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):
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%).
Anne Collier is a co-founder of ConnectSafely.org and editor of NetFamilyNews
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