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Web of Darkness: Groomed, Manipulated, Coerced, and Abused In Minutes

November 7, 2017

Above picture: Courtesy ICMEC

The anonymity that the Internet allows makes it easier for predators to search for, identify, exploit and sexually abuse young children and teenagers online or in person. The process of building a relationship of trust with potential victims using the Internet, only to sexually exploit and abuse them later, is called online grooming.

ICMEC, the U.S.-based International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, was formed in 1999 to lead and coordinate a global effort to eradicate child abduction, sexual abuse and exploitation. It has since partnered with governments, academia, law enforcement, and the NGO community to offer a range of practical measures to protect children. Here, ICMEC details what online grooming is, and what needs to be done to prevent it and protect our children from predators.

By Sandra Marchenko

Approximately one third of the world’s 3.8 billion Internet users is below the age of 18. This growing population of young people online, along with the rapid expansion of the Internet and advancement in technologies, creates a challenge. The Internet is a powerful tool providing countless positive benefits, but in the child protection arena, it also facilitates new and constantly changing risks of abuse for young people. Online grooming of children for sexual purposes is just one example of these risks. It is time that we work to understand and address the danger of online grooming and move forward legislation to create a safer online experience for all children.

What is online grooming?
In the context of sexual abuse and exploitation, grooming (or “sexual grooming”) is the act of befriending and influencing a child, and sometimes the child’s family as well, for the purpose of preparing the child for sexual activity. Online grooming is the same process, but it happens over the Internet. It refers to the use of digital technologies to establish or build a relationship with a child in order to facilitate either non-contact (online) or contact (offline) sexual interaction with that child.

You may never have heard the term “online grooming.” That is because the term is not yet settled, with laws around the world referring to the same behavior as sexual grooming, luring, solicitation, online enticement, or even describing it rather than using one set term.

How does online grooming happen?
It can happen through email, instant messaging apps, social networking sites, chatrooms, online gaming sites, photo sharing sites, and dating apps, which can be accessed through personal computers and laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. These technologies are not only popular amongst younger generations, but they also provide offenders with a platform to create a persona and, in some cases, to mask their true age and identity to more easily gain their trust before introducing a sexual element into the relationship.

Why are social networking sites used by predators?
Offenders can use social networking sites to access profile pictures, demographic information, interests, and communications with others target victims. Child Internet users are often very open with strangers; a cybercrime study conducted in the UK estimated that “850,000 cases of unwanted online sexual approaches were made in chat rooms during 2006 and that 238 offences of meeting a child following sexual grooming were recorded.” A 2010 US study reported that one in 11 US children aged 10 to 17 reported receiving an unwanted sexual solicitation online.

Over the last two decades, online gaming has similarly grown into a worldwide activity for adults and children alike. Sexual predators increasingly use online games as a means to easily gain access to and connect with children. The unique capabilities of video games often enable video and voice communications between a child and an offender. Children often spend time on the gaming platforms with little or no adult supervision, which increases an offender’s ability to build and progress a relationship and eventually introduce sexual conversations and images/videos, and even live-streaming sexual acts.

In this YouTube video, ICMEC explains online grooming, the scope of the issue, and the need for urgency in tacking it. 

How does an offender approach a child?
An offender may manipulate a child by convincing the child that they are friends by misrepresenting his or her age, offering gifts, befriending the child by sharing common interests, or empathizing with problems with family or friends. Offenders use the trust they have built to desensitize the child to sexual abuse — they may send sexually graphic, suggestive, or explicit images to the child to persuade the child to reciprocate this behavior. A Middlesex University study found that offenders often introduce sexual topics with children after just three minutes of chatting online, and can form a bond with a child after just eight minutes. You are probably wondering how that can even be possible. Here’s an example…

Justin Bloxom, a 12-year-old boy, was spending the night at his friend’s house. He received a text message at 11:00 pm that night from “Amber,” who appeared to be teenage girl. Justin responded and “Amber” sent a nude photograph. Justin replied, “You gotta remember, I’m only 12,” trying to change the topic of conversation. “Amber” continued to text Justin for four hours and by 3:00 am had manipulated Justin into believing they should meet in person. A taxi soon arrived at the friend’s house to pick up Justin. In reality, “Amber” was 34-year-old taxi driver Brian Horn. Justin was found on 30 March 2010 smothered to death and left alongside the highway. The events leading to Justin’s death happened so quickly; there was no ongoing relationship between the two; Justin did not lie or conceal the online interactions. “It was four hours,” Justin’s mother Amy said. “Four hours, from the first text that night. It was not an online relationship.”

What is the impact of online grooming?
While Justin’s case is extremely tragic, the effects on all victims of online grooming can be lasting. In online grooming cases, a child’s trust has been violated by the offender, and this betrayal of trust can harm a child’s ability to relate to others later in life. A child who has been groomed online may feel responsible for or deserving of the abuse, making it more difficult for the child to disclose the abuse. Following a grooming experience, the child may suffer numerous negative effects such as embarrassment, irritability, anxiety, stress, depression, and substance abuse. Even in the absence of physical sexual abuse, the child may be traumatized and suffer long-lasting emotional damage caused by non-contact sexual abuse. The abuse also may lead to a shift in the victim’s attitudes and social values regarding sexual behavior and promiscuous sexual activity.

How often does online grooming occur?
While comprehensive data are lacking, there are a rising number of reported cases of online grooming of children for sexual purposes. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in the UK found that online sexual offending has evolved in recent years to focus more on web-based actions, such as coercing children to take indecent photos or participate in sexual conversations or video chats. CEOP investigated 1,145 cases of online grooming in the UK in 2012. The Canadian cyber tipline, Cybertip.ca, received received approximately 1,000 reports of online luring cases from September 2007 to June 2011. Similarly, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the U.S. reported that from 1998 to 2013, the CyberTipline had received reports of more than 60,000 cases of online enticement of children for sexual acts.

Figures from the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 2015 show that more than 3,000 offenses in the UK were perpetrated against children following the use of Internet technology. This equates to about one child being sexually abused online every three hours.

This YouTube video by the nonprofit Enough is Enough, which has been working to confront online pornography, child pornography, child stalking and sexual predators since 1992, elaborates on what constitutes online grooming and why it occurs. 

What is “sextortion?”
In some cases, online grooming leads to another alarming trend: that of sexual extortion, or “sextortion,” which is when an offender persuades a child to send sexually explicit material of themselves to the offender, who then uses that material to blackmail the child into sending progressively more explicit material. In extreme cases, the victim is blackmailed into paying the offender to prevent the material from being sent to friends and family. A study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection found that 93% of online grooming cases included an offender requesting photos from the child, with 30% of children fulfilling the request. The same study found that 24% of online grooming victims were threatened by the offender, with the most common threat being distribution of the victim’s images.

While the grooming process can occur in-person, online grooming often progresses more rapidly, and the offender may use a variety of techniques to persuade, pressure, and manipulate the child to cooperate, all while taking advantage of the anonymity the Internet provides. Children may not even understand that they are being groomed for future sexual abuse until it is too late. Online groomers can persuade a child to meet in less than half an hour and, according to the findings of a UK-based research team, in some cases it can take as little as 18 minutes to convince a child to meet. It is important to remember that the grooming process is complex. As there is no single method of grooming children, there is also no single profile of online groomers.

Is online grooming illegal?
Unfortunately, many countries do not have laws against online grooming. The laws that do exist predominantly require that communication with the child be followed by a meeting or a clear plan to meet, such as traveling or making arrangements to travel to meet the child. But, the online grooming process often includes sexual conversation, showing adult pornography and/or child sexual abuse material to the victim, and pressuring or coercing the child to create and share sexual images of him or herself. It has been noted that if the law requires that, a meeting or steps towards a meeting, it may be too late to avert the threat to the child since the grooming has already happened. Furthermore, through information and communication technology, it is absolutely possible for non-contact sexual abuse to occur even without a face-to-face meeting.

In fact, recent reports show that an increasing number of grooming cases take place completely online; the offender has no intention of meeting the child offline. According to CEOP, for instance, of the 1,145 online grooming (online child sexual exploitation) cases investigated in the UK in 2012, the intention to meet a child offline was apparent in less than 7% of the cases, while the majority of cases were confined to the online environment. Therefore, it is crucial that online grooming legislation criminalize all types of child grooming, regardless of whether the offender intends for the relationship to progress to an offline setting.

What is ICMEC’s role?
To understand how countries are addressing this issue and to make recommendations for the development of new laws, ICMEC staff and interns worked tirelessly to conduct a review of existing international and national law. The Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (also known as the Lanzarote Convention) is the only international legal instrument that specifically addresses online grooming, calling it “solicitation of children for sexual purposes.” The Convention requires that the proposal to meet be followed by material acts leading to a meeting, one of the limitations noted earlier to effectively addressing online grooming. While this is an important first step, laws must also address grooming in situations when the offender does not intend to meet the child in-person because sexual abuse can begin before a meeting occurs or remain solely online.

ICMEC developed a set of five core criteria and assessed the national legislation of all 196 countries against those criteria. Specifically, our research looked to see whether national legislation:
1. Exists with regard to the online grooming of children for sexual purposes;
2. Defines/describes “grooming,” including online grooming, and utilizes computer- and Internet-specific terminology;
3. Criminalizes online grooming, with the intent to meet the child offline;
4. Criminalizes online grooming, regardless of the intent to meet the child offline; and
5. Criminalizes showing pornography to a child (as offenders may use this as a means of grooming).

The results of our Online Grooming: Model Legislation & Global Review show that only 63 countries out of 196 have some legislation regarding the online grooming of children for sexual purposes, of which 24 countries meet all 5 criteria. And only 34 countries criminalize grooming regardless of the intent to meet the child offline. More importantly, it became clear that much more needs to be done to raise awareness of this pressing issue, as 133 countries have no such legislation.

Last year, we conducted a similar study of legislation on child sexual abuse material (child pornography). It is interesting that of the 161 countries with laws against child sexual abuse material, only 61 countries also criminalize online grooming. This shows that even the countries that have addressed some forms of online child sexual abuse must remain engaged and make a continued effort to take ongoing legislative action to address new trends.

The Internet and new technologies are attractive to online offenders as a means to contact and exploit children because online predators are able to stay virtually anonymous and conceal their true identities, making it easier to approach children and more difficult for law enforcement agencies to identify them. The damage that can be done to a child through online grooming is significant, even without a physical meeting ever taking place. Governments and law enforcement agencies, parents and guardians, private corporations, and everyone in child-serving professions must work together to understand and address risk in order to make our children safer from exploitation, and to create a community of concerned adults working together to protect children. Passing and implementing legislation that enables the relevant parties to identify, locate, investigate, and prosecute online offenders effectively to prevent online grooming are crucial steps towards creating a safer online experience for all children.

About the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC)

ICMEC works around the world to advance child protection and safeguard children from abduction, sexual abuse and exploitation. Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, ICMEC also has regional representation in Brazil and Singapore. Together with an extensive network of public and private sector partners, ICMEC’s team responds to global issues with tailored local solutions.

The author is the Director of The Koons Family Institute on International Law & Policy at ICMEC. The Koons Family Institute on International Law & Policy (The Koons Family Institute) is ICMEC’s in-house research arm. The Koons Family Institute combats child abduction, sexual abuse and exploitation on multiple fronts by conducting and commissioning original research into the status of child protection laws around the world, creating replicable legal tools, promoting best practices, building international coalitions, bringing together great thinkers and opinion leaders, and collaborating with partners in the field to identify and measure threats to children and ways ICMEC can advocate change.