How to recognize grooming

By Anne Collier
Sometimes the very reason kids and teens blog and spend time in social-networking sites is to “meet new friends.” So it’s not always easy for them to tell when “new friends” have bad intentions, and research consistently shows that about 20% of online kids receive unwanted sexual solicitations (see “Other resources” below).

“Grooming” is the way sexual predators get from bad intentions to sexual exploitation. Basically, grooming is manipulation. It’s the process pedophiles use to get children they target online to meet with them offline, the simple goal being sex.

Sometimes it involves flattery, sometimes sympathy, other times offers of gifts, money, or modeling jobs. It can also involve all of the above over extended periods of time. That’s why it’s called “grooming.” Experts say the short-term goal of these manipulators is for the victim to feel loved or just comfortable enough to want to meet them in person, and these people know that sometimes takes time. That’s ok, they’d say, because groomers tend to have a lot of patience, and they also tend to “work” a number of targets at once, telling all of them that they are “the only one for me.” You can imagine how well that can work with kids seeking sympathy, support, or validation online.

That’s about as general as we can get, because grooming is carefully individualized. Groomers design what they say as they go along, tailoring their flattery or offers as they learn about the victim. Here are some tactics kids can watch out for (these are themes for which there are many variations, tell your kids):

  • “Let’s go private.” (leave the public chatroom and create a private chat or move to instant-messaging or phone texting)
  • “Where’s your computer in the house?” (to see if parents might be around)
  • “Who’s your favorite band? designer? film? gear?” (questions like these tell the groomer more about you so they know what gifts to offer – e.g., concert tickets; Webcam, software, clothes, CDs)
  • “I know someone who can get you a modeling job.” (flattery, they figure, will get them everywhere)
  • “I know a way you can earn money fast.” (one of the tactics that snagged Justin Berry, 13, into what became his Webcam prostitution business, reported by the New York Times)
  • “You seem sad. Tell me what’s bothering you.” (the sympathy schtick)
  • “What’s your phone number?” (asking for personal info of any kind – usually happens at a later stage, after the target’s feeling comfortable with the groomer – but all online kids know not to give out personal info online, right?!)
  • “If you don’t… [do what I ask], I’ll… [tell your parents OR share your photos in a photo blog / Webcam directory / file-sharing network]“ (intimidation – used as the groomer learns more and more about the target)
  • “You are the love of my life.” (what “Amy,” 15, fell for before traveling out of state to meet someone who’d groomed her – see “Amy’s Story” at Netsmartz.org)

Being aware of these tactics – and the fact that groomers are self-taught experts in 1) getting kids to reveal their needs and desires and 2) tailoring messages to those interests – can go a long way toward protecting kids from sexual exploitation online. It’s also a great exercise in critical thinking, the best safeguard and “filter” a young Net user can have. A great resource on grooming specifically written for teens is “Cyber stalking, abusive cyber sex and online grooming: A Program of Education for Teenagers” (starting on p. 23). The program was written by Rachell O’Connell, Joanna Price, and Charlotte Barrow of the Cyberspace Research Unit of the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.

For research on teen social networking, see this NetFamilyNews item about January ‘07 findings by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. One related finding was that older boys (15-17) are more likely than older girls to use social sites to make new friends (60% vs. 46%).

Other resources

Anne Collier is a co-founder of BlogSafety and editor of NetFamilyNews.

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