The speed at which technology has advanced in the past few decades is something that has baffled older generations and young consumers alike. Gone are the days of waiting days—or even weeks— to hear back from someone via letter mail. Thanks to the Internet and text messaging, everything you want to say can be sent to another person in seconds’ time, including photos and videos. And while this has knitted a tighter fabric for the global community at large, the efficiency of today’s communication comes with many overlooked dangers that are directly tied to childhood sexual abuse (CSA).
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, “grooming” is the process by which an offender selects a potential victim, builds a relationship with them in order to gain their trust, and break down their defenses in order to start sexually abusing them. The steps to grooming include (1) identifying and targeting the victim, (2) gaining trust and access, (3) playing a role in the child’s life, (4) isolating the child, (5) creating secrecy around the relationship, (6) initiating sexual contact, and (7) controlling the relationship.
Though grooming typically takes place over the course of 6 to 9 months, things like online chatting, text messaging, and even apps like Snapchat and other social networking sites have completely changed the child sexual abuse landscape. According to several studies conducted by UK-based research teams, online groomers can persuade a child to meet in less than half an hour, and as little as 18 minutes. Furthermore, on average, groomers introduce sexual politics within 3 minutes of chatting with a child.
But perhaps the most daunting statistic of them all is that a bond can be formed between a child and an online groomer in a mere 8 minutes.
Online childhood sexual abuse yields a more immediate form of sexual gratification to those who seek it out. In 2012, the Canadian cybertipline Cybertipi.ca found that in 93.4% of online CSA cases, offenders asked for sexual images, 24% of cases included a threat of distribution, 30% of cases involved children actually sending images, and 35% of cases had offenders sending pictures of themselves or asking to use the webcam.
Though online grooming has become an epidemic in and of itself, there are few task forces that operate on a global level that work to combat it. Currently, the Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse is the only legal instrument that addresses grooming specifically as opposed to simply part of the childhood sexual abuse process.
Only two states in the U.S.—Arkansas and Illinois— have statutes in place that specifically address online grooming. According to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children’s “Online Grooming of Children for Sexual Purposes: Model Legislation & Global Review,” a cultural and legal shift must occur in which we see grooming as an “offense-specific process” rather than simply a preparatory process.
Given what is we know about online grooming, it is imperative that we take the necessary precautionary measures to ensure cyber-safety for our children:
Similar to teaching children about body safety, we must also teach them about what personal information is appropriate to disclose to others, especially to people they meet online. Malaysia’s #SafeWeb4Kids campaign urges kids to think very carefully about what we share online and contemplate the importance of it being online forever.
To combat the secrecy that surrounds grooming, Save the Children Sweden’s #netsmart pamphlet encourages parents to tell their children that the Internet is something that they should learn about and experience together, just as they would a film or a book. This opportunity for open and positive dialogue allows for a transparency that children can revisit if a situation comes up online that they don’t know how to navigate.
It is important to keep the dangers of internet grooming in mind as we move through our lives, whether that be through in-person interactions or social networking sites. Today, on Safer Internet Day, let’s keep in mind how we can build a safer online community for this generation’s kids and beyond.