The internet has transformed our lives. As of July 2016, around 40% of the world’s population was online – that’s nearly 3.5 billion internet users.
Since it was created, the web has gone from being a simple tool used to share and distribute information to a complex virtual place which pervades nearly every aspect of society. Though the creators’ intentions for the internet were surely good, today it is also used for heinous crimes such as the sexual exploitation of children. This type of abuse can take almost as many forms as in the physical world: ranging from producing, storing and trading child pornography to seeking paid or unpaid sex online or offline once onscreen contact has been established.
Online grooming – that is, the process of persuading a youngster to have sex, online and/or offline, with an adult – is at an alarming high. Research has found that 200m girls and 100m boys will be sexually victimised before they reach adulthood, and a significant number of these children will be lured online.
However, despite its large societal impact, research into online grooming is limited, particularly when looking at the language used to influence children. Language is the main tool used by sexual predators to groom children online so this gap in our knowledge of how grooming unfolds is quite remarkable.
That is why four years ago we founded the Online Grooming Communication Project, with the aim of gaining a solid understanding of the verbal behaviour which underlies the grooming of children via the internet. To date we have carried out one of the largest empirical studies – based on a corpus of approximately 140,000 words from online chat-logs – of the linguistic strategies used by convicted paedophiles to groom their victims.
The act of grooming
Grooming is developed in three phases: access, entrapment and approach. Access and approach are relatively simple: they respectively involve contacting a child, saying “hi ur cute” for example, and making the necessary arrangements to meet the child offline. Entrapment, however, is a much more complex phase where information is requested and provided to fulfil four grooming objectives: building trust with the child; isolating them and finding out how isolated they already are; testing the child’s willingness to comply with the groomer’s intentions; and obtaining sexual gratification.
Once we identified these phases, their objectives, and how groomers use specific language techniques to achieve them, we found that there are several “myths” society believes about grooming that are not entirely true.
For example, groomers rely on persuasion, not coercion. Our figures showed that gaining the trust of the youngster is of paramount importance for groomers, and they devote the highest amount of words and therefore time – around 45% – to it.
All groomers in our study were skilled and sophisticated communicators, interacting with their targeted child as if they cared about him/her, making them feel special. They complimented the children regularly on a range of topics, rather than only on sexually-oriented ones. Because of this, many of their interactions with children can go undetected by existing protection software.
Furthermore, online groomers do not always masquerade as children or adolescents in cyberspace. In fact, none of the conversations included in our database involved a sexual predator pretending to be a youngster. Some online groomers misrepresented their true age by taking around four or five years from their real age – but they still made it clear from the very start that they were adults. Not all online sexual predators are middle-aged adults either. In the data we examined, online groomer age ranged from 18 to the late 60s.
Though online grooming is often considered to be a long process, taking several months from initial contact to sexual exploitation, it is actually alarmingly brief. In our research database, it sometimes took just a matter of minutes.
A few studies have investigated the characteristics of children and adolescents who are solicited for sex online. In terms of gender, for example, 75% of the victims are reported to be female. As for personality and behavioural traits, low self-esteem and spending long periods of time online have been identified as high risk factors.
However, regardless of how high the risks taken by a group of children are, the threats faced by all are deeply concerning. All children are vulnerable to online sexual predation by adults and so our efforts must be devoted to ensuring that all children are safe online.
Technologies such as filtering system software can help to restrict childrens’ access to known sites where grooming has occurred. However, they do not resolve the problem of online child sexual exploitation altogether. Increasing our awareness and understanding of online grooming behaviour is a vital component in our endeavour to protect our children and provide a safe internet environment.