6 Stages Of Online Grooming | Is Your Child Safe?

Grooming is a process by which paedophiles gain a child’s trust and draw them into a sexual relationship [1]. The grooming process can also be used on other people in a child’s life, including friends, siblings, parents, and other family members or caregivers.

Groomers are often patient, charismatic, and highly manipulative. The grooming process is particularly insidious and can be dragged out over a long period of time, making it hard for people (especially children) to recognise that it’s happening. With the advent of modern technology and increased accessibility of Internet-capable devices amongst young people, the grooming process has now infiltrated the online world, providing offenders with new opportunities to engage with children while evading the watchful eyes of other adults.

Forensic psychiatrist, Dr Michael Welner, has worked on some of the most sensitive cases of child grooming [2]. His research has enabled him to identify the 6 stages of online grooming, which also apply to offline grooming.

The 6 Stages Of Online Grooming

1. Targeting Their Victim

When an offender first targets their victim, they will research the child (either by observing them, talking to them or by going online and searching their social media profiles). They are usually hoping to gather information such as:

  • The child’s name, age, school, and general whereabouts

  • Which social networking sites and online games the child uses

  • The child’s likes and dislikes

While any child can become the victim of grooming, certain factors can make a child more vulnerable to it. When targeting a victim, offenders are usually hoping to establish whether or not the child has any vulnerabilities they can exploit. These include but are not limited to low self-confidence, social isolation, and less parental oversight.

8 out of 10 victims of child sexual abuse had their social media profiles accessed by their abuser [3].

2. Gaining The Child’s Trust

The process of gaining a child’s trust is a major part of what makes grooming so effective. Groomers are adept at making their victims feel heard, valued, and special; and at creating an intimate bond that they later leverage. They can achieve this by:

  • Giving compliments

  • Making the child feel heard

  • Building a special, one-to-one relationship

  • Understanding and sharing their victim’s interests e.g. playing the same online game

  • Offering emotional support and comfort

Sometimes an online groomer will initiate contact by pretending to be the same age as their victim, but they’re often able to manipulate children in such a way that their true age is not a deterrent. In the real world, for example, perpetrators will often groom institutions so as to deliberately position themselves in workspaces where they’re exposed to children.

“(Sex offenders) generate warm and calibrated attention. Only more awkward and overly personal attention, or a gooey intrusiveness, provokes the suspicion of parents. Otherwise, a more suave sex offender is better disciplined for how to push and poke, without revealing themselves.” – Dr Michael Welner.

Only 5% of online groomers pretend to be kids [4].

3. Filling A Need:

When an offender is able to fill a child’s needs, they take on a more important role in the child’s life. They may attempt to do this through the provision of tangible gifts (e.g. a mobile device, a place to stay, or prohibited substances such as alcohol) or, alternatively, by offering intangible things such as emotional support, affection, attention, and a sense of being loved and valued.

Most victims of online grooming will agree to meet their groomer face-to-face [6]

4. Isolating The Child

At this point in the relationship, the groomer begins to leverage the ‘special’ bond that they share with the child. During the isolation stage of online grooming, the offender attempts to alienate the child from their friends and family members. Sometimes they will do this by positioning themselves as the only one who truly understands the child, and other times they will do this by establishing trust with the child’s parents; thereby creating the impression that the parents know about and are okay with the grooming.

Groomers will also often make the child a co-conspirator, and manipulate the child into believing that if they tell anyone about the relationship, they will both get into trouble.

Once a child has been isolated from other meaningful relationships in their life, they become increasingly dependent on their groomer and are often more submissive as a result.

 Parents have been known to unwittingly contribute to an offender’s power over their child through supporting or appreciating the unique relationship [7]

5. Sexualising The Relationship

Now that the offender has garnered sufficient trust and dependence, they will start to make the relationship more sexual in nature. They often begin with desensitizing the child, which often entails nonsexual touching (sometimes in front of a parent). Other methods include:

  • Making a game out of touching one another

  • Asking the child questions about sex

  • Sending pornography to a child to incite their natural curiosity

  • Sending a child nude images/asking a child to send nude images

“Typically I would just start by asking for a regular picture and then if it got to that level I would eventually ask for a picture more of a sexual nature.” – Former teacher & convicted sex offender [3]

Most Internet-initiated sex crimes against minors progress to face-to-face encounters; 93% of which lead to illegal sexual contact.

6. Maintaining Control

Once the sexual abuse has started, sex offenders will often use the following tactics to retain the child’s continued participation, submission, and silence:

  • Blaming the child & making them feel complicit in the abuse

  • Repeatedly reinforcing the importance of secrecy

  • Threatening to withhold material or emotional offerings

  • Threatening harm or defamation if the child leaves or tells anyone – ranging from ‘no-one will believe you’ to ‘I will hurt you/your loved ones’

1 in 10 children who agreed to meet their online groomer experienced physical threats and abuse [3]

Convicted child sex offenders have said that it is much easier to trick children who don’t know anything about sexual matters. For young children who are groomed and molested, they may not feel like what is happening to them is right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know it is wrong. While it might seem like a heavy burden to place upon the shoulders of young people, parents should ideally talk to their children about predatory behaviours from a young age. Through talking to children about ‘good touching and bad touching’ and familiarising children with examples of things that groomers might say to them online, we can hope to strengthen children’s defence mechanisms and innate ability to sense danger.

References

1. Sami Face 2017 What is grooming and the 6 stages of grooming

2. Dr Michael Welner Child Sexual Abuse: 6 Stages Of Grooming

3. Evan Mangan What parents need to know about online grooming. A free digital parenting guide.

4. Common Sense Media The facts about online predators every parent should know

5. False Freedom Resource Pack

6.Wolak, J., Evans, L., Nguyen, S., & Hines, D. A. (2013). Online Predators: Myth versus Reality.New England Journal of Public Policy,25(1), 6th ser.

7. Margarette Driscoll 2017 My teacher groomer me – and my parents

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