Real online child grooming warning signs all parents need to know.
Many parents fear that their child is being groomed online, but they have no idea how to tell. In the online world, we now live in, parents are having a hard time keeping up with technology, digital culture, and their kids' mental and emotional development in these areas. This article will explain what grooming is, the real threats of predators, signs of online grooming, and what parents can do to prevent it.
What is Grooming?
Let’s start with the definition for grooming. Grooming is the process where a person (older child or adult) befriends a child to establish a relationship that seems normal at first but then moves to become sexually exploitative.
How Do Predators Groom Their Victims?
While each abuser works in their way there is a general pattern made up of six stages, they use to reach their ultimate goal of exploiting a child. I’ve written an in-depth article about these six stages.
As an overview, the first stage is victim selection, then gaining trust, fulfilling needs, isolation, sexual contact, and then maintaining control of the child physically or emotionally.
Hidden Signs An Online Predator May Be Grooming Your Child Video
What is Online Grooming?
Online grooming is a term widely applied to an array of techniques predators use through the internet to sexually exploit children. This can be done through email, instant messaging, texting, gaming, and any other means of communication via an internet connection. The abuse can happen digitally through videos and images or in real life for physical exploitation. And online grooming can take place in as little as 10 minutes.
Where Can Online Grooming Happen?
In a sobering interview on The Secure Dad Podcast with Chris Hadnagy of the Innocent Lives Foundation, he explained that grooming can happen anywhere online. He made the point that anywhere kids are online, the predators are already there.
When we think about a predator-prey relationship this holds true. If a cheetah wants to track, kill, and eat an impala it must find them. The cheetah will roam miles and miles looking for their target and once they find them, the hunt is on. It’s the same for online predators. They have to go where the kids are to start their hunt.
One of the biggest online gathering spots for children is online gaming. None are bigger than Roblox. Unfortunately, it seems that every other week America learns of another abuser luring a young child away from their home via Roblox so they can be abducted and abused.
The abuser does not have to be local either. In April of 2023, a Michigan man drove to Ohio and picked up his 14-year-old victim from school. He was later caught after abusing her.
In March of 2022, a man drove from Kansas to Georgia to meet his victim. He then drove her back to Kansas where he abused her for days before she was able to get help.
Many parents would, understandably, have a knee-jerk reaction to vow that their kids will never play Roblox. And there is even a lawsuit alleging that Roblox failed to protect kids from explicit content on the game.
Before you pull the plug on the platform, understand that this can happen on any gaming platform as long as open communication is allowed. Later in this article, I’ll share how to minimize that threat.
Social Media Grooming
As you might expect online grooming can take place on social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and whatever the next big app will be. Predators can browse children’s profiles disguised as a younger person (or not) and then use private messaging to establish a relationship.
A predator can get through stages one and two without making any public posts or raising any red flags from parents. And most frightening of all, it can all happen in a bedroom while parents are in the kitchen making dinner.
Online Grooming and Sextortion
Online grooming can lead to digital blackmail, called sextortion. Sexual extortion, called “sextortion” occurs when an abuser blackmails a victim by threatening to send the victim's self-made lude photos or videos to others if their demands are not met. Most frequently the demands are more explicit images or money.
Feeling desperately trapped, many children continue with the extortion afraid of punishment, parental anger, or the loss of their phones or computers. In extreme cases, young people have committed suicide because of sextortion.
Signs An Online Predator Could be Grooming Your Kid
Regardless of the methods, evidence of grooming behavior affecting your child can be seen if you know what to look for.
In many cases, children realize that the grooming relationship should be kept from friends, parents, and other authority figures even though they don’t fully see the danger. An increase in secretive behavior regarding a device, game, or social media app could be a sign of inappropriate or grooming behaviors.
A common tactic to gain appreciation and trust with children is for predators to send gifts. While seeming innocent at first, adults should never be allowed to send gifts to kids without the permission of parents. It’s also not unusual for abusers to gift kids with something their parents have said no to like a smartphone, drugs, or alcohol. Most parents would notice physical items showing up at their homes, so predators use digital gifts like gaming upgrades and online subscriptions to avoid detection.
Fixated With Being Online
Similar to secretive behavior, a child will become more obsessed with being available to the predator because of the perceived positive relationship or the potential threats of blackmail. This will not look like an obsession with a new, fun, game. The behavior will be stressed and emotional. Some kids may resort to hitting or running away to maintain control of their devices.
As explained before, one of the stages of grooming is for the abuser to begin to emotionally separate their victim from their friends and family. This makes it easier for them to control the child. If the only voice speaking to the child is the predator, they can easily get what they want and maintain that level of abuse.
How to Prevent Online Grooming
When parents know what to look for the grooming signs are easier to detect. What may be harder is knowing where to begin. To prevent online grooming parents can take some simple steps to protect their children.
The first step in protecting our kids from online grooming is to manage where and when they are on the internet. No child should feel entitled to go to whatever site they want, whenever they want. Being online should be seen as a privilege that requires permission. While much of the world is online, your kids don’t have to be. Let me say that again, your kids do NOT have to be online. They can survive and thrive without it.
Next, set the rules that kids are not to have devices (smartphones, laptops, and smart TVs) in their rooms or bathrooms. Exploitation thrives in secrecy as we’ve already established. If your children are using the internet it needs to happen in the open with a parent present. If they want to play a game or watch YouTube, then have them do it on the main TV in the living room where you can see what they are viewing.
To prevent exploitation in gaming, don’t let your kids have access to a headset or chat. Most games are fine for kids to play, it’s the human user element that is the danger. My son plays Roblox and Fortnight and has a great time without communicating with other players. Plus, other players can be verbally abusive in the heat of the moment which is not good for kids’ self-esteem or mental development. And it never hurts to pick up a controller and be Player 2 and enjoy the game with your child.
The basic reasons children are targets of online predators is because their parents are not directly involved, and they feel like they can’t come to you for help. As a parent, you need to establish a good, loving relationship so that when something bad happens online, they can talk to you about it.
Alisa Gbiorczyck of Cyber Nitewatch hunts down human traffickers and predators across the globe. In an outstanding interview on The Secure Dad Podcast, Alisa said, “At the end of the day, your child coming to you openly and not feeling shamed or judged is going to save your child’s life.”
You can protect your kids from online predators. You don’t have to be an IT professional, you just need to be an involved, loving parent.