Natterhub's recent data report uncovered some thought-provoking statistics about the online lives of children aged 5-11. Not only does it imply that they are using the Internet younger than ever before, but that they are creating online profiles and accessing chat at a younger age too. With cases of online child sexual abuse on the rise, these statistics are worrying - but the signs of online grooming can be hard to spot. This blog explores some of the key changes in behaviour to look out for and what to do to support your child online.
Our research shows that young children often misinterpret online behaviour, and are prone to make errors of judgement that could be costly - which online abusers use to their advantage. For example, we found:
By engaging more with our children's lives online, and by having conversations about online safety from an early age, we can help reduce these risks and equip them with the tools they need to be safe and kind digital citizens.
It can be really difficult to come to terms with the fact that your child may be at risk of being groomed, and the issue can often bring heightened amounts of anxiety to parents. Although we must remember that changes in behaviour can occur for a myriad of reasons and are not always related to online sexual abuse, there are some common tell-tale signs that your child is struggling. Here's what to watch out for:
If you typically enjoy open conversation with your child, then they suddenly become secretive or stop asking you for advice, then this may be a sign that online grooming is taking place. If your child is refusing to open up to you, why not ask them to write down their thoughts in a letter or journal. If they don't want to talk to you, you could also suggest they talk to another family member like a sibling or cousin, or a trusted adult such as a teacher.
Natterhub's report showed 4 in 10 of 8-9-year-olds aren't sure or don't think that trusted adults can help with online security, so asking someone younger to speak to them may be an option. When a child is being groomed, they often believe that it’s their fault and that they will get into trouble if they tell people such as their parents. Encouraging children to be open and honest about their experiences online can help to prevent this from happening, and reassuring them that they will be told off if they are approached by someone that they don’t know online can help them to feel validated and safe.
Mood swings in children are completely normal, but if your child is acting differently from usual, such as lashing out at you, exhibiting anger and sadness, or having unexpected mood swings, they may be experiencing anxiety around their online experiences. Our research showed that 60% of 7-8 year olds have felt anxious when online, so it's important to check this out.
When a child is groomed, they are often confused and unaware of how to deal with the situation, which results in anger and sadness. If your child is behaving differently, why not sit them down and ask them what is causing this unexpected behaviour? If they don’t communicate their emotions to you, it may be a good idea to confide in their school teacher, or perhaps a teaching assistant or counsellor at school. Whoever it may be, children need someone to talk to, and they need to know that they are in a safe environment to do so.
A child asking you for bank details or financial information should ring alarms bells. They may just simply want to order something online, or buy a new game on their phone, but the reason could be more sinister. Sometimes groomers can blackmail children into giving them personal details that may put the child, or their family in danger. Do not give your child any sort of information, whether it’s card details or security questions, and make sure to always follow up on their request with questions. Making sure that they do not have access to any financial information is a good way to prevent the boundaries from being blurred.
Following on from this, if your child suddenly has more money, or items that they wouldn’t be able to afford themselves, this may be a sign of online grooming. Often when children are targeted, they are manipulated by the abuser, who builds rapport by offering to buy the child things that they may want. This can be a tactic to blackmail children or make them feel guilty when they have received a gift or money. If your child has unexplained items, make sure to communicate with them and help them to understand that they can discuss who bought them the item in a safe and trustworthy environment. Our report shows that 86% of 7-8 year olds would talk to a trusted adult if they’d posted personal information by mistake, so whether this is bank details, their address, or personal details or images, make sure that you are aware of what they have said, and report suspicious activity to the police.
Most children would love to spend more time online, but if you see an excessive increase in screen time, or they are going on their phone at meal times, bedtimes or family time, there may be an issue. Our research showed that 26% of 5-6 year olds don’t have any screen-time rules, so it's crucial to address the amount of time they spend on screens to minimise risks.
Often, online groomers can isolate children and talk to them incessantly, which will result in children constantly being on their phones. They may also lead children to believe that they are the only person the child can trust, and create a false image of themselves as caring and kind. If you feel like your child is on their phone too much, try to implement screen time limits, or ‘no phone policies’ during the time that you spend with your child. Our research showed that 26% of 5-6 year olds don’t have any screen-time rules, so it's crucial to address the amount of time they spend on screens to minimise risks. Ensure these 'family' rules are agreed by everyone, otherwise children may rebel and become secretive with their device use.
This applies to older children, but if your child is spending a lot of time away from home, they may be trying to avoid you or anyone else that may notice that they’re unhappy. Online groomers often try to isolate children away from their family and friends, so that they don’t have anyone to talk to. If your child unexpectedly stops spending as much time at home, make sure to ask them why, and make sure that they’re safe wherever they are. It may be useful to again let their teachers know that they are being distant. As well as this, if they attend any extracurricular activities such as dance classes, sports clubs or youth clubs, make sure that they are still going by contacting the leaders of the activities, if you're worried.
If a child is constantly on their own and isolating themselves from social situations with their peers, there may be an issue. Having solid, stable friendships is a key part of a child’s social development, and if they are isolated from their friends, they may begin to feel really lonely and hopeless - making them more vulnerable to unwanted attention.
A good way to counteract this would be for you to open your space up for your child, and ask them to invite some friends around or to host a fun sleepover. Encouraging your child to see their friends will ground them, and it may also help them to discuss any worries they have about online behaviour. Talking things out with a friend can make the world of difference, and may help them to feel relaxed and at ease.
Unfortunately, if a child is being groomed online, their behaviour is going to be affected. This can happen in many different ways, but a key way to tell if something is going on with your child is if they are beginning to tell lies. Whether they aren’t telling you the truth about where they are, whether they’re going to school, who they are with, or even if they have used a device that they weren’t meant to, like a tablet or a computer, they may lie and become defensive if you question them. Our research showed that over half of 8-9 yr olds have used a device when they weren’t supposed to, which demonstrates the problems of online identities.
We hope you've found our blog 'Signs of Online Grooming: What to Look Out For' useful. Remember, it's very tricky to always know what is going on in your child's life online, but the key is to keep conversation flowing, and help educate your child on the danger they may face so they are better able to navigate the digital world.
Remember to download Natterhub's full 2021/22 data report here to see how primary-school children really feel about their lives online.
Natterhub is dedicated to helping schools and parents have these difficult conversations. Our online safety learning platform for schools, along with fun and engaging lessons to support your child at home, offer an experiential learning experience to help your child learn about life online in a safe environment.
Find out more about Natterhub support here.
Return to blog posts