The pandemic has seen a 106% spike in online child sexual exploitation complaints, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). Experts attribute this to more people working from home and being constantly connected online. Experts believe this time gives people more time to report images/videos that promote child sexual exploitation. The lockdowns have also caused children to spend more time online, meaning they are more likely to be exposed to people who are looking for victims. And it’s worth noting that online sexual exploitation or abuse can start from online grooming.
Identifying Signs of Child Sexual Grooming Online
I know this is a topic that’s not easy to discuss. And let’s face it, it’s a subject most of us want to keep in the far recess of our mind. The thought of our children or our grandchildren being exploited online is an image no one wants to imagine. Honestly, I don’t care if the child is my flesh and blood at all. The thought of child sexual grooming online at all is upsetting at a level that keeps me awake at night. But, I like to conquer fear with knowledge and action. And, that’s what our article today is about. So, let’s dive in and learn how to take back our kids and our homes from these online predators shall we. Let’s give them a little online kick in the b@lls…
What is online grooming?
Online grooming happens when a person befriends a child and gains their trust to take advantage of them for sexual purposes later on. There are no set steps when it comes to grooming, though there are similarities among cases.
For one, the relationship-forming part is the most dominant. Here, the child believes the person they are talking to is someone whom they can trust. The predator often pretends they share the same interests as the child and acts empathetic about personal problems. They will also ask for the child’s personal information. And they will ask questions to learn about the dynamics at home so they can determine how much influence the parents have over the child’s internet or computer usage.
After establishing a relationship, the predator gauges whether the child will cooperate with the grooming by gradually introducing sexual content into the conversation. They may talk in great depth about sexual activities or show porn videos to desensitize the minor to the language and content. They may even send photos of other children naked to make it appear normal. Once the child has sent a photograph or video to the predator, they will try to maintain control by complimenting them. The predator may even threaten them with abandonment or that they are going to disclose something to their parents to keep the activities a secret.
Predators are crafty and know which places to look for children to victimize. Celestine Tan shares the story of how quickly a predator found her through the game Minecraft. At just 13 years old, Celestine’s predator worked quickly to move their conversation from Minecraft to Discord. By the second week, Celestine had shared personal information. She was constantly on her phone. Luckily her mother, Vivian Kwek, insisted on looking through her phone and noticed the messages. If not, this story could have had a much different ending.
What are the signs of online grooming?
Any parent like Vivian Kwek would want to immediately stop this and ensure her child is not targeted by predators online. Here are some tell-tale signs you can watch out for to save your child from online grooming:
Child grooming is founded on a child trusting a predator and keeping the relationship a secret. It’s not always easy to spot a relationship when our kids want to hide it. Especially when it invoices hiding who they’re talking to online or what they do on the internet. But, we can look for some tell-tale signs. Does your child switch screens on the phone/computer when you come near them? Do they suddenly stop telling you about their day or asking you for advice? Do they spend a great deal of time on their screen but never have an answer when you ask them about their screen time? If any of these questions bring doubt and worry to your mind, dig in and make sure your child is safe online.
- Spending more time on the internet alone
A child groomer will try to isolate the child, physically and emotionally, from the family so they can take advantage of them. Your child may already be telling the predator about personal problems and information. And, the abuser is using these as leverage to isolate your child. If your child has a heavy schoolwork load or online classes, you can expect serious computer time. But, a significant increase in time spent online might signify that the predator is already exploiting the child.
- Back and forth messages from unknown persons
If your child is playing an online game with in-chat features such as Minecraft and Roblox, it may be inevitable that they end up talking to someone. Most are harmless players similar to your child. But some may be groomers. The latter will attempt to keep in touch with their victim even outside of games. Seeing who your child is actually messaging may be difficult. Suppose your child refuses to tell you anything about their online friends and what they do online. It can be a sign they’re talking to someone they shouldn’t be, or someone could be manipulating them online.
What can I do to protect my child from online grooming?
Whether your child has been groomed online or you’d like to prevent it from happening, here are some things to do:
- Go to the proper authorities or law enforcement agencies
The messages between a predator and your child can act as a record of their interactions. So report these messages as quickly as possible. There are organizations such as the NCMEC that you can turn to for support.
You can also report it to the FBI as Crimes Against Children so their investigators can get to work. Crimes Against Children comprise several criminal justice graduates who have a vast knowledge of criminology, social sciences, and law enforcement. An interdisciplinary approach in the course allows them to apply theories to real-life scenarios. This will enable them to serve in various institutions, such as police departments, law enforcement, and protection services, and government agencies that protect children, including your own. You can also download and Child ID app. No one wants to think of anything happening to their child. But, it’s helpful to have your child’s identification information on hand should you need it.
2. Educate your children about online dangers
Talking to your kids about predators online is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent your children from falling victim. According to Consumer Notice’s article on internet safety for kids, 30% of children use the web for activities their parents don’t know and would not allow. These include visiting porn sites, which 17% of kids have done, and websites where they can chat with strangers, which 21% of kids have also done. You’ll need to explain internet dangers and set rules that will keep them safe. Basic internet safety rules include never giving out personal information, not responding to strangers, and never sending private photos to strangers online.
This doesn’t mean you should hover over your child’s gadgets or social media accounts. Invest in your child! Show them you care by showing an interest in their online life. Keep an open dialog with your child, so your child knows they can talk to you whenever they feel uncomfortable about something they’ve encountered online. Encourage them to be open with you by talking with them about your own social media experiences.
Grooming is only the start of sexually exploiting and abusing children online. By educating your children about internet dangers and keeping an eye on their behavior, you can prevent them from becoming victims.
Reese Anne Jones is a lifestyle and learning blogger as well as a digital literacy advocate. She is also a mom of two bundles of joy and three rescue pups. When she’s not writing, she likes to spend time baking and going on walks with her children.