Academics research the truth about online grooming

Research by Swansea University academics into online grooming has found that there are many myths and misconceptions surrounding it; a greater understanding of its realities is now needed to help protect young people.

Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus and Dr Cristina Izura lead the Online Grooming Communication (OGC) Project, which has carried out an examination of the language used by groomers to lure children so as to help understand the process better and develop effective interventions to detect and prevent online grooming.

Findings from their research will be presented at the British Science Festival in Swansea on Thursday 8 September at 16.00.

Computer keyboard Their research focuses on online grooming as a communicative process when an adult uses the internet to prepare a child and their environment for the abuse of that child – whether the abuse is on or off line.

Professor Lorenzo-Dus said: “We have carried out a detailed analysis of the language used by more than 100 online groomers which  shows that they are skilled communicators who use a range of strategies, including seemingly innocuous ‘small talk’ to develop a sense of trust in them; requests and commands to gauge the children’s disposition to meet online groomers’ desires for verbal or visual sexual engagement; and compliments on various topics to increase feelings of trust and emotional bonding.”

While there is potential for all children to be at risk from online grooming, it is maybe unsurprising that the most common type of grooming is that of male predators grooming female victims.  However the research has dispelled a number of myths surrounding the process.

  • Groomers don’t always pose as children

While many people may think that online groomers always pose as children, this is not the case. Although some may lie about their adult age, and say they are younger than they are, they still make it clear from the very start of their online contact with the children that they are adults.  Not all online sexual predators are middle-aged adults either, as their ages range widely from 18 to late 60s.

  • Grooming does not always take a long time

Another misconception is that online grooming takes a long time as the predator needs to build a child’s trust between initial contact and sexual requests, but this is also not true.  The research has found that time between initial online contact and first sexual requests can be very short. In some cases it took a matter of minutes for online groomers to create enough trust in their victims to get them to do whatever they wished in order to gain sexual gratification. It has also been found that: ‘fast’ groomer and ‘slow’ groomers use praising strategies differently.

  • Grooming is persuasive rather than coercive

Another potentially controversial point is that it is assumed that online grooming is ostensibly coercive but this too is not accurate, at least not from a communicative point of view as online grooming relies on persuasion, not coercion.

Dr Izura said: “Online groomers are, communicatively, highly skilled and can interact with their victims as if they care about them, and can pretend to be romantically – rather than only sexually – interested in them.  They compliment children regularly on a range of topics, rather than only on sexually-oriented ones.

“We have found that depending on online grooming speed, sexually oriented compliments, whether on appearance or on personality, comprise between over half and a quarter of all the compliments online groomers pay.  Moreover, online groomers use compliments not only to develop an emotional bond with the children, but also strategically to frame communicative exchanges in which they desensitise the children to sexual behaviour and isolate them from their family and close friends, thus strengthening their dependency to on?) the online groomer.”

The level of online groomers’ communicative sophistication means that many interactions can go undetected by existing online grooming protection software. However the researchers say that there are some steps that can be taken by parents and professionals working with children to help keep children safe online.

Professor Lorenzo-Dus said: “We know it is unrealistic to stop children using the internet and it is not always possible to monitor all their digital activities, but increasing their understanding of how online grooming works and the communicative tactics online groomers use will make it possible to recognise, in children’s comments to us about their digital activities, some of the strategies our research has revealed and therefore to raise awareness of the potential dangers. While this may be emotionally hard for adults, whether as parents, carers or professionals devoted to children’s well-being, it is paramount that they are informed so they can recognise the signs.”

The research team also say that parents can try to get children to open up about their digital lives and talk to them, frankly and regularly, about how they spend their time online: their favourite internet activities, their favourite games, apps or blogs and, importantly, their online friends. This will help parents gauge whether their children are at risk of having inappropriate online relationships.

Dr Izura said: “Parents could try to open up discussions with their children about the dangers on the internet, including online grooming. Listening to them carefully and taking an interest in their online activities is a good way to build their trust in us and help reduce the risk of children looking for trust elsewhere online.”