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Online Grooming: What Every Parent Should Know

Words by
Jake Cutler

MAY 02, 2023

Online Grooming: What Every Parent Should Know

Do you know who your child is talking to while playing video games online? Or recognize everyone they’re chatting with on Instagram? Do you know what they’re sharing on SnapChat? 

Some parents are amazed to discover the harm that can reach a child through the screens in their own home. Digital threats might seem less tangible than physical ones but their impact is just as real as any threat in the real world.

Gradually introducing your child to technology is important but sooner or later they will need to spend time online to survive in today’s world. It’s paramount to be aware of the dangers confronting kids online, particularly the threat of online predators.

That doesn’t mean you should be scared or anxious. With the right knowledge, you can help your children do much more than survive—they can thrive in a world of connectivity. 

Parents Should Feel Empowered

The key to protecting kids from online predators is having open conversations often and early to make sure your kids know that they can come to you when they have done something unsafe.

Learning how online predators operate, recognizing the warning signs, and better understanding what children experience when targeted online are keys to being empowered as a parent when it comes to preventing grooming.

Happy family monitoring child's phone

What is Online Grooming?

Online grooming is a manipulative process used by predators to identify, coerce, and abuse victims using online apps or platforms. It’s the newest iteration of a well-researched behavior that has been around for a long time.

Sexual predators typically follow a similar model consisting of five stages to groom their victims. Those stages have been shown to apply specifically to online grooming. Not every predator will display all these signs of grooming, or always follow them in order, but awareness of them can help you to identify red flags and keep your child safe online.

Stage 1. How Predators Select Victims

Online predators meet their victims via digital chat over 60% of the time. Oftentimes these chats occur on social networks or within online games like Minecraft, Roblox, or Fortnite.

Offenders often start by observing and gathering personal information about potential victims before taking other steps. No one is immune but researchers have found that predators tend to search for minors who bring up topics related to sex, children who seem “needy” or “submissive,” and users with sexual usernames or profile pictures.

Stage 2. How Predators Gain Access to and Isolate Victims

After identifying a target, abusers will take steps to isolate the child online. If the initial platform doesn’t allow for private chat, they will try to move the conversation to one that allows more freedom to interact uncensored. This is just one reason that parents should be careful about granting their kids access to social networking platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or any other app with private messaging capabilities.

Stage 3. Predators Develop Trust with Victims

Predators usually try to prove they are likable, loving, and caring to gain a kid’s trust and establish emotional connection before moving to abusive behaviors. They might pose as a child but this is not often the case—in most internet sex crimes against young people, predators are upfront about the fact that they are adults who have sexual intentions. They simply prey on a child’s insecurities or curiosities.

creepy person messaging on computer with child

Stage 4. Predators Desensitize Their Victims

Groomers might discuss explicit sexual content, tell dirty jokes, share pornography, or ask about the victim’s sex life to try to desensitize kids. This makes their eventual sexual advances seem more normal. Research shows online groomers tend to move faster than in-person predators—often introducing sexualized content within 24 hours, and sometimes within 30 minutes.

Stage 5. Predators Seek to Maintain Control

Predators often use a tactic known as sextortion to coerce a child to additional behaviors. After successfully pressuring a child to send sexual images, for example, predators will threaten to share them online as a way to pressure children into giving them money or sharing more sexually explicit photos or videos.

It’s Important to Remember:

Not every online interaction between an adult and a child is dangerous. It’s helpful to learn patterns of online grooming but you shouldn’t feel paranoid about every interaction between your child and an adult. Instead, be on the lookout for patterns or especially suspicious behavior.

The Dangers of Online Grooming

The effects on kids who have experienced grooming can vary widely, but the effects are often serious. Research from The Massachusetts Legislative Task Force on the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse found that 4 out of 5 children victimized online suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and young people who have been victims of sexual predation are also more likely to struggle in school, display violent behavior, and commit suicide.

Additionally, a study on victimization from the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center, reveals some really troubling data:

  • Children who experience unwanted sexual solicitation are
    • 3 times more likely to experience depressive symptoms or PTSD
    • 2.6 times as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol
    • Nearly 2 times as likely to commit delinquent crimes. 
  • When children are abused, the effects are worse:
    • 10.5 times as likely to experience depression
    • 8.5 times higher rates of substance abuse
    • 5 times more likely to engage in criminal behavior

Protecting your children from online predators is not something to be taken lightly. But it’s also not something that should overwhelm you. With the right knowledge and some simple strategies, you can do a lot to ensure your children are kept safe as they venture into the digital world.

What To Do If Your Child Has Been Targeted

It’s better to prevent grooming than repair damage after it’s occurred. This is why Gabb emphasizes prevention and designs devices and software that are hack-proof and free from apps with backdoors to internet browsers. Helping your child safely enter the digital world is much easier when you take tech in steps and that tech is designed with kids’ safety as the top priority.

sad girl being comforted

All that being said, even if a child has been groomed that doesn’t mean hope is lost.

Identifying and stopping grooming quickly will limit the long term negative effects. Even if this type of sexual abuse has been ongoing for a long period of time, it’s been found that parents can improve the situation by offering support and connecting their child with a professional. It is never too late to help.

If you find your child has been involved in an inappropriate online interaction, do your best to stay calm. Acknowledge that it took courage to come to you and they made the right choice to tell you. It’s also important to remind them that even if they made some poor judgment calls, it is not their fault that they received sexual solicitations from an adult. No child deserves abuse.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) suggests the acronym TALK as an easy way to remember the most appropriate response to a grooming situation with your child:

T = Thank Them for Telling You

A = Ask How You Can Help

L = Listen Without Judgment

K = Keep Supporting

How to Report Online Grooming

Your top priority as a parent will be ensuring your child is okay, but it’s also important to report sexual abuse so perpetrators are stopped from exploiting children. Here are some key steps to take in reporting an online abuser:

  • Don’t delete any messages your child has received—these can be used as evidence.
  • Report the perpetrator to the platform your child was using.
  • Block the perpetrator.
  • Save conversations and screenshots to share with local law enforcement.
  • Reporting procedures vary state-by-state so take advantage of RAINN’s State Law Database if you suspect a child is being groomed or is the victim of sexual assault.

The thought that your child could be the victim of online grooming is terrifying. It is a problem to be taken seriously. But you and your kids aren’t helpless. Arming yourself and your child with the right knowledge and the right tools will allow your family to embrace the good that technology brings without being paralyzed by the bad.

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