Groomers typically use certain patterns of behaviour to lead a child to believe that what is happening is normal, or to make the child feel trapped. The grooming relationship can move quickly from being something that seems to have positive benefits for the child to being very frightening and isolating.
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). 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 a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).
The groomer may also work to gain the trust of a whole family, to allow them to be left alone with a child. If the groomer works with children they may use similar tactics with their colleagues.
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).
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.
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.
Groomers use a range of strategies to entrap a child and manipulate them. They present themselves as approachable, likeable and having shared interests with the child they are targeting.
Our Childline service offers support and advice to children and young people who have been groomed. One young person told us about how a manager of an online game had used the offer of making him a moderator as part of the grooming process.
"At first I thought it was cool this manager was giving me extra responsibility on the server. They told me how much they trusted me which made me feel important. Lately though things have got a bit weird, like they say 'I love you' a lot - they say it so much that it makes me feel like I have to say it back. We’ve also been watching movies together, and most of the stuff they want to watch is explicit and meant for adults."
Childline counselling session with a boy aged 13
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).
Groomers can use social media, instant messaging apps or online gaming platforms to connect with a young person or child. It's easy for groomers to hide their identity online – they may pretend to be younger than they are, and then chat and become 'friends' with children.
Groomers can use multiple online platforms to contact the same child. They can spend time learning about a young person’s interests from their online profiles and posts, and then use this knowledge to help them build up a relationship. Then, once a relationship has been established, they might encourage the child to communicate using a private or encrypted messaging service (NSPCC 2020, IICSA, 2020).
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.
However, 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). It can also make the grooming process much quicker (CEOP, 2013; Lorenzo-Dus and Izura, 2017).
Groomers don't need to meet children in real life to abuse them. After making online contact, a groomer may convince a child to meet in person. However, groomers can also sexually exploit children and young people by persuading them to take part in online sexual activity (IICSA, 2020). The Internet Watch Foundation found that over 70% of identified child sexual abuse images in 2021 were self-generated (IWF, 2022).
Social media and other online platforms are also used to groom children to involve them in criminal exploitation, for example county lines (Children's Society, 2019).