Is Your Child At Risk of Online Grooming?

Despite emerging research into the issue, grooming remains “difficult to identify and define”.  One definition that is generally agreed upon is that child grooming is the ‘befriending and establishing of an emotional connection with a child, and sometimes the family to gain their trust and to lower the child’s inhibitions with the objective of sexual abuse online or offline.’

 International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

‘Let’s go private.’ (leave the public chatroom and create a private chat or move to instant-messaging or phone texting)

‘Where’s your computer in the house?’ (to see if parents might be around)

‘If you don’t… [do what I ask], I’ll… [tell your parents OR share your photos in a photo blog / Webcam directory / file-sharing network]’ (intimidation – used as the groomer learns more and more about the target).

— How to recognise grooming.

Grooming can occur online or face to face with someone they know or a stranger.

Because grooming can happen gradually, over a long period of time and when children are at home, it’s often difficult for parents to recognise if their child is being targeted. This is particularly so, as one of the key strategies of a groomer is to warn children not to tell anyone about the relationship or friendship that is being developed.

Children who are being groomed or sexually abused may not feel that what is happening to them is right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know it’s wrong. What they do know, however, is that they feel uncomfortable with the unpleasant or confronting communication taking place.

Stories that play on parental fears have a tendency to misrepresent the facts. News stories would have us believe that all groomers trick their victims by pretending to be a child of roughly the same age. While there are times when an online groomer will create a fake but plausible identity or celebrity profile, it’s important for parents to know that grooming can be so effective that sometimes it isn’t always necessary for the perpetrator to pretend to be someone else.

Because of this, it’s imperative for parents to be aware of the grooming process and understand how it’s used by predators to entice and endanger children.

Ways Your Child Could Be At Risk

Without realising it, your child may be increasing their risk of unwanted online contact in a number of ways identified by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner:

  • Posting provocative photos and messages or using provocative screen names. This may pique the interest of online predators

  • Posting personal information on publicly accessible websites such as their full name, home address, phone number and school. Their privacy settings need to be set so that only their friends rather than the public can view their personal information

  • Accepting contacts or ‘friends’ they don’t know in the off-line world. This includes responding to anonymous users on apps and websites

  • Children using sites designed for young people or adults increases the risk of being contacted by that age group

“There’s a number of great educational apps that kids are using, apps like music.ly, or ROBLOX or Minecraft, but they have chat functions. These chat functions (if the parental controls are not on or the privacy settings aren’t being used) can be infiltrated by paedophiles or adults with nefarious interests to start conversations with young people” — Australian eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman-Grant.

Parental Control Apps like the Family Insights App can help you understand how much time your children spend on these platforms.

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Signs Of Online Grooming

There are a number of child grooming signs that parents should watch out for. There is no ‘typical victim’ and there is no ‘typical predator’ but there are certain behaviours that parents should look out for which combined, may raise a few red flags.

In isolation, some of these behaviours sit within the spectrum of ‘normal’, so parents need to pay special attention to their specific child and look out for increased instances of the following behaviours:

  • Using sexual language that they shouldn’t know at their age

  • Returning home late or staying out all night

  • Using a phone or electronic device that you didn’t purchase for them

  • Being unusually protective of their electronic devices

  • Becoming socially withdrawn and secretive

  • Becoming emotionally volatile in a way that is uncharacteristic

  • Appearing nervous when they receive a notification or phone call

  • Lying to you about who they’ve been talking to and where they’ve been

  • Receiving letters, gifts, jewellery, or toys from unknown people

  • Becoming involved in drugs or alcohol

  • Possessing or looking at pornography

  • Becoming estranged from friends or family members

  • Regularly missing school

To help minimise your child’s vulnerability to unwanted contact online, the Office of eSafety Commissioner says to encourage your child to:

  • Raise any concerns with you or another trusted adult

  • Use only a first name or nickname to identify themselves

  • Never disclose their phone number or address

  • Never send photographs of themselves that clearly show their identity

  • Never agree to meet someone they have met online without your permission and at the very least with adult supervision.

Taking Action

If you have reason to suspect that your child has been targeted by an online groomer, here’s what you should do next:

  • Gather evidence (screenshots of usernames, messages, photos, etc)

  • Talk to your child, but try not to sound accusing (so not to risk further isolating them from you)

  • Report the user on the applicable website, app, game, or network and then block the perpetrator

  • Contact the police — even if the grooming never escalated or your child never engaged the groomer, the Police need to be made aware so that they can prevent other children from being targeted

  • Seek support for your child through the following channels:
    Kids HelplineBravehearts — Counselling and Support, ThinkUKnow, and the Australian Federal Police

  • If you believe your or any child is in immediate danger please phone 000

The Parents' Survival Guide to Children, Technology & the Internet

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