Grooming is a way of getting close to children and young people used by those who want to harm and exploit them sexually. The victim may be offered bribes, threatened, blackmailed or bullied.
The sexual exploitation can be carried out by individuals or by those involved with grooming gangs. Perpetrators today often approach their victims online as well as in person.
Who is at risk of grooming?
Any young person, whatever their gender, sexuality, religion, background and upbringing. Grooming can take place in the home, at local clubs or religious groups, at school or in the streets.
How does the perpetrator groom their victim?
Grooming is all about control. The aim is to form a relationship with the victim, build up trust or friendship and establish how likely it is that the child or young person will tell anyone about them. They will then try to isolate them from their friends and family.
The victim might be offered money, drugs or alcohol, or a place to stay. Often they are led to believe that the perpetrator is their friend, feels affection for them, or that there is a genuine relationship between them. In other cases, they are coerced using fear, for example threats against their family or blackmail.
How are victims approached online?
Groomers use social media and online forums, such as chatrooms, as well as email and text messages. They often have easy access to information about the child or young person and may hide their real identity by pretending to be younger or a different gender, and posting or sending fake pictures of themselves.
When children and young people receive sexual comments and approaches online, they often don’t report this to their parents. In many cases the perpetrators disguise their intentions through apparently innocent, genuine approaches. Once they build up trust or find out information about the child’s family, they may use this to coerce or force them into sexually exploitative situations.
The victim may be asked to send sexually explicit images or take part in sexually explicit activities by phone or online, and/or they may be encouraged to meet in person.
How can parents and guardians recognise signs of grooming?
In older children, it can be difficult to separate some behaviours from common teenage issues, but signs of grooming can include:
- Secretive or withdrawn behaviour
- Sudden behaviour changes, anxiety, aggression or depression
- Starting a friendship or relationship with someone older
- Unexpectedly having new belongings
- Using drugs and alcohol
- Missing school
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Eating disorders
- Self harm or suicidal thoughts
Parents and guardians should also be aware that as well as approaching children online and outside the home, some groomers are known to the family and work to gain their trust in order to have time alone with the child.
How can children and young people be protected from grooming?
Victims of groomers often don’t understand that what they are experiencing is sexual exploitation.
Children and young people should be taught to be suspicious of those who encourage them to lie and keep secrets, appear to be their best friend when they’ve only just met, give them presents, or are possessive and constantly contacting them.
Childnet International (www.childnet.com) suggests parents and guardians should teach their children the SMART rules for online safety:
S – SAFE Keep safe by being careful not to give out personal information – such as your name, email, phone number, home address, or school name – to people who you don’t know online.
M – MEETING Meeting someone you have only been in touch with online can be dangerous. Only do so with your parents’/carers’ permissions & when they can be present.
A – ACCEPTING Accepting emails, IM messages or opening files from people you don’t know or trust can be dangerous – they may contain viruses or nasty messages.
R – RELIABLE Someone online may be lying about who they are, and information you find on the internet may not be reliable.
T – TELL Your parent, carer or a trusted adult if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried.
It’s important that victims understand that being sexually exploited is not their fault and that there are people and organisations they can go to for help. This might be a friend, parent or other trusted relation, youth worker, teacher or police officer, or an organisation such as Crimestoppers, the NSPCC or Childline.
Parents and adults in positions of trust and authority should be aware of behaviour changes in children and young people. When talking about grooming and abuse, they should make it clear that it is not the child’s fault, and offer support not judgement.
Where to go to for help
Immediate help is available by calling 999 and asking for the police service.
The following contact details may also be useful:
Crimestoppers: 0800 555 111; www.crimestoppers-uk.org
NSPCC: 0800 800 5000; www.nspcc.org.uk
Childline: 0800 1111; www.childline.org.uk
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CMS Vocational Training Ltd can be contacted on 01924 470 477.