The majority of teenagers are vulnerable to online molestors and we need to help them understand the specific risks, says Jenni Whitehead

I was asked recently to deliver a presentation on online grooming for sexual abuse. For this presentation I would usually use a combination of resources from CEOP and research from David Finkelhor. I have run this particular presentation a number of times and it has struck me that people tend to misunderstand my use of the word, ‘vulnerable’ in the context of online grooming.

The word ‘vulnerable’ in the context of child protection conjures up an image of a child who has very little in the way of support and care from parents or a child who is living in adverse conditions or poverty or at severe risk of significant harm through child abuse.

However, the group of children vulnerable to online grooming is much broader than the group we would normally associate with vulnerability. In the box below I look at how sex offenders are using the internet and why so many more young people are vulnerable to them.

The way sex offenders operate online
The research paper Online ‘Predators’ and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment draws on a number of pieces of research looking at how sex offenders are using the internet to target children and young people.

Sex offenders will frequently visit chat rooms aimed at children and young people and are looking for a child who is vulnerable to grooming. Their behaviour once a child has been selected is pretty similar to the behaviour a sex offender uses offline. The sex offender befriends the child, gains their trust and grooms the child in order to perpetrate sexual abuse. However, offline we know from research that a child is more at risk of sexual abuse perpetrated by either a family member or a friend of the family and the child’s family are also subject to grooming. Offline, the sex offender uses the abuse of the power given to them by the relationship they have as a family member or by the relationship they develop with the family.

Online, the sex offender has to develop a relationship from scratch. However, online there are often no family members acting as barriers to the grooming process. The lack of other people looking on and the fact that the offender can make very frequent contacts via the internet and via the phone has the effect of speeding up the grooming process.

The sex offenders’ definition of vulnerability in respect of children and young people online includes those who:

  • have a naïve sense of romance and relationships but a growing wish to experiment with sexual behaviour and may be prepared to talk about sex
  • are lonely and seeking friendship
  • are struggling with understanding their own sexuality
  • are likely to take risks.

The list above probably covers the vast majority of teenagers in some way or another, not just those who are described as vulnerable for other reasons. Finkelhor says: ‘The factors that make youth vulnerable to seduction by online molesters are complex and related to immaturity, inexperience and the impulsiveness with which some youth respond to and explore normal sexual urges.’

Finkelhor’s research suggests that sex offenders who pretend to be children in order to lure unsuspecting young children to meet them offline, while they exist, are in a minority compared to the sex offender who works on developing a relationship with a teenager to such an extent that the teenager goes willingly to meet them despite knowing that they are older.


CEOP training

Online grooming clearly presents special challenges and we need to develop special approaches to combat it. CEOP training (see www.thinkuknow.co.uk) is very good and I continue to use their resources. We need to help children to understand the risks and to deter them from sharing personal information with people that they do not know offline. We also need to do a lot more about understanding relationships and the risks of developing a relationship with a person who is significantly older online.

One of CEOP’s training videos tells the story of a young boy lured to the house of a sex offender who has befriended him by pretending to be a child of the same age. The sex offender pursaudes the young lad to meet under the pretence of going to football training together. At the end of the film the young boy says, ‘I should have known. It says on the web-site [ThinkUKnow] “Don’t meet up with strangers.”‘ The trouble with this statement is he isn’t meeting a person he believes to be a ‘stranger’, he is, in his mind meeting a friend.

Online ‘friends’
The fashion to have as many ‘friends’ on Facebook as possible suggests that children and young people are not being discerning about who they add to their friendship list.

A colleague of mine boasted that her daughter had three hundred friends on Facebook. I asked her who all these people are and she replied, ‘Probably her whole school.’ Well, even the most gregarious child cannot manage three hundred friends offline in any real sense of the word friendship. This child had sorted her Facebook account to only allow friends to access her private information and her mum was equally proud of the fact that her daughter knew how to do this. I suggested she discuss with her child the meaning of friendship!

In my opinion, then, all young people are vulnerable to online grooming if they are not helped to understand how to recognise a potentially harmful relationship and that some people will develop a relationship with a younger person in order to coerce them into sexual behaviour that is abusive of them.

Clearly, though, young people who are vulnerable offline for all the reasons we normally associate with vulnerability are likely to be at added risk because their understanding of ‘normal’ relationships may already be impaired.

References
Online ‘Predators’ and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment. Finkelhor, D, Mitchell, KJ, Wolak, J, Ybarra, ML (2008) can be downloaded from www.unh.edu/ccrc/internet-crimes

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