It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: a predator befriends your child online while you sit in the next room, completely unaware. We all want to give our children freedom to be themselves, online and offline, while knowing that they are safe. But how do you protect your kids and teens against online child grooming without becoming a constantly hovering helicopter parent? And what can you do if you suspect a predator is already grooming your child? Read on to find out what online child grooming is, what you can do to prevent it and how Cybertrace can help you.
What is online child grooming?
The eSafety Commissioner defines online child grooming – or online child sexual exploitation – as “someone building a relationship with a child in order to sexually abuse them”. While the abuse itself can occur in real life, it more often takes place online. Online predators often trick or pressure young people into sending sexual images or engage in sexual activity on webcams. These perpetrators are usually adult men but may also be older children looking to abuse younger children or their peers. Needless to say, the victims of online child grooming suffer great and ongoing physical, mental and/or emotional harm.
How prevalent is it?
Unfortunately, online child grooming is more common than parents and carers might expect. In 2020, the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) received more than 21,000 reports of online child sexual exploitation. According to an ABC News article, reports submitted to the ACCCE during last year’s lockdown increased by 122 per cent. The article warns that child sexual exploitation is so widespread that, “statistically, every Australian would know an abuser”.
This prevalence contrasts with Australians’ seeming lack of concern about the issue. When the ACCCE surveyed parents and carers in 2019, only 21 per cent thought that there was a likelihood that online child sexual exploitation could happen to their child. On the other hand, a similar number found the topic to be too “sickening” and “repulsive” to even think about. While understandable, this stigma unfortunately contributes to a lack of understanding and, therefore, preparedness around the issue.
How do online predators contact children?
Online predators use digital platforms, including social networking sites, to groom and manipulate children. Disturbingly, they deliberately target children who are emotionally vulnerable or whose home life has recently undergone a big change. Perpetrators do this by identifying potential victims via publicly available information, which they often glean from social media.
Next, they assume a false identity, either by creating a fake profile or by hacking into someone else’s account. Masking the adult perpetrator, they appear to children as a trusted friend or just another young person on the site. Perpetrators most commonly contact their victims on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and WhatsApp. Not only are these sites that children habitually use to socialize and communicate, but predators can easily cover their tracks. Snap chat messages, photos and videos disappear after they’re sent, while Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp messages can be permanently deleted.
So how does online child grooming actually work?
Being skillful manipulators, perpetrators use the information gleaned from social media to initiate contact and build familiarity, rapport and friendship. One of their key goals is to isolate children by driving a wedge of secrecy between them and their parents. Often, this happens by showering the child with gifts or compliments and telling them exactly what they want to hear. Predators also exploit children’s normal teenage conflicts with their parents. Pretending to be their friend, they sympathise and paint the parents in a bad light, thereby furthering the child’s isolation.
Once the perpetrator has gained the child’s trust, they slowly start to introduce sexual content into the conversation. Eventually, after having normalized such language in messages and chats, they ask for sexually explicit images or videos. Using flattery, persuasion, pressure or blackmail, the predator continues to demand sexually explicit material again and again. When the child realizes what is happening and wants to stop, predators use isolation, fear and shame to maintain control. This often includes the threat of revenge porn: releasing the sexual images or videos already provided to others without consent. For a more in-depth discussion on revenge porn in particular see this excellent article.
What can I do to prevent it?
So, what can parents and carers do to safeguard their kids from online child grooming? The most important thing is to support their children in learning to recognise danger and take steps to protect themselves. Talking openly and honestly with your children about their online activity and being a role model for healthy internet use are both vital. This means being “share aware” to protect your privacy and keeping control of your family’s digital footprints. Furthermore, it includes not disclosing personal information publicly, only using a screen name and never sharing passwords with others (except for parents). Finally, it means providing a safe and understanding atmosphere that encourages children to tell you if any of their online communication felt scary, weird or hurtful. These resources by Kids Health, Raising Children, Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service, Consumer Notice and PrivacyHub provide great further reading.
How do I know if someone is already grooming my child?
While each case is unique, here are some common signs your child may have been targeted online:
- Spending significantly more time than usual in their room using technology.
- Secretive or evasive responses when asked what they are doing.
- Suspicious behavior when you enter a room, for example switching off their phones or computers.
- Mood swings/volatile behavior.
- May have new items, usually of high value.
- Exhibiting sexual behavior and using age-inappropriate sexual language.
What if I suspect someone has been grooming my child?
The first step is to talk to your child to offer support and understanding. Due to the online predator’s manipulation, your child will likely feel regret, shame or fear. It is vitally important that you reassure them that it is not their fault, that they are not in trouble and that you are on their side.
Next, don’t let the perpetrator know that you are onto them. Instead, collect all evidence of online child grooming, such as any messages, emails or screenshots of conversations. Be very careful when it comes to any sexually explicit images or videos involving minors, though. Even if you collect them solely for evidence, it may still be a crime to have them in your possession! Check the relevant laws in your state to make sure you don’t put yourself in legal jeopardy.
Of course, you can report the abuse to the police, either via your local police station or the ACCCE’s online reporting platform. However, please note that, unless you already know the identity of the perpetrator, the police may not be able to help you with an individual case. This is due to the huge volume of reports they receive and their primary focus on disrupting child abuse networks. Finding an individual child abuse perpetrator is painstaking and resource-intensive work.
How can Cybertrace help?
As with cyber fraud investigations, police rarely have the time and resources to solve individual online child grooming cases. What is needed to uncover a perpetrator’s fake online identity are experienced cyber analysts and sophisticated tracking technology. Fortunately, this is Cybertrace’s precise area of expertise!
In a recent case, we helped an Australian family whose teenage daughter had been tricked into sending sexually explicit videos. While she thought these were going to a teenage acquaintance, the perpetrator was actually an adult man in another country. Demanding more and more videos, he threatened to publicly release them if she did not comply. Using our investigative expertise and custom-designed tracking technology, Cybertrace was able to identify the perpetrator’s IP address. The family could therefore provide these vital details to local law enforcement who were then able to act.
With police forces struggling to keep up with a deluge of reports of online child sexual exploitation, reputable private investigators like Cybertrace are vital in helping victims and their families get justice. We can do the hard legwork of unmasking perpetrators, so that you can present the police with a strong case. In our experience, law enforcement is much more likely to take up and prioritise cases that have a solid evidence base. Don’t suffer in silence – contact our team today for a confidential discussion of your case!