Online grooming: A threat to minors that demands our attention

In an era when children are becoming digital natives and using and understanding technology from an early age, safety risks that have existed for some time could also, if we fail to take the necessary precautions, now affect them. Minors have also come into the sights of criminals, who have developed into a threat that makes children their main target. Such is the case with grooming.

What is grooming?

Although this is not a new term (it has been entering the lexicon since at least 2011), it is important to give a definition so that responsible parents who help their children to safely use the internet can understand it. Grooming describes the act of an adult contacting a minor over the internet in order to gain their trust and friendship, with the ultimate aim of abusing them in various ways. In order to gain a child’s trust, these people will use false profiles or identities, meaning that grooming can occur through most forms of digital media that enable interaction between two or more people.

Among the most common ways for this to happen is through social networking, email, text messages, chatrooms, or online gaming sites that allow communication between users. Although this would appear to be a new type of cybercrime, this activity also occurs outside the internet. The main feature of grooming, however, is the relationship that is established through any means currently offered by technology.

What does it look like?

Cybercriminals often seek to take advantage of the innocence of minors, as well as using techniques to trick them into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. This is known as social engineering, which refers to psychological manipulation and persuasion so that the victims voluntarily give up information or perform acts that puts them at risk.

For example, an adult can seduce minors through attention or affection, by listening to their problems, all the way up to giving them gifts (once they have contacted them through digital means). They subsequently attempt to lower inhibitions, gradually incorporating sexual content into their conversations, showing them sexually explicit material and seeking face-to-face contact.

Depending on each case, the consequences of grooming can vary from person to person. Firstly, one form of damage suffered by the minor may be related to suffering from psychological issues because of the manipulation or control that can be exercised by the adult. In the event that a meeting takes place, the consequences can be physical in nature, potentially including sexual abuse.

Combined with all this, an adult with bad intentions may also obtain photographs or video recordings of sexual content involving the minor (a practice known as sexting), or in more serious cases turn into pedophilia and child pornography, trafficking, or exploitation. In any case, the fundamental rights of children are being negatively impacted.

Grooming in numbers

It is important to point out that this is a widespread problem. Adults across the world have reiterated their concerns over grooming and their desire to protect their children on the internet. According to Forbes magazine, in 2013 alone, over 12,000 false accounts were detected showing images of child sexual exploitation. The problem is further intensified when we consider that many countries have no laws that tackle grooming behavior, leaving thousands of children with no defense against falling victim to this practice.

In Argentina in 2013, the terms “grooming” and “cyberbullying” were incorporated into Law 26904, but many countries are yet to follow suit in their legislation.

Faced with such a scenario, how can we protect children?

Depriving minors of internet usage in an effort to avoid risks such as grooming is a drastic measure, given that at the same time this would deny children access to a whole set of extremely useful resources and a whole wealth of information, knowledge, and training.

Preventing minors from using digital media is impossible, looking at how big a role it plays in their lives. Advice about protection should focus on the controlled and safe use of the internet.

Some of the main points are listed below:

  • Raise awareness of the dangers of the internet among minors. The first step to avoid internet dangers is to understand the risks that children could encounter. Providing education on this topic and understanding how it can affect children—and above all how to avoid it—has become crucial for child protection. Our Safety Guide for Parents is a good starting point.
  • Monitor children’s access to the internet and what they are making public. It is important to know what children are putting on the web and to ensure that they are not disclosing personal, private information, such as their addresses, telephone numbers, or the names of their schools. Similarly, another way of staying safe is to avoid communicating with people they do not know.
  • Maintain an open dialog between parents and children. A free, natural conversation between parents and children helps them feel the familial bond necessary to turn to an adult if it becomes necessary. Establishing a relationship of trust is perhaps the most important way of dealing with these issues.
  • Use computer safety solutions. Technological tools can also play an important role in protecting equipment, information, and therefore users. Using a safety solution protects the computer from malicious software and cybercriminals, but this type of tool also has parental control options, which allow parents to filter websites and content which could pose a threat to children

Although it seems like we are dealing with complex risks, the reality is that avoiding such dangers is well within our capabilities. We can combat these threats through the involvement and education of responsible adults and teachers, combining campaigns set up by private initiatives and through governments, through laws covering aggressive behavior towards minors.

User participation through following a set of simple practices and the use of technological safety tools will help to avoid threats on the web, enabling all of us to enjoy the technology in an increasingly safe environment.

Read more: How do we protect kids from online predators?

Image credits: ©Tim and Selena Middleton/Flickr

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