Researchers at Swansea University this week released some remarkable findings into the tactics of on-line groomers. This ground breaking research is rather surprising and debunks a few of the myths of how abusers groom children and young people online. Analysing transcripts of more than a hundred online groomers, the researchers discovered that the abusers rarely pretended to be children and most did not even bother to pretend to be younger. They also found that the periods of time spent grooming the victim were often quite short and sometimes only lasting twenty minutes. Elaborate deceptions that involve fake personalities and extended grooming periods may make great newspaper stories, but according to this research are not the norm. They also found that praising techniques were used more often that coercion.
The research has confirmed what I’ve thought for a long time. That there are lots of young people out there who are keen to chat about sex and if abusers find that someone is not interested or impressionable enough, they quickly move on. Due to the massive number of children using the internet, it is easy to find someone who is interested to talk about sex. There are also lots of children desperate for adult attention and if talking about sex gets it, they will. It also seems obvious to anyone who has worked with children that praise and positive reinforcement are more effective techniques than pressure and coercion.
Psychologist John Suller talks about ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’ and the ‘perceived anonymity’ that the internet offers. This anonymity can mask an individual’s identity and actions, creating the illusion of being completely hidden and safe. It allows them to act in a manner that reflects their true feelings and without regard to repercussions their actions might incur. This ‘perceived anonymity’ gives abusers the confidence to overcome some of the external and internal barriers that may inhibit them from abusing children. However this anonymity also gives children and young people the confidence to say things that they might not do or say in real life.
So how can we help the children we are living or working with to keep themselves safe online? There are many techniques and strategies that I teach on my training courses but if I could give only one piece of advice it would be this ‘engage in the child’s online life’. Many parents and carers learn about the intricacies of the offside rule, the colour of Real Madrid’s away kit or the impending split of One Direction, but know nothing about Instagram or Snapchat.
A parent recently confided in me that she was concerned about her teenage daughter using Snapchat and asked if I could I teach her all about it. I told her instead to go and ask her daughter to give her a lesson. I suggested she ask her daughter how to use it and what she should do to keep herself safe. Engagement and discussion with children and young people is key and is a far more successful strategy than an authoritarian approach that lays down the law and sets rules of iron. If children are afraid that they will be banned from using the internet or losing their mobile phone, they are unlikely to confide in us when they are at risk. Abusers need secrecy to succeed and this cannot happen if we have open and honest communication with children and young people.