Grooming in the Digital Age
After just nine days of conversations, a young girl, having just celebrated her 15th birthday, left her home to meet a man she’d met online. She had been groomed, that’s psychologically and emotionally manipulated, via hundreds of direct messages and was ready to meet an older man (he said he was early-20s, he was closer to 40) for sex.
-Him: “How ru”
Nine days later…
-Her: “K now imma leave n start walking… u can start driving to me if u want”
NCMEC’s CyberTipline takes reports of online enticement, and our analysts have reviewed thousands of reports including chat logs like the one you just read. The term “online enticement” is a broad category of sexual exploitation that includes sextortion. Online enticement involves an individual communicating with someone believed to be a child via the internet with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction. This also includes instances when a child is being groomed to take sexually explicit images and/or ultimately meet face-to-face with someone for sexual purposes, or to engage in a sexual conversation online or, in some instances, to sell/trade the child’s sexual images. This type of victimization takes place across every platform; social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms, etc.
In NCMEC reports we have seen offenders use many different approaches in order to exploit children online including:
- Engaging in sexual conversation/role playing as a grooming method, rather than a goal.
- Asking the child for sexually explicit images of themselves or mutually sharing images.
- Developing a rapport through compliments, discussing shared interests or “liking” their online post, also known as grooming.
- Sending or offering sexually explicit images of themselves.
- Pretending to be younger.
- Offering an incentive such as a gift card, alcohol, drugs, lodging, transportation or food.
You might think that the children in your life are unlikely to be in these situations or talk to strangers online. But, those opportunities exist everywhere online. Many popular video games include chat features that allow players to communicate within the game. Comments and direct messages on social media accounts aren’t monitored and can come from anyone if the account is public.
How to Address It with Kids and Teens
- Talk to kids about the importance of privacy settings. For young kids, the expectation should be that they are only connected with people they know in real life.
- Talk to teens about sexting; sending explicit images of themselves to other users could end up with unintended people seeing the image, or even a blackmail situation.
- Talk to kids and teens about behaviors that may put them at risk for online enticement such as lying about their age and engaging in sexualized conversations with unknown users online.
- Talk to children of all ages about healthy relationships. Discuss boundaries and respect, making it clear that when in a healthy relationship, one shouldn’t feel pressured to do something that makes them uncomfortable, or being asked to keep secrets.
The best defense against bad-actors online is open communication between trusted adults and children!
Don’t shy away from asking children about how they use technology. Have them show you the games they play or the apps they use.
Make sure kids know how to report inappropriate behaviors to the game/site/app; this includes cyberbullying behaviors, hate speech, inappropriate content, and anything else that a child might find offensive. Having discussions about what types of content to report is also helpful in empowering children to defend against online offenders.
For videos, tip sheets, and more information about digital safety issues facing children, visit MissingKids.org/NetSmartz.
Additionally, if you know or suspect explicit images of your child are out there, report it to CyberTipline.org, and learn more about contacting individual platforms where the image may be hosted to get it taken down.