At any given moment, there are around 500,000 active online predators scouring the internet for their next victim. Online predators use a calculated 5-step grooming process to gain the trust of the victim over time. More than half of all instances are targeted at children between the age 12-15. An estimated 89 percent of sexual advances directed at children occur in Internet chatrooms or through instant messaging. Today, apps and websites like Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp are the main platforms where online predators groom and abuse America’s youth.
How to Identify Online Grooming
Online pedophiles follow a calculated grooming process to gain the trust of the victim. This process falls into 5-steps. Understanding this process is crucial to identifying and intervening in the early stages of online grooming.
1 ) Friendship
This step typically starts out with innocent conversation. The pedophile will express subtle complements about the juveniles looks or demeanor.
- This step is often difficult for parents and guardians to identify as malicious. At a quick glance, this conversation could be between a trusted friend or relative.
2 ) Forming a relationship
The predator begins to form a deeper relationship.
- Again, this step can be overlooked and passed as legitimate by a parent or guardian.
3) Risk Assessment
This step is used by predators to gauge if they want to move forward with communication or cut off all ties with the child.
- The predator will begin to question how close the child is with his or her parents, how easily guardians have access to the device they are using, and if they have their own room in the house.
- When knowing what to look for, this step can be identified much easier than the previous steps in the grooming process. It is unnatural for anyone, other than a pedophile, to be asking a child these types of questions.
This step is used to solidify the privacy and exclusivity of the relationship as the groomer continues to make the victim feel special.
- Constant reassurance that the conversations will not be discussed with anyone else is a common tactic in this stage.
- Like in-person grooming, this stage is used to protect the abuse for as long as possible.
5) Sexualizing the Relationship
At a stage of emotional dependence and trust, the offender progressively sexualizes the relationship. Once fully groomed, the pedophile will begin asking for and trading explicit sexual images and conversation. This often leads to a scheduled meet up and possible abduction.
- This stage is incredibly dangerous for the victim and can continue undetected for months, even years.
How to Prevent Online Grooming
For Adults and Guardians:
- Pay attention to the people in your child’s life and their relationships with your children.
- Ask questions about your child’s whereabouts, in person and online.
- Create a safe and open relationships where juveniles feel comfortable sharing sensitive information.
- Parents also need to be mindful that they themselves could be targeted by online predators through social media or other online interactions to get access to their child.
- Nothing in life is free – warn your child about accepting gifts from people they don’t know.
- Teach that adult strangers should never have extended communication with a child, online or in person.
- Children should never be told to keep secrets from their parents.
- Explain the dangers of encounters with strangers, especially in an online setting.
- Block or report users that display signs of online grooming. Early detection is key.
- Make your child feel comfortable to come to you for help or questions.
- Know what content your children might be accessing online via the history function on web browsers and download history logs.
- Install parental controls and/or monitoring software on all devices if necessary.
- If you come across content that is inappropriate or illegal report it to local and federal authorities.
- Take screenshots or screen recordings as evidence when reporting instances of grooming.