While the internet is a great place to connect, many children have negative experiences too. According to Ofcom’s 2021 Online Nation report, over half of 12 to 15-year-olds had a negative online experience in 2020. Crucially, the most common negative experience included being contacted by a stranger online who “wants to be your friend”.
When so much of the internet can involve interactions with strangers, it’s important to talk about the risks. As we know, not everyone a child meets online has good intentions. But when a child has many positive interactions with an online ‘friend’, they may let their guard down and risk being groomed into trusting that the stranger is entirely truthful - this may not be reality.
The term ‘grooming’ describes a predator’s attempts to harm or exploit a child by gaining their trust online. This can take many forms - examples of online grooming can span from attempts to manipulate a child into revealing financial information, to deceptions aiming to sexually harm and exploit them.
It can start small - When thinking about the risks of online grooming, we tend to imagine the worst and most obvious examples of manipulation. But in reality, skilled online groomers could start gaining a child’s trust in subtle ways.
Groomers can use fabricated identities to approach a child, and this includes posing as a child themselves. While contact could be initiated on public platforms like game sites and social media, predators will likely attempt to ‘build a friendship’ in private online chats. Some groomers could create fake accounts with photos and appear to have similar interests as the child.
Spending time with them on sites they frequent, they will attempt to make the child believe they are also a child themselves - a child they have lots in common with. This ‘building a friendship’ is particularly dangerous if the groomer then attempts to be ‘more than friends’. This poses serious risks of sexual exploitation through nudes or even in-person harm, if a child agrees to meet.
Posing as a child to gain trust is not the only technique used by groomers. Some may attempt to gain trust by posing as an older ‘mentor’ who sees ‘something special’ in the child. They could impersonate a modelling or sporting scout, celebrity, or power figure offering the child opportunities and advice. This grooming technique has particular risks: children will likely feel validated and appreciated, offering their trust more willingly.
Predators often gain a child’s trust systemically, and over a long period of time. And in many cases, groomers may simulate a swapping of rewards - offering a child affection, validation, fame, in exchange for nudes or important personal information. This is why it’s so important to check in regularly with a child about their ‘online friends’. Maintaining open communication lets a child know it’s alright to approach an adult if they’re weary of a situation online.
Children, as they grow and learn, are often wonderfully optimistic. The internet can be an enriching place where this optimism can flourish. A way to keep the internet safe for children - without dismantling a child’s optimism about the internet - is to keep them candidly informed. By educating a child about the risks, a child may be more likely to be thoughtfully critical.
In an abstract space like the internet, children who are not informed about the risks may be tempted to believe a groomer’s lies at face value. By ensuring children have the skills, knowledge, and experience to recognize when someone may be attempting to deceive them, they begin participating in keeping themselves safe online. Natterhub offers many resources for parents to begin having these conversations, including online safety guides and conversation starters.
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