No parent wants to think about their child being vulnerable to predators of any kind, but ignoring the fact is much more dangerous than being aware and proactive. This is especially the case when it comes to protecting our kids online and with one third of the world’s internet users being under 18, parents have to play a part in protecting their kids and helping them understand the risks of our increasingly digital world.
As many as one in five US teens who regularly use the internet admits to having received unwanted sexual solicitation via the web and younger children can also become targets. It is important parents act accordingly and help children understand the risks of internet usage and learn to use it responsibly from a young age.
Understanding Online Grooming
While parents of under 18s in 2024 are much more au fait with the web than older generations, none of us is immune as technologies develop so quickly. Grooming or sexual grooming is the act of befriending and/or influencing a child with the aim of preparing them for sexual activity. Online grooming simply uses the internet as a key tool for this process and it can result in non-contact and contact sexual interaction between the instigator and the child. The worry this brings to any parent’s mind cannot be underestimated but being afraid and not preparing our kids is much more dangerous than hoping it simply won’t happen to them.
A Note about the Law and Online Grooming
The relative new nature of the idea of online grooming means laws in this area are not necessarily as clear as they should be. Few taskforces target the crime on a global scale and the main body for dealing with grooming, as opposed to sexual acts which follow, is the Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. At the time of writing only two states across the country, Illinois and Arkansas, have specific statues in place to address the problem of online grooming and experts in the field, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children assert grooming should be considered an “offense-specific process” rather than preparation for the true crime. While this can sound quite complex and make a worrying issue even more worrying, it is important as if your child were to be groomed, you’d want justice, even if it hadn’t got as far as a physical act.
There is also the Violent Crimes Against Children International Task Force in place which brings together 68 online child sexual exploitation investigators from 46 countries around the world. This is a highly specialized unit who can and do help in many circumstances and they have annual case coordination meetings for task force members to pool resources and support each other in their shared battle. Understand the dangers of online grooming and what it actually is, really does matter for parents so they can spot signs and act appropriately in the worst-case scenario.
How does Online Grooming Begin?
Most grooming will begin on a popular app or social network which children are already using comfortably. It may even happen through games, including many high profile cases involving the games Roblox and Minecraft. This doesn’t mean children should be banned from using technology, but transparency is important and helping your child understand the basics of how to protect themselves is too.
Online grooming often begins with someone discussing the game or getting to know a child on their level, talking about school, sports and other common areas of interest. Many predators choose to mask their age so they can easily get close to children online and become their “friends”. Gaining trust before introducing any sexual or dangerous element is a common pattern and one which children may not easily identify.
Social networking sites are particularly popular with perpetrators as they can access a wealth of information about children with relative ease. Children are often shockingly open with strangers online, especially if they’re enjoying games together or believe they’re talking to another child and unfortunately, predators are more than aware of this and are able to manipulate the situation to their advantage.
Recognizing Signs of Online Grooming
Many kids are regularly rebuffing grooming attempts and we don’t even know about it. As mentioned, many teens have turned down sexual advances online and not even thought to talk to their parents about it, which has made it seem a normal occurrence which can make it even more of a danger. Some of the clearest signs of online grooming may seem like typical teen or preteen behavior but it’s important to remember – you know your kid, so if there is a change in their behavior – take it seriously. Below are some of the most commonly recognized signs of online grooming to watch out for:
- Asking to spend more time on the internet or actively doing so
- Switching off screens or changing tabs when you check to see what they’re doing
- Being secretive around their online activity
- Discussing new friends you aren’t aware of or haven’t heard of before
- New electronics being “given” to them and no explanation of why or how
- Use of sexual or explicit language you wouldn’t expect them to know or don’t consider age appropriate
- Mood swings and volatile emotional reactions
All of these may not be signals you recognize and some genuinely might be typical or hormonal reactions you expect from your child. However, if anything seems unusual it is worth delving deeper and keeping closer checks on their behavior and activities online.
Grooming and inappropriate sexual online behavior isn’t something we ever want to think about but it is something we can be aware of and help our children understand is wrong before it becomes a problem for them. Below we’re looking closer at what you can put in place to prevent grooming and to protect your children as they become confident internet users.
Grooming Prevention Strategies
It’s a sickening reality that no child is too young to be groomed and so no child is too young to be taught how to understand what is right and wrong when it comes to others and their body. These simple strategies can be implemented as early as you feel is appropriate with your own kids:
- Body Safety
Children can be taught body safety as early as three years old. Children should know the correct words for body parts, what appropriate touch is and the importance of consent. If they say no, it means no and any child can be made aware of this as soon as they begin to use the word appropriately themselves.
- Grooming Behaviors
While its scary, it is important to teach children about grooming behaviors such as isolating them from their friends, using sexual and inappropriate language and encouraging them to keep secrets from their parents and people they trust.
- Reporting Gifts and Alone Time
Any unsolicited gifts a child gets, you should be told about. This can be hard for children to understand as presents are great and if they’re told “Mommy won’t like that I’ve given you this” they may be scared to tell. The same goes for snacks, treats or even one-to-one time they spend with adults who aren’t you, as this is something you should be aware of, even in the most innocent of situations.
- Remove Blame Culture
Kids are scared of getting in trouble with their parents, but when it comes to this issue, you need to ensure they feel 100% comfortable with you and how important it is to tell you anything that is worrying them. Don’t minimize their feelings or their fears and let them know they will never get in trouble for telling you about any worries about people they’ve spoken to online.
- Be Open and Honest
No one wants to terrify their kids or give them the idea that they’re not safe, but it’s a hard fact and by telling them, you’re protecting them. Never be afraid to talk to your kids about difficult issues and help them protect themselves.
Get Web Savvy to Protect from Predators
As we’ve said, the parents of today’s under eighteens are fairly internet savvy themselves, but there are new apps and technologies launched every week and online predators make it their business to know them as well as any kid. As well as ensuring your kids have strategies in place to protect themselves from grooming, put the following in place to ensure you are doing enough with the web to protect your kids as much as you can too:
- Understand Privacy Settings
Spend time with your children exploring the privacy settings on their favorite apps and chosen browsers. Ensure they understand the absolute minimum levels of privacy you expect and to always assume anything new has public as its default setting, so take time to set it to private. Many of the most popular social media apps want things to be public, so drill it into them to check every app or even do it yourself, a condition of them being able to download it at all.
- Review and discuss apps, games and website choices
While your children are going to want some privacy, the internet really isn’t the place to find it. A condition of having their own cellphone, tablet or computer should be you are allowed to have full access to check in their app and website use and ensure it is safe and secure. Setup your own accounts on their favorite apps so you can keep an eye on their usage but also ensure you have a good understanding of the apps functions. Younger kids may be begging for Snapchat or Instagram but you should also respect the age limits on these sites and consider one of the many child-centered social networks instead like Gobubble or Popjam.
- Know Their Friends
If you have a good understanding of who your children’s friends are, you’ll notice if a new name pops into the mix. You can also make sure they understand how powerful the internet can be for making you feel like someone really is your friend, but in reality, you don’t know them as well as you think. It’s very easy for anyone to become quickly connected to someone who seems to share all their interests online but consider why someone would mirror your exact likes and dislikes and what this could mean. Being suspicious of online friends may seem extreme but it helps set a useful precedent and ensures your children understand the importance of their own online safety.
- Keep Personal Information Private
Usernames should never include your child’s real name and if they want to talk about themselves online, they should avoid real places, times and dates. Obscuring every detail about themselves may seem false, but it ensures no one lurking online with ulterior motives captures anything of their real identity. Opt for fun cartoon images and favorite characters for profile pictures over family photos or anything which identifies your child.
- Encourage Open Communication
As our kids enter their teens they often feel less comfortable speaking to us about personal matters. If something makes your child uncomfortable or scared online then ensure they know there are people they can talk to, and it doesn’t have to be you, as there are many charities and resources ready to help and provide that listening ear.
Online safety is a topic which many people switch off from, especially teens who think they know best. However, if you are sure to instil a healthy and cautious approach to online friendships and behaviors from their earliest internet usage, you should have additional peace of mind about the choices they might make. Transparent and open communication in the home is essential for protecting your kids as they grow up using the net on a daily basis.