The internet can be a great place for children and young people to connect with their friends. However, it can be difficult for children to differentiate between friends they know in the offline world, and 'friends' made online.
Not everyone online is who they say they are, and this can be a difficult concept for children to understand.
What is ‘online grooming’?
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Online grooming is where someone befriends a child online and builds up their trust with the intention of exploiting them and causing them harm.
Harm caused by grooming can be sexual abuse, both in person and online, and exploitation to obtain sexually explicit images and videos of the child.
Grooming techniques could also be used as part of the radicalisation process or to obtain financial information from the child or their family.
Who is at risk?
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Any child can be at risk of being groomed, regardless of age, gender, race or location.
Some children may be more at risk due to other vulnerabilities and disabilities. For example, Children with SEND could be more at risk if they lack the necessary understanding and education needed to think critically about online contact. They may also lack the communication skills needed to access support from trusted adults and to use online reporting tools.
How does ‘online grooming’ happen?
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Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time. It can start out publicly on social media and in games but will most likely move across to private chats.
Anyone could unfortunately groom a child online, regardless of age, gender or race. 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 photos, they may also appear to be the same age as the child. However, not all groomers will choose to mask their age or gender. Some groomers may impersonate an aspirational figure such as a modelling scout, sports coach, celebrity or influencer, whilst others may use their age and experience to develop a ‘mentor’ type relationship with their victim.
A groomer will use the same sites, games and apps as children in order to gain their trust and build a friendship. Children can be flattered at first by the attention given to them by this new ‘online friend’, particularly if they are offering support, showing understanding or giving validation. However, they may also seek to manipulate, blackmail and control the child, potentially isolating them from their friends and family.
It’s important to remember that children may not understand they have been groomed or see their ‘online friend’ as untrustworthy or abusive.
Are there any emerging risks?
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Whilst the techniques used by groomers haven't changed greatly over time, the technology they use to exploit children has. A 3-month study carried out by the Internet Watch Foundation found 2,082 images and videos of child sexual abuse which had been live-streamed. Key findings showed that:
- 96% of imagery depicted children on their own, typically in a home setting such as their own bedroom.
- 98% of imagery depicted children assessed as 13 years or younger.
- 96% of the imagery featured girls.
- 100% of the imagery had been taken from the original upload location and was being redistributed on third party websites.
Click here for the latest IWF Annual Report.
How can I educate young people about this?
Use the following resources to help you educate young people about appropriate online contact, grooming and critical thinking:
For more information and age appropriate resources for children relating to online grooming, visit CEOP’s Thinkuknow.
5 top tips to supporting young people:
- Make sure they know you are listening - be open to listening to young people's thoughts and experiences without judgement or blame. Be interested, respect pauses and don't interrupt. The NPSCC have provided a handy animation and posters - let children know you’re listening.
- Be aware of barriers to reporting - unfortunately there can be many barriers to reporting for young people which could include fear about how an adult will react, not feeling like it will be taken seriously, lack of means to explain and share what has happened. Our Step Up, Speak Up toolkit has a lesson plan on reporting.
- Discuss healthy relationships - discussing healthy boundaries, respect and consent in the context of online experiences is really important. This will help young people to recognise when an ‘online friend’ is putting pressure on them or may not have their best interests at heart.
- Consider all areas of technology and the internet - to keep conversations relevant to young people's online lives it's important to include new online features in discussions. This could include features like live streaming and expiring content. Beginning any discussions by asking young people about what they like to do online will help you to keep conversations and lessons relevant.
- Share routes to support and report - it's important to ensure young people know exactly where they can go for help and support. Share the names of dedicated members of staff, helplines and reporting options.