Social media use as we have already reported this week is prevalent among children, with an estimated 20% of children aged 8 to 11 years old said to have a social media profile in the UK, notwithstanding that the social media providers require all users to be over age 13 before having their own profile. The figure rises to 70% among children aged 12 to 15 years old1. The potential for online grooming is huge and is already being exploited as we have noted when commenting on the rise of sexting.

However, it is not just sexting and cyberbullying which are unwanted products of the internet and social media use. Online grooming is another area of concern. The data held on the grooming offences reported to the police does not distinguish between children being groomed offline and those being groomed online, but the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre’s (CEOPC’s) report of 2012 found that of the sexual offending involving children, some 10% of this offending involved online grooming. That figure is likely to have increased in the years since the report was published.

It is difficult to fully understand the scale of online grooming, and the number of offences committed. Some children who are groomed may not report it, not realising they have been groomed, or perhaps they considered they were in a “relationship” with the abuser and it is only when they are older that they fully appreciate that the relationship they had with the groomer was indeed abusive. Others may simply be too scared or ashamed to report the problem or do not know to whom to report it.

Developments in technology and children’s increased need and desire to have engagement with it unfortunately provides more opportunities for grooming to occur. Teenagers are potentially more vulnerable to online grooming as they are often left unsupervised in their online world, are more likely to have more social media accounts across different platforms, and, as they go through puberty, be more receptive to the idea of relationships or exploring their sexuality.

It is also increasingly difficult for parents to spot signs of their children being groomed, especially when it is taking place over online mediums over which their children may be somewhat secretive or just have a greater knowledge and awareness. It is similarly difficult for schools, or any organisations or charities with a pastoral element of care or support in a child’s life, to spot signs of grooming.

A study by Webster et al (2012)3 found that there were three broad categories of online grooming victims:

  • Resilient individuals who are able to act safely and fend off the abuser.
  • Risk takers, who seek adventure and may engage in riskier behaviours, such as befriending unknown people online. They may be vulnerable to blackmail if they comply with some of the abuser’s initial requests.
  • Vulnerable individuals, who seek “love” on the Internet and may be particularly vulnerable to abuse. They may believe that they are in a real, loving relationship, and are not a victim of grooming.

Evidently, whilst all online grooming is a problem, where it involves a victim who falls into one of the latter two categories there are greater risks and challenges given that the grooming is likely to result in serious forms of abuse.

Education is needed to enable all children, young people and vulnerable adults to be able to recognise grooming as a sophisticated behaviour and to understand no matter how caring the new online friend is there is a risk. Education is also needed for parents and carers who may also struggle to keep up with online challenges.

File on Four recently considered the very sad case of Kayleigh Hayward, whose meeting with her online groomer ended in her murder. Her parents have bravely worked with the police to make a video to be shown to teenagers highlighting how what seemed to be a supportive and caring online friendship, which she kept secret from her parents, became a nightmare for all involved. If her death can ensure the safety of other young people then it will as Kayleigh’s Mum said save other families from going through what she has been through.