We live in an increasingly technological society, which, despite its numerous advantages, can create a myriad of worrying consequences. Recent research by Natterhub indicates that children are accessing technology from a much younger age: half of 6-7 year olds have already set up their own online profiles, whilst ¾ of the same group have engaged in an online chat. But this begs the question: who could they potentially be talking to?
In this blog we'll explore the question 'what is online grooming?' and look into some actions you can take to keep your child safe online. If you're worried, then Natterhub is here to help.
Statistics like these show that children are gaining the ability to be proficient with technology from much younger ages. In fact, a report conducted by VTech found that in a survey of 2,000 parents with children aged 3-12, respondents believed their child would surpass their own tech skills by the time they are 10 years old. Although this may be viewed as a positive, as children will inevitably have more opportunities and a wider field of knowledge to explore, it exposes them earlier to the many dangers of the online world - including online grooming.
So, what is online grooming? It's when someone purposely utilises the internet to befriend young person, and build their trust over time, before coercing them into doing which will cause harm and put them in a lot of danger. The act of online grooming often leads to child sexual abuse, such as exchanging explicit photographs or videos, and can build up to physical sexual abuse. However, it may also be to radicalise someone or get a hold of financial information.
Tragically, online grooming happens more and more each year. According to the NSPCC, online abuse has risen by more than 80% in four years and in 2021/22, there were 6,156 ‘Sexual Communication with a Child offences’, which equals about 17 offences per day.
Grooming existed well before the Internet was invented, but unfortunately, technology has facilitated this type of activity and extended the reach of abusers. As social media and other online channels of communication have gained in popularity, so too has online grooming.
One of the main issues with online grooming is that offenders are extremely skilled at what they do, and use popular games and apps to their advantage. Due to the lack of security on social media apps such as TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, anyone can create an account. Plus, there are chat options on many popular games that can go unchecked. There is no way to verify who these people are, which means that an online groomer could fake their age, name, location, and gender, which could trick children into thinking that they are talking to someone their own age, or perhaps another pupil who attends their school.
Online grooming happens because abusers exploit trust - and this is much easier to do online. They do this by: building a rapport; feigning common interests; exploiting young people's natural interest in socialising online; and manipulating children into thinking certain behaviour is acceptable. Natterhub's report saw that there is naivety around understanding online behaviours, with 85% of 8-9 year olds thinking that someone saying “your picture is really interesting” was meant in kindness. In many cases this would be right, but in the context of online interactions with strangers, could indicate something more.
In addition, children often keep these interactions a secret from those around them. This may be because they are threatened by the offender, or because they think they will get into trouble if they tell. Abuser's know this, and manipulate these situations to ensure the abuse can carry on without being discovered.
Online groomers use fake profiles to create online identities that are extremely believable. They will often appear childlike, perhaps by using online colloquialisms, emojis and other various tactics to trick children. It’s extremely hard to spot whether an account is fake or not. Encouragingly, Natterhub's report indicates that 72% of 9-10 yr olds think you can't be 100% sure if an online profile is fake or real.
Although it can be really hard to spot, there are often ways to catch fake profiles. For example, if it has very few images, or if it’s empty. Although we shouldn’t presume that empty profiles are immediately dangerous, there’s a good chance that they may be hiding their identity, especially if they are sending messages. As well as this, if a profile immediately asks invasive questions, or asks for personal information, there’s a high likelihood that they’re hiding behind a fake profile and that they aim to take advantage of someone.
Shockingly, more often than not, online groomers will impersonate someone. There are a few ways that abusers do this. The first is pretending to be celebrities, influencers, model scouts, or anyone else that may be seen as important to a child. They may offer promises of free gifts, collaborations, or simply friendship, in exchange for personal information. Many of these accounts can be extremely convincing, too. Perhaps the person behind the account may have bought followers to appear more legitimate or used lots of pictures from a celebrity's account.
It’s important to be vigilant when impersonation occurs, and check for things like a verification mark, or whether the person being impersonated has another official account. Groomers may pose as young children, or a person from the same school. This can be an extremely tricky area, as children may make friends online through gaming or forums. In fact, our survey showed that over half of 7-8 yr olds believe online friendships are easier than face-to-face ones. This means that children can easily get led astray, and if the offender has done their research, they may be very convincing.
There are two main problems when it comes to privacy settings on social media applications. The first, and most dangerous, is that if a child’s privacy settings are low, such as having a public account, groomers can access that information immediately, and use it to their advantage. Our report indicates that ¾ of 8-9 yr olds have posted a photo of themselves online, and if their account was public, anybody in the world can access that photo. Ensuring that a child’s privacy settings are correct prevents easy access to a child's account. Making sure you see your child’s follow requests on apps such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok is really important. That way, if any strange-looking accounts do friend request your child, you can immediately block and report them.
The other problem is that if a groomer has an online account that's set to private, it can be tricky to see who they actually are. The best way to prevent this is to only accept follow requests from people that you know, and decline any others.
Here are the most effective actions you can take today, to help protect your child from online grooming:
We hope you've found our blog 'What is Online Grooming? Steps to Protect your Child' useful. Keeping the conversation going is key - you can find some handy conversation starters here.
Don't forget to download Natterhub's 2021/22 data report to find out more about how primary-school children really feel about their lives online.
Find out more about Natterhub's online safety support for schools and parents/carers, here.
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