What is online grooming?
Grooming involves an adult preparing a child for abuse with the goal of gaining access to the child, gaining their compliance and maintaining their secrecy. It is a highly manipulative process and adults with a sexual interest in children may use the internet to access young people in ways that they were unable to in the past.
Offenders can use different techniques to engage with young people online; this may involve attempts to flatter a young person, making them feel special and loved.
Alternatively, an offender could use bribes or threats to gain a child’s compliance. Through the grooming process, an offender is usually aiming to get sexual photos or videos of young people or to arrange to meet them to abuse them in the real world.
Are there any children who could be particularly vulnerable?
There have been suggestions that susceptibility to online grooming mirrors offline vulnerabilities. For example, children and young people with low self-esteem, poor family relations, poor peer relations, poverty and special educational needs may be vulnerable.
Others argue that young people who are not considered vulnerable offline, are in fact vulnerable online.
Children and young people may act differently in the online world, potentially taking more risks in what they may perceive to be a consequence-free environment.
What advice can I give to children to help protect them?
The education of young people regarding this issue is imperative. Endorsement of basic safety messages can help protect young people, such as:
- Protect your personal information online
- Only chat to or add contacts that you know and trust in the real world
- Think before you post. Once information is online, you’ve lost control of it so don’t post or send any pictures or information that you wouldn’t want a stranger to see
- If you are chatting to someone who makes you feel uncomfortable or worried, stop talking to them and tell an adult you trust or report to Ceop
- Look out for your friends; if you’re worried about a person that one of your friends is talking to, they need advice and support.
How do I respond if I discover it is happening?
If you discover that a young person is at risk, it is your duty to report it. If you believe a young person is in immediate danger then always call 999.
If you do not believe the danger is immediate but you are concerned, social services or local children’s safeguarding boards should be contacted for advice.
If you are based in a school, your first port of call should be the head teacher and head of safeguarding who will then be able to ascertain next steps from the school policy.
All organisations working with young people should have policies on child safeguarding, which should be followed when suspicion arises.
What kind of support may a child who has been a victim of online grooming need?
It is highly likely that a victim of online grooming will need support throughout the disclosure process, during the investigation and once the investigation is complete. Sometimes, a child may be so heavily groomed that they want to protect the offender and therefore take time to co-operate with the services that are trying to protect them.
If the case is going through the police, it is likely that a family liaison officer will be allocated for additional child and family support. Social services are likely to offer counselling or therapy sessions for the young person to discuss what has happened and how they are feeling.
- Helen Whittle, behavioural analysis unit researcher, Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre (Ceop)
The Ceop Thinkuknow education programme provides advice for children and young people, their parents and carers and professionals to help protect young people online. www.thinkuknow.co.uk