them to the police and the paedophile was caught.


My son says that he wishes he didn’t have to be the one that spoke up - he wishes someone before him spoke up and it never would have happened to him, they would have saved themselves and they would have saved all the other victims that came after them.


I have told my son that by speaking up and showing me what was happening, he has not only saved himself, but he saved all the other kids that would have been victims in the future - he is a hero for speaking up.


My son knows it isn’t enough to just delete or block and run when you encounter an online paedophile, you have to tell your parents when it happens - they can keep you safe plus get the police to track the person down so he doesn’t do it to other people. My son was scared to speak up but he knows that it makes you safer if you speak up and hiding it makes you less safe.


I am proud of my son for speaking up and showing me what was happening to him - it would have taken him great courage to show me as his father what he was doing after being forced to by this paedophile - by telling me and showing me what was happening to him we were able to collect evidence to have the paedophile caught and he has saved a lot of other kids from falling victim.


He, and we, won’t know the full impact this will have on him for many years, if we ever do - it will be there for the rest of his life - what we do know is that by being brave enough to tell and show me [his father], it was immediately stopped. The impact for him was minimised, the person was caught and he has saved all the future victims from harm."


I applaud the father for his response, in what was unquestionably, very difficult circumstances.



To learn more about eSafeKids workshops and training visit our services page.


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Join the free eSafeKids online Members' Community. It has been created to support and inspire you in your home, school, organisation and/or community setting.


About The Author

Kayelene Kerr is recognised as one of Western Australia’s most experienced specialist providers of Protective Behaviours, Body Safety, Cyber Safety, Digital Wellness and Pornography education workshops. Kayelene is passionate about the prevention of child abuse and sexual exploitation, drawing on over 24 years’ experience of study and law enforcement, investigating sexual crimes, including technology facilitated crimes. Kayelene delivers engaging and sought after prevention education workshops to educate, equip and empower children and young people, and to help support parents, carers, educators and other professionals. Kayelene believes protecting children from harm is a shared responsibility and everyone can play a role in the care, safety and protection of children. Kayelene aims to inspire the trusted adults in children’s lives to tackle sometimes challenging topics.


About eSafeKids

eSafeKids strives to reduce and prevent harm through proactive prevention education, supporting and inspiring parents, carers, educators and other professionals to talk with children, young people and vulnerable adults about protective behaviours, body safety, cyber safety, digital wellness and pornography. eSafeKids is based in Perth, Western Australia.


eSafeKids provides books and resources to teach children about social and emotional intelligence, resilience, empathy, gender equality, consent, body safety, protective behaviours, cyber safety, digital wellness, media literacy, puberty and pornography.


eSafeKids books can support educators teaching protective behaviours and child abuse prevention education that aligns with the Western Australian Curriculum, Australian Curriculum, Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and National Quality Framework: National Quality Standards (NQS).


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