Online grooming is defined as any “actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, in order to lower the child’s inhibitions [during online grooming] in preparation for sexual activity with the child.” In other words, grooming is something that can at first seem quite innocent to a child and, by the time things take a darker turn, the child can often feel helpless and trapped due to their feelings of obligation towards the groomer.
Groomers are most often sexual predators or paedophiles who taken on an assumed identity in order to establish a friendship with a child, often by pretending to be children themselves. This is usually done through social networking sites and chatrooms – an environment in which a child often feels safe due their public nature.
As with most cases of abuse, misplaced feelings of guilt are often used to lure children into feelings of helplessness and obligation. Most often, a paedophile will initiate sexual contact with the child by showing them examples of pornography, in order to undermine the reluctance of the child to partake in sexual activities and also to prevent the child from seeking the help of parents or teachers, due to feelings of shame and guilt from what they have seen.
What can you do?
Online grooming is a very real threat and children must be made aware of the dangers they could be exposed to online. Encourage your child to speak to you about anything that makes them feel uncomfortable and be sure they are aware that fault lies with the perpetrator if they are sent or shown unsuitable content.
Discuss the issues surrounding social networking sites and chatrooms – although these places are in the public domain, not everyone is who they claim to be, just like in real life.
Ensure your child understands that sensitive data, such as addresses, school names and phone numbers, must be kept private online, and photos should be visible to family and real-life friends only.
If you notice any dramatic changes in your child’s behaviour, like hiding emails or texts, or if they are in receipt of gifts, ensure you talk to your child about the possibility of exploitation. In some cases, due to the emotional trust built up between a child and their groomer, the child may not be aware that any abuse is taking place.
Finally, there are many steps you as a parent can take to ensure your child is not vulnerable to online grooming. Aside from the parental controls your network provider can offer you, there are also a wide variety of parental control applications for computers and mobile phones to ensure your child’s online activity and contacts are easily monitored for your peace of mind.