Imagine this scenario. Thirteen-year-old Peter plays an online video game with a group of people he met online. He has become particularly close to one of the players, who shows him affection, compliments him, listens to Peter’s struggles at school, and encourages him. This player makes Peter feel like he has a special relationship with him, even though Peter feels a little uneasy when he brings up some topic of sexuality here and there. However, he does not find this too unusual, as this player says such things only while joking. Once, however, Peter confides a secret in this actor – he tells him that he stole a hundred euros from his mother because he lacked the money to be able to buy the laptop he wanted. Then this player starts blackmailing him. He tells Peter that he will tell his mother about what Peter has done if he doesn’t send him photos of him wearing only his underwear. The player knows who Peter’s mother is – among other things, he and Peter previously talked about the arguments that sometimes occur between his parents.
Today, young people are constantly online – through social networks (eg TikTok, Instagram and Facebook), online video games and online chat rooms. In such a world, every child who uses a smartphone, tablet or computer can be a victim of grooming or online dating. Online grooming is a term used to describe the tactics used by perpetrators to approach a minor online and gain their trust. As described on the safe.si website, the perpetrator’s goal is usually »meeting with a child and having sexual activity, or obtaining photos and videos of a child that are of a sexual nature.
The consequences felt by a victim of online grooming are in most cases long-term and can be very severe. Such experiences can lead to depression, withdrawal, low self-esteem, lack of confidence and many other problems of similar nature. Those children who are more susceptible to online grooming are especially vulnerable. Especially children in certain circumstances, connected to their personal and/or family life, are the most susceptible, for example, children who have problems at school, who do not get along with their classmates, who are lonely, who face problems at home, who do not receive enough attention and love from their parents …
As described on the safe.si website, the perpetrator’s goal is usually “meeting with a child and having sexual activity, or obtaining photos and videos of a child that are of a sexual nature.” The approaches of the perpetrators, however, differ. As Davidson, Caretti, Bifulco and Pham found in the European Online Grooming Project, some perpetrators used a profile picture of genitalia and/or a profile name that contained genitalia – such perpetrators are usually characterized by limited conversation and immediate sexual desire/action. For those who did not immediately ask for sex or sexual activity, a planned gradual process of socialization is characteristic. The perpetrators adapted their approach to the victim to their wishes and interests and/or the perceived needs of the young person. Such perpetrators can be divided into three groups:
- offenders who used flattery (using language to explicitly flatter a young person);
- perpetrators who played the role of a mentor (presenting themselves as someone who discusses and solves the adolescent’s problems);
- perpetrators who approached young people with similar experiences to their own (approaching young people who have similar interests or life experiences).
Although it is almost impossible to completely avoid a situation that may be similar to the fictional one described above, the safe.si portal lists some preventive measures against online grooming:
- Talk to your child about safe and unsafe online behavior and risks.
- Do not forbid him from using the computer or mobile phone in case something inappropriate happens to him on the Internet (if you do this, the child may not trust you as a result).
- Younger children in particular should use mobile phones, computers and tablets in a common area – not alone.
- Familiarize yourself with social networks and the risks your child may be facing. Check what your child is doing online, and find out what applications, games and social networks he/she uses.
- Build a relationship based on trust and ask your child about what he/she does on the Internet, who he/she talks to and what he/she posts.
- Pay special attention to who the child is talking to on the Internet and what he/she shares with people online. Don’t forget to ask your child about privacy settings.
With these guidelines, you can greatly limit the risk of your child becoming a victim of online grooming. It is also good to know what indicates that the child may have already experienced online grooming. Be especially careful if:
- you find pornographic content on your child’s computer,
- you notice that the child receives calls from unknown numbers and/or gifts from an unknown person,
- the child spends more time online than before,
- the child hides what he does online more than before,
- you discover that the child has “friends” among the contacts on the phone, computer or tablet that you know the child has not yet met in person.
If you suspect that your child is a victim of online grooming, save the evidence and report it to the nearest police station.