International Missing Children’s Day 2022: Spotlight On Online Grooming

May 26, 2022

By a Biometrica staffer

Wednesday, May 25, was International Missing Children’s Day. It’s a day that’s dedicated to encouraging parents, guardians, caregivers, and others concerned with the well-being of children to make child safety a priority. The commemoration of this day, per the U.S. government, serves as a reminder to continue efforts to reunite missing children with their families and an occasion to honor those dedicated to this cause.

The first National Missing Children’s Day, also observed on May 25, was proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. It was dedicated to the memory of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy who disappeared from a New York City street corner on May 25, 1979. As part of Biometrica’s efforts to observe International Missing Children’s Day, we’re putting the spotlight on a related, but equally crucial, child safety and protection issue in this piece: online grooming. This form of child sexual exploitation can turn even uglier offline and lead to kidnapping/abductions, rape, and even murder of the young victim in question.

Why should you learn about, and be aware of, online grooming tactics if you are a parent or a guardian of a child? To begin with, it’s a given that children the world over have been spending more time online. Through the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, in particular, many children around the world had to turn to online methods of learning. While stay-at-home measures to curb the spread of the pandemic have long since eased in several parts of the globe, it hasn’t fundamentally altered the fact that more kids are using the internet than ever before.

According to the UNICEF, “around the world, a child goes online for the first time every half second.” Granted, the advantages of using the internet for kids are similar to those for adults: virtually limitless opportunities. Unfortunately, those also come with various risks that, perhaps, adults are better equipped to identify than kids.

“Cyberbullying and other forms of peer-to-peer violence can affect young people each time they log in to social media or instant messaging platforms. When browsing the internet, children may be exposed to hate speech and violent content – including messages that incite self-harm and even suicide,” a UNICEF blog post says. Over a third of young people in 30 countries report being cyberbullied, with one in five skipping school because of it, it adds.

Much like with other kinds of crime, the internet has also made it easier than ever before for child sex offenders to contact their potential victims, share imagery and encourage others to commit offences, the UNICEF says. “Children may be victimized through the production, distribution and consumption of sexual abuse material, or they may be groomed for sexual exploitation, with abusers attempting to meet them in person or exhort them for explicit content.”

Take the tragic example of 15-year-old Kayleigh Haywood from the UK. One day, Haywood was contacted by 28-year old Luke Harlow on Facebook, as described in a report by the International Centre For Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC). Harlow reached out to her and asked her how she was on Facebook, to which she responded: “Fine — who are you?” Within 10 minutes, they swapped mobile phone numbers, and there began an exchange in communication that would result in over 2,600 messages.

Two weeks later, Haywood met with her groomer at his apartment, where she was given substantial amounts of alcohol, and was subsequently raped and killed. “With the support of Kayleigh’s family, the Leicestershire Police Department made a movie showing the last two weeks of her life, raising awareness of the dangers of online grooming. After showing the movie to a great number of schoolchildren, more than 20 children came forward to report possible cases of grooming,” the ICMEC report says.

What Is Online Grooming?

Around 80% of children in 25 countries report feeling in danger of sexual abuse or exploitation online, the blog says. Online grooming is closely linked to sexual abuse or exploitation of children via the internet. “Grooming” here can be defined as: 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,” per the ICMEC report.

It involves the use of the Internet or other digital tools to establish or build a relationship with a child under the age of 18 in order to facilitate either non-contact (online) or contact (offline) sexual interaction with that child. Going by that definition, the act could take place online, offline, or through a combination of the two. The groomers’ goal is to lower children’s inhibitions by creating an emotional connection with them. They establish that connection using “psychological manipulation that is usually very subtle, drawn out, calculated, controlling, and premeditated,” the ICMEC report says.

Modus Operandi Of Groomers

Per the ICMEC report, through the grooming process, an offender looks to gain the child’s compliance to maintain secrecy, and to avoid detection and punishment. Sometimes, they focus on one or a few children at a time and slowly establish a relationship. In other cases, offenders may use a “scattergun” approach and contact hundreds of children at once to identify those most receptive to grooming.

Public forums like chatrooms, social networks, or online gaming sites are often used by groomers as a means to identify victims. From there, once contact has been established, they typically move the grooming process to a more private setting like private chatrooms, email, text and instant messages, and other apps on mobile phones.

The manipulation tactics used by groomers can include:

  • misrepresenting their own age
  • offering gifts to the child
  • befriending the child by claiming to share common interests, or by empathizing with them over problems the child may share with friends or family

Grooming Stages

By the end of the manipulation process, the goal is to convince the child that the offender is their friend. Once that happens, i.e. the offender has gained the child’s trust, they break down the child’s defenses, and “manipulate the child into performing or permitting the desired sexual exploitation,” per ICMEC. If it’s an only-online relationship until that point, the offender will shift it into one that’s sexual in nature. It’s at this point that, in some cases, the offender may suggest an offline meeting to continue the sexual exploitation of the child victim in person.

According to the ICMEC report, several studies suggest that there are certain typical stages in the grooming process. These generally include:

  • Friendship and relationship forming stage
  • Risk assessment
  • Exclusivity or isolation
  • Sexual stage

What makes it that much tougher to identify is that during the early stages, grooming behaviors may “appear to be innocent in nature and typical of adult child interactions when viewed independently,” per ICMEC. But, when such behaviors are taken into consideration along with other elements like coercion, manipulation, and the introduction of sexual themes or even content into the communication, the offender’s intention to commit serious harm to the child becomes evident.

Predators who are looking to groom children for exploitation tend to use fake accounts, names, and photos to befriend the child on various digital platforms. They could: “appear as another child, modeling agent, a scout, sports coach, or famous influencer that pretend to have the same interests to build trust and establish a friendship. Online predators are indifferent to race, ethnicity, or gender- any child is in danger. Some children may be more susceptible due to other vulnerabilities such as special educational needs disability. They have difficulty in learning and communication skills,” per the Victim Service Center of Central Florida.

Sending Explicit Content

Once offenders have gained the trust of the child and have moved the grooming process into the sexual stage, they typically desensitize their victim to sexual abuse. One of the ways of doing this is by sending “sexually graphic, suggestive, or explicit images to the child — including adult pornography and child sexual abuse material (CSAM) — to persuade the child to reciprocate this behavior,” ICMEC says. At this point, the offender could begin to start persuading the child to send sexually explicit images of themselves.

They may initially request for photos of the child in ordinary settings and then progressively begin to demand and pressure the child into sending more sexually explicit images or videos, or even to perform sexual acts over video calls/webcams. One Middlesex University study, cited in the ICMEC report, 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.

Child predators achieve this manipulation of their victims into sending CSAM by using various tactics, including: flattery, blackmail, threats, sexualized games, deception and bribery. What’s important to remember is that sexual abuse of a child victim happens the minute the offender sends them sexual content. The abuse can, therefore, take place without the offender even having to meet the child offline.

This was a brief introduction to how predators can target children online and sexually abuse or exploit them. But, online grooming is an extensive topic, and one that Biometrica will continue to examine through more posts in the future.

Here are a few related pieces from our archives on all things child safety and protection: