Grooming involves an individual or individuals building a relationship, trust or emotional connection with a child or young person, with the primary intention of manipulating and abusing them. Abuse could be a one-time act or a process where a stranger builds a relationship over a period of time with a victim.
The term grooming comes from the English verb to ‘groom’, which literally means to brush or clean the coat of an animal. However, according to the Wikipedia definition, grooming, or specifically ‘child grooming’, refers to “befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, and sometimes family, to lower the child’s inhibtions, with the objective of sexual abuse. Child grooming is also regularly used to lure minors into various illicit businesses such as trafficking, child prostiution, or the production of child pornography”.
Children and young people can be groomed online, in person or both – by a stranger or someone they know. It could be a family member, a friend or someone who has targeted them, such as a teacher, or sports coach.
The internet has given rise to the popularity of ‘instant messaging’. It is through the creation and development of social networks, forums, chat rooms and other messaging platforms online, that instant communication has become both the norm, and an easy way to contact people from all over the world. Unfortunately, the convenience of instant messaging has also given rise to internet grooming.
When a child is groomed online, groomers may hide who they are by sending photos or videos of other people. Sometimes the photos will be of someone younger than them, in a bid to gain the child’s initial trust. Groomers may target one child online or contact lots of children very quickly and wait for them to respond.
The internet provides anonymity and very limited regulation, which allows traffickers and other offenders to easily come into contact with potential victims. The ever increasing use of social media continues to give children and young people more and more chances to come into contact with groomers. It also provides groomers with an easy way to anonymously interact with an increasing number of potential victims.
The team from Alia2 Foundation, Spanish nonprofit organisation whose aim is to stop internet child grooming and prevent child abduction and rape, explain the difference between two of the most dangerous communication processes online, cyberbullying and grooming. Whereas cyberbullying involves electronic communication to bully and stalk a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature, grooming specifically refers to an adult(s) unlawfully stalking a child with sexual intent. They stress that grooming is not a new crime, explaining that many of the techniques that groomers use online are simply re-adapted methods of grooming in person (child abuse).
"Despite these situations [grooming] starting on the web, they often transcend to the physical world, leading to crimes such as trafficking, child pornography or physical abuse of minors,” said the team from Alia2.
Any child is at risk of being groomed. It is important to remember that grooming can happen to both boys and girls. Some children are more at risk than others, particularly those who are vulnerable. Children in care, those with disabilities or who are neglected can be specifically targeted. Groomers will exploit any sign of vulnerability to increase the likelihood that the child or young person will become dependent on them. The more dependent the victim becomes on a groomer, the less likely they will seek to speak-out about what is happening to them.