Online sexual abuse is a serious global problem. Recent research from our lab suggests that almost one in five youth will be sexually solicited by an adult stranger online and there is evidence that those numbers have increased during the pandemic. What is most worrisome is that 9% of the minors in our study went on to meet the adult stranger in person, and of those, more than half engaged in physical sexual contact.
However, not all perpetrators want to meet the child in person, and many will solicit nude or semi-nude pictures of the child that will be used as child sexual abuse material. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reviews over 25 million images each year, identifying over 18,900 victims. Alarmingly, the number of reports of online enticement has doubled from 2019 to 2020.
Children who have had their images shared online report experiencing negative lifelong consequences of the abuse such as depression and trauma symptoms and nearly 70% reported that they worry constantly that they will be identified by someone who has viewed the images. The FBI estimates that there are over 750,000 adults online seeking sex with children daily.
How do perpetrators contact youth online?
These predators are contacting minors online through social media, online gaming communities, messaging apps, and live-streaming platforms. It is estimated that up to two-thirds of the online sexual solicitation of minors involves sexual grooming.
Sexual grooming is the deceptive process by which a would-be abuser, prior to the commission of sexual abuse, selects a victim, gains access to the minor, develops trust and forms a relationship with the minor, and desensitizes the minor to sexual content. Post-abuse, the offender may engage in maintenance strategies to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or prevent disclosure.
While there are many similarities between in-person and online grooming, there are unique characteristics of the online environment that impact the nature of the grooming behaviors.
Similar to in-person sexual grooming, there are various stages that have been proposed to describe the process of online sexual grooming:
1. Victim selection. In the first stage of online grooming, the perpetrator selects a potential victim. Perpetrators will often lurk in the online environment, examining profiles, social media pictures, conversations, and usernames prior to making contact.
Victims are then selected based upon their appeal to the perpetrator (could be based upon physical attractiveness, gender, age) and the ease of access (privacy settings disabled, inadequately set). There is some evidence that perpetrators tend to select victims who are located geographically close to them so that it is possible to meet in person. One study found that perpetrators chose victims based upon their perceived vulnerabilities (low self-esteem, little supervision, naivety) and the presence of sexual content on their social media, username, or profile.
2. Gaining access. Once potential victims are selected, the perpetrator will attempt to make contact with the minor. Given the nature of the internet, a perpetrator will often attempt to make contact with multiple potential victims at once to see who responds.
They will quickly share information about name, age, gender, and location and ask the child to share a picture so they can ensure they are communicating with a minor. Interestingly, most online predators do not hide the fact that they are adults, and only a minority will pose as other children online.
3. Trust development/relationship formation. In this next stage, the perpetrator works to form a relationship with the potential victim, pretending to share interests with the minor and empathizing with them about issues in their home or personal life. They will attempt to serve as an understanding confidante, and especially in the case of teenagers, may try to engage the vulnerable teen in a romantic “dating” relationship.
4. Desensitize minor to sexual content/risk assessment. In this stage, sexual content is gradually introduced. This may be range from mildly suggestive to overt requests.
This is where the perpetrator is gauging whether the minor will cooperate with their grooming efforts and if the minor will send pictures or agree to meet in person. They are also assessing the risk of parental detection and may ask the minor targeted questions about parental monitoring of online activity.
What is important to note is that, unlike in-person grooming which can take months or even years, online sexual grooming takes place very quickly. In our study, we found that sexual content was introduced within the first 30 minutes of online conversation in 69% of the cases, and within the first day in 98% of the cases.
5. Post-abuse maintenance/damage limitation. Once the minor has either sent a picture or met the perpetrator in person, the perpetrator will do one of two things. If they want to continue the abuse or get more images, they will use various techniques such as praise, threats of relationship abandonment/loss, or disclosure to parents to maintain secrecy. However, if the perpetrator has achieved their abusive goal (i.e. received pictures and/or abused minor in person), they may use the “hit and run” tactic, where they simply cease all communication and contact with the minor.
How to prevent online grooming
Short of preventing minors from ever accessing the internet (which in this day and time is impossible), there will always be risks when a child is using internet-enabled devices. Below are some strategies that can be used to minimize the risk.
1.Talk to your children of all ages about online dangers. Explain that while social media, chatrooms, and online gaming can be fun, they also have risks. Teach your children never to share their name, age, or location with anyone, and explain why this is the case.
Further, minors should know that under no circumstance should they ever share a picture of themselves, as this is a key strategy that perpetrators use when attempting to contact minors. They should also learn and understand that it is never OK to chat with an adult online, and under no circumstance should they ever agree to meet in person.
In addition to having these rules established, it is important for parents to explain the rationale behind the rules so that children can learn to think critically about potentially dangerous or risky situations on their own.
2. Keep the lines of communication open. Always let your kids know that they should tell you if someone online is doing something to make them feel uncomfortable and that you will be there to help and support them. Knowing that perpetrators will turn the conversation to sexual content almost immediately, minors must recognize this as a red flag and know to discontinue the conversation and tell you as soon as this happens. The most important thing that parents can do is to let their children know that they will not be in trouble even if they have already chatted or shared photos with someone.
3. Make sure that privacy settings on all games, social media platforms, and apps are set to the highest level. If teens are using social media, their sites should be private so that only those in their inner circle have access. For gaming, enable parental controls so that your children cannot text or communicate with strangers.
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4. Have your children use internet-enabled devices in common areas so that you can keep an eye on what is going on. If your child is having private conversations in their bedroom, you want to make sure you know who they are communicating with.
5. Have user agreements or contracts with your children for their phones and other internet-enabled devices. It is key that you have all your children’s passwords and let them know that you will periodically be monitoring their online communications as a condition of use.
6. Do not allow internet-enabled devices in bedrooms at night. While you may permit the use of phones and laptops in their rooms during the day, these devices should be returned to a common area at night for recharging. This not only promotes healthy sleep habits, but our research also found that most online solicitation of minors takes place after 11 p.m. at night when parents are not around to monitor.