Protecting children from grooming

Last updated: 30 Nov 2018 Topics: Child sexual abuse and CSE Online safety

What is grooming?

Grooming is "a process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults and the environment for the abuse of the child" (Craven, 2006). Grooming can happen anywhere, including:

  • online
  • in organisations
  • in public spaces (also known as street grooming)

(McAlinden, 2012).

Children and young people can be groomed by a stranger or by someone they know – such as a family member, friend or professional. The age gap between a child and their groomer can be relatively small (NSPCC and O2, 2016).

Grooming techniques can be used to prepare children for sexual abuse and exploitationradicalisation (Department for Education (DfE), 2017) and criminal exploitation (All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, 2017).


> Learn more about teaching children about healthy relationships

Signs

Signs of grooming

Signs a child is being groomed include:

  • sudden changes in behaviour
  • going missing from home or school
  • secretive use of technology
  • having unexplained gifts
  • alcohol and/or drug misuse
  • having a much older ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’
  • developing sexual health problems
  • mental health problems

(Rigg and Phippen, 2016).

Signs of grooming can easily be mistaken for 'normal' teenage behaviour but you may notice unexplained changes in behaviour or personality or inappropriate sexual behaviour for their age.

How it happens

How does grooming happen?

Gaining trust

A groomer hides their true intentions and over time “gains the child’s trust and confidence" in order to abuse them (Sexual Offences Act 2003: explanatory notes). They may work to gain the trust of a whole family, to allow them to be left alone with a child. If they work with children they may use similar tactics with their colleagues.

The online grooming process can be much quicker than offline grooming (CEOP, 2013). There’s evidence that some online grooming chats can develop in less than 20 minutes (Lorenzo-Dus and Izura, 2017).

Groomers gain trust by:

  • pretending to be someone they’re not, for example saying they are the same age as the child online
  • offering advice or understanding
  • buying gifts
  • giving the child attention
  • using their professional position or reputation
  • taking the child on trips, outings or holidays

(Rigg and Phippen, 2016).

Gaining power

Once they’ve established trust groomers will exploit the relationship by isolating the child from friends or family and making the child feel dependent on them. Groomers will use power and control to make a child believe they have no choice but to do what the groomer wants.

Secrets

Groomers may introduce 'secrets' as a way to control or frighten the child. Sometimes they will blackmail the child or make them feel ashamed or guilty to stop them telling anyone about the abuse.

Manipulation

Groomers use a range of strategies to entrap a child and manipulate the child into participating in both online and offline sexual activity. They present themselves as approachable, likeable and having shared interests with the child they are targeting.

Groomers will test a child’s compliance by persuading them to carry out inappropriate or abusive activities. They use tactics such as reverse psychology (for example, "I’m not sure about this, I think you might be too young") or strategic withdrawal (such as, "It was just an idea, it’s completely up to you") which give the child the impression they are in control of the situation (Lorenzo-Dus, Izura and Perez-Tattam, 2016).

Online grooming

Groomers can use social media, instant messaging apps (including teen dating apps) or online gaming platforms to connect with a young person or child.

They can spend time learning about a young person’s interests from their online profiles and then use this knowledge to help them build up a relationship.

It’s easy for groomers to hide their identity online – they may pretend to be a child and then chat and become ‘friends’ with children they are targeting.

Groomers may look for:

  • usernames or comments that are flirtatious or have a sexual meaning
  • public comments that suggest a child has low self-esteem or is vulnerable.

Groomers don’t always target a particular child. Sometimes they’ll send messages to hundreds of young people and wait to see who responds. The online environment makes it easier for groomers to target several children at once (Lorenzo-Dus, Izura and Perez-Tattam, 2016).

Groomers don’t need to meet children in real life to abuse them. Increasingly groomers are sexually exploiting children and young people by persuading them to take part in online sexual activity.

Speaking out

Speaking out about grooming

It’s rare for a child to tell an adult about being groomed. This means we don't know how common grooming is.

Children may not speak out because they’re:

  • ashamed
  • feeling guilty
  • unaware that they're being abused
  • believe they are in a relationship with a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’.

The grooming relationship can move quickly from being something that seems to have positive benefits for the child to being very frightening and isolating. Initially the child or young person is conditioned to respect, trust and love their groomer. They may not understand they are being groomed because they consider their groomer to be their boyfriend or girlfriend (Coffey et al, 2014).

The child may be uncomfortable with what they are being asked to do but not feel able to say no or seek help because they:

  • are worried about jeopardising the relationship if they don’t give consent
  • are scared of what the groomer will do if they speak out or refuse to comply
  • don't want to get the groomer in trouble
  • blame themselves for getting involved in the relationship
  • are ashamed of sharing sexual details with other people.
Children at risk

What makes children vulnerable to grooming?

Grooming can affect any child. However, children who may be particularly vulnerable include:

  • children in care
  • children who are exploring their sexuality and identity online
  • those who are experiencing difficulties with peers, including social and communication problems
  • children with low self esteem and confidence (those who want to be liked)
  • children who have limited awareness about online risks (they may not recognise 'stranger danger' in the online world and they may see all online contacts as friends)
  • those whose online activity isn’t appropriately supervised or monitored

(Coffey and Lloyd, 2014; DfE, 2017).

Many children who contact Childline about online sexual abuse also talk about:

  • mental health problems 
  • loneliness 
  • social isolation 
  • family problems

(NSPCC and O2, 2016).

Those who have been groomed often say their groomer was the first person who really seemed to understand and care about these issues (NSPCC and O2, 2016). As with any form of abuse, children who are disabled (Jones et al, 2012) and those who have already experienced abuse (Finkelhor, Ormrod and Turner, 2007) are particularly vulnerable to grooming.

Prevention

How to prevent grooming

To prevent grooming it’s important for there to be community awareness about what grooming is, how it works and how it can lead to abuse. Communities can be the strongest allies in protecting children from exploitation (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).

It’s also essential for those who work with children and young people to empower children to recognise and speak out about abuse. This includes:

  • teaching children and young people about healthy relationships
  • helping children and young people develop the awareness and skills needed to keep safe online.

Our Stop TIME Online activity pack (NSPCC Cymru/Wales and Swansea University, 2017) gives professionals and young people a better understanding of the strategies online groomers use to build trusting relationships with young people. The materials can be used during one-to-one or small group work sessions with children and young people aged 8 to 18 who are at risk of online grooming.

We’re currently piloting the activity pack. If you'd like more information about our activity pack, email PublicAffairs.Cymru@nspcc.org.uk.

References and resources

References

All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults (2017) Briefing report on the roundtable on children who go missing and are criminally exploited by gangs (PDF).  [London]: Missing People.

All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group (2013) Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children who are at risk of abuse through sexual exploitation (PDF). [Cardiff]: All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) (2013) Threat assessment of child sexual exploitation and abuse (PDF). London: CEOP.

Coffey, A. and Lloyd, T. (2014) Real voices: child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester (PDF). [Manchester]: Greater Manchester Police Force.

Craven, S., Brown, S. and Gilchrist, E. (2006) Sexual grooming of children: review of literature and theoretical considerations. Journal of sexual aggression: 12 (3): 287-299.

Department for Education (DfE) (2017) Safeguarding and radicalisation (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).

Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R. K. and Turner, H. A. (2007) Re-victimization patterns in a national longitudinal sample of children and youth. Child Abuse and Neglect, 31(5): 479-502.

Jones, L. et al (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Lancet 380(9845): 899-907.

Lorenzo-Dus, N., Izura, C. and Perez-Tattam, R. (2016) Understanding grooming discourse in computer-mediated environments. Discourse, Context and Media, 12: 440-450.

Lorenzo-Dus, N. and Izura, C. (2017) "Cause ur special": understanding trust and complimenting behaviour in online grooming discourse. Journal of Pragmatics 112: 68-82.

McAlinden, A. (2012) 'Grooming' and the sexual abuse of children: institutional, internet, and familial dimensions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

NSPCC and O2 (2016) “What should I do?”: NSPCC helplines: responding to children’s and parents’ concerns about sexual content online (PDF). [London]: NSPCC.

Rigg, K. and Phippen, A. (2016) Grooming within organisations: how to keep children safe (PDF). London: Farrer & Co LLP.

Information for parents

Find advice for parents on the NSPCC website:

> Learn about preventing online abuse

> Learn about e-safety for schools

> Learn about online safety for organisations and groups

> Take our Keeping children safe online training