What is Grooming? Signs to Look for With Sexual Predators
It’s every parent’s nightmare that their child may be abducted by a stranger. But what happens when the threat is even more insidious, beginning at home with your child on their cell phone?
In a recent study, 46 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds admitted to giving out their personal information to someone they did not know – a sobering statistic that indicates many children could be communicating with adults with dark intentions.
Recognizing the Signs of Online Grooming
Online grooming occurs when a predator initiates and cultivates a relationship with a child over the internet, culminating in sexual abuse that can include:
- Taking sexual photos
- Sending sexual messages
- Meeting in real life for sexual activities
The process of grooming is a purposefully slow one, as predators methodically take steps to ingratiate themselves to children and gain trust. Predators are masters at manipulation and can appear kind and helpful to mask their ulterior motives, taking advantage of a child’s naivete.
The steps below follow a general pattern of behavior consistent with online grooming. However, every situation is unique, so variations are always possible. The most important thing is to always be aware of any adult who begins taking an interest in your child.
Predators often target vulnerable children, such as those who are emotionally vulnerable or have less parental oversight. The first interactions are pleasant and include light conversations to lure them in, making the child feel important. Many predators initiate conversations on public chat apps or in the chat section of kid’s games, pretending to be younger.
Many times, the predator tries to fill some sort of need that the child has – many times, it’s an emotional need, like a child’s desire for attention. They meet it by paying them compliments, listening to them, or buying them gifts. Be aware of any presents your child may receive from other adults, especially electronic devices – these may be used exclusively for communication with the predator.
At this point, as the predator is deepening the relationship, he’ll gauge the level of threat he’s facing from the parents. He’ll ask questions to see how closely the child’s devices are monitored, and try to determine whether the child will be believed if the truth comes out. During this time, kids may become more secretive about their activity.
Here, the predator meets up with the child for the first time in real life. He will try to gain the trust of the child completely, convincing them that they share a special bond.
A predator will look for opportunities to spend time alone with the child. They will often use sly tactics to create these situations and use this time to further reinforce the idea of a special relationship. Trust your instincts when something isn’t right when it comes to how your child is acting.
This stage culminates in sexual activity. Predators will begin to discuss sex explicitly, mentioning sexual activities with the child to desensitize them. Some predators have been known to show children pictures of other children without their clothing in order to make it appear more normal. They’ll also introduce sexual information that typical children of their age group would not be familiar with.
When a predator starts to abuse a child, they will go to great lengths to maintain control and ensure that the child is dependent on them. In most cases, the offender uses secrecy, blame, and even threats to keep children from saying anything.
Let your children know they can come to you when anyone asks them to do something they are not comfortable with, even if that person is an adult.
What You Can Do
Children of any gender, any family situation, and any socioeconomic level may be targeted as victims of grooming – no one is immune. To help protect your child from online predators, there are a number of steps you can take, including:
- Encourage your child to be share aware by talking openly and often about what sites they’re visiting, games they’re playing, and people they’re chatting with.
- Create a family environment where your child feels safe talking about difficult topics. The safer a child feels, the more likely they are to open up when something bad happens.
- Monitor their devices for potentially harmful communications. Bark is specially designed to capture messages that may be inappropriate or indicative of sexual abuse.
The truth is, grooming signs can be difficult to spot. This is because sexual predators tend to also befriend parents and caregivers. Maintaining an open line of communication with your child and paying extra attention to the amount of time they spend with other adults, as well as monitoring their online activity with Bark, can help protect your child from online sexual predators.
Grooming is gateway to child sex trafficking as 'seducing' moves online
Instead of lurking in shopping malls and parks, predators who befriend and sell children for sex now hang out on social networks like Facebook and gaming sites, said experts fighting to stay one step ahead of rapidly-evolving criminal gangs.
Colombian traffickers used to pose as rich, older men promising a better life; now they pretend to be poor, troubled teenagers just like the children they target, said Sebastian Arevalo, head of anti-trafficking group Pasos Libres Foundation.
“Trust is now gained through empathy and emotions,” Bogota-based Arevalo, who has talked to hundreds of students about the dangers they face online, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Recruiters are of similar age (to their victims). They say, ‘I too have problems at school and with my parents’, ‘I’ve also broken up with my partner’.”
From the United States to the Philippines, a soaring number of young people are being trafficked online, fueled by the global spread of cheap, high-speed internet and rising mobile phone ownership, particularly in developing countries.
About 750,000 sexual predators worldwide are online at any given moment, the U.S.-based International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children said last year, often grooming children for sexual abuse as a first step to enslaving them.
Grooming involves befriending children, mostly aged 11 to 15, to gain their trust, before luring or coercing them to send sexual images or videos of themselves, which are shared online on password-only group networks and websites, experts said.
“Grooming is the precursor phase,” said Hernan Navarro, head of campaign group Grooming Argentina, which educates parents and children about the risks of social media.
“It’s the gateway to more serious crimes like human trafficking.”
After starting a seemingly innocuous online friendship, children sometimes go on to meet their virtual ‘friend’ in hotels, cafes or parks, which can lead them to being trafficked and sold online, according to campaigners.
A third of all internet users in the world are under 18, according to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, which has trained more than 10,000 law enforcement officers and specialists to investigate child sexual abuse.
“The seducing process often starts online,” said Fabio Gonzalez, Latin America coordinator at the anti-child trafficking group ECPAT International.
“Traffickers are recruiting children where they interact with their peers, which is a virtual environment.”
Children who have suffered prior abuse, and who come from poor backgrounds and broken homes are most at risk of falling prey to traffickers on the prowl online, experts say.
Last year, one in seven children reported missing in the United States was likely a victim of sex trafficking and most were in the welfare system when they disappeared, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
“Facebook is really a primary social media medium for traffickers to engage susceptible and vulnerable victims into the trade,” said Kevin Campbell, vice president of global operations at anti-trafficking group The Exodus Road.
Campbell’s colleague, Julie, spends hours a day trawling through websites advertising sex and massage services, using cyber forensic tools such as facial recognition software and data scraping, to gather information about trafficking gangs.
Sometimes the words ‘young’, ‘sweet’, ‘college’ and ‘new’ are red flags, other times it is the same telephone number or photograph being used in adverts in different U.S. cities.
“We try and trace people through certain areas – is this person being moved from one city to another?” said Julie, who declined to give her real name for security reasons.
“We look for those clues to help us piece it together. We really want to find the traffickers that are handling not just one victim but many victims.”
Numerous groups and telecommunication companies are working to educate parents and children on safe ways to use the internet and mobile phones, including the use of parental controls to monitor activity and block sites.
Internet companies can block access to domains containing child sexual abuse material using a list compiled by Interpol.
But seven out of 10 people in Argentina do not even know what grooming is, according to Grooming Argentina, even though the Latin American country passed an anti-grooming law in 2013 that carries four-year prison sentences for offenders.
And two-thirds of the world’s countries have no specific laws to combat online grooming of children for sex exploitation, while globally there are few convictions for the crime, said the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Children don’t recognize themselves as victims,” said Grooming Argentina’s Navarro, adding that parents have a key role to play in educating their children about the dangers.
Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica hosts workshops in schools in Latin America and Europe teaching children about the risks of encrypted instant messaging services like WhatsApp that allow users to remain anonymous.
The online gaming industry has also taken steps to help prevent grooming, including safe chat functions and in-game chat moderators who monitor online conversations.
Poptropica, a multi-player online game for children, only allows users to send scripted messages rather than chat freely.
Despite increased efforts to raise awareness among children, parents and teachers about using the internet safely, campaigners face an uphill battle to tackle online trafficking.
Websites that are closed, such as the sex ads marketplace website Backpage.com which was shut down in April by U.S. authorities, are likely to be replaced by others, experts say.
“We’re just waiting for the next one to pop up,” said Julie the cyber analyst.
“It’s only a matter of time. Traffickers have something to sell, they just have to find a place where they can sell it.”
Online Grooming of Children for Sexual Purposes:
Model Legislation & Global Review
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