The internet can be a fantastic place for children and young people to connect with their friends, discover new things and be creative. However, 'friends' made online may not be who they say they are. This is a difficult concept for children to understand.
Online grooming is the process by which an adult with an inappropriate sexual interest in children approaches a child online, with the intention of fostering a relationship with that child, so as to be able to meet them in person and intentionally cause harm. Groomers are very skilled at what they do and can often befriend a child by appearing to have the same hobbies and interests as them. Using fake accounts and stock photos, they may also appear to be the same age as the child. Children can be flattered at first by the attention given to them by this new ‘online friend’ and if they engage, they are often asked to speak ‘more privately’ with the groomer, whether that be away from an online game, or a different social network. Often children may not be aware that they are being groomed.
In more recent years, children can be groomed online into sending sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves to these online groomers. In some cases, unless children send more material of themselves, groomers can threaten to make the material public.
Top tips for parents
Speak to your child about the differences between a friend online (someone they know) and a stranger online (someone they don’t know). It’s important to emphasise that however nice a new friend online can seem, it can be difficult to know how trustworthy they are, as it is easy to disguise your true identity online.
It can be difficult to know if your child is being groomed online, but watch out for a change in their behaviour such as them becoming more secretive, especially in what they do online, unexplained gifts such as a new mobile phone or meeting friends in unusual places.
Speak to your child and encourage them to think critically about their online friends. Ask them to question why their new online friend has all the same interests as them or why their new online friend asks them to chat in a more private place online. Remind them not to send photos of themselves to strangers online, and not to give out personal information. For more information on this, look at our critical thinking resource, Trust me, specifically on lesson two which is about contact.
For more information and age appropriate resources for children relating to online grooming, visit Thinkuknow.
If you are at all concerned that a child in your care has been contacted by an adult online, it is important to report it straight away. Reports can be made to the CEOP Command (CEOP) and further information can be found at Inhope. Child sexual abuse content found online can also be reported to the Internet Watch Foundation.