Study looks at language used by online groomers

By Des Mannion

| 19 June 2017

The growth of the online world in recent decades has had a huge impact on all our lives from the way we consume media to how we socialise to how we shop.

Depressingly, these rapid changes have been accompanied by a corresponding growth in online issues around child protection. These challenges include the production and proliferation of child abuse images, bullying among children on social media, body image anxieties felt by young people and the danger of children being groomed by sex offenders masquerading as one of their peers.

For the NSPCC, online safety is among the key child protection issues of the 21st century. Governments and law enforcement are of the same mind - in Wales alone our police forces are recording increases in crimes stemming from the online world year-on-year as they get to grips with the problem.For example, there were 150 recorded crimes of adults meeting a child following sexual grooming over the last five years across Wales' four police forces with more than 60 per cent of these cases having an online element.

Despite this focus on internet safety too little is known about the methods used by paedophiles when they target children online. In the majority of cases, research into the tactics used by adults seeking to groom children in the offline world is merely applied to the online world.

Now new research carried out by a team led by Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus at Swansea University is some of the first which attempts to close this gap.

Drawing on the research findings, the NSPCC and Swansea University have joined forces for a six-month collaborative project designed to support professionals in social work, health, education and child protection and provide them with new skills for use in the front line.
The Online Grooming Communication project, funded by Swansea University's Cherish-de centre, aims to improve understanding of the language used by groomers as they seek to build a relationship with a child.

The research underpinning the project is some of the first to identify online grooming as a communicative process and develop a model to explain how groomers use language to achieve their goals: from how they build their victims' trust, and isolate them mentally, through to how they gauge their victims' compliance levels at different stages during the grooming process and how they use grooming communication to obtain sexual gratification.

With grooming defined as when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking, it's clear that the language used is important in this process.

The Swansea University project has already generated national headlines following its insight that paedophiles can successfully groom a child and arrange to meet them in less than 40 minutes.

It has also dispelled several myths - that groomers coerce children with sexually-explicit language from the start. In fact, the project has found that the language used is patient, complimentary, caring and persuasive, aimed at building a trusting relationship with the victim.

Progress is undoubtedly being made to better protect children in the UK while they are online. Following a campaign by the NSPCC new legislation was introduced in England and Wales in April this year making it an offence to send a sexual message to a child. Previously adults could not be prosecuted for sending such messages until the grooming escalated.

But the fight continues. It is hoped that high-quality research - like that taking place at Swansea University - into the communication strategies used by groomers, will help prevent more children being placed in danger in the real world as a result of their interactions online.

Des Mannion is head of service, NSPCC Cyrmu

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