Cyber grooming: When the Internet becomes a threat

It’s hard to imagine life without the Internet. For many children and young people in especially, it has become a fixed part of everyday life: Whether it’s for doing homework, playing online games or simply chatting with their friends, the World Wide Web offers countless opportunities. In particular, the opportunity to make new contacts can be attractive to young users. However, the digital world also harbors numerous risks for minors. Cases of cyber grooming and sexualized violence are steadily on the rise. 

BUT WHAT IS „CYBER GROOMING“ ANYWAY?

When adults specifically use the Internet to establish contact with minors with the intention of sexually exploiting or abusing them, this is known as „cyber grooming“. In this case, the perpetrators use social media platforms, chat rooms and online games to build up a relationship with the minors and gain their trust with a great deal of patience and finesse. In order to succeed, the perpetrators do not shy away from pretending to be peers or trustworthy adults. It is not uncommon for the perpetrators to behave inconspicuously for weeks and months. In this way, they gradually build an emotional bond with the victims before the conversation drifts in a sexual direction. Once trust is established, they lure the child into a sexually explicit conversation or even a face-to-face meeting. The children and teens are then usually caught off guard or curious about the situation, which is why they don’t end the conversation right away. If the girls or boys feel insecure at some point, the perpetrators often try to intimidate their victims and blackmail them with the photos and postings they have already received. This can lead to a dangerous vicious circle in which the underage victims feel compelled to continue responding to the perpetrators‘ demands in order to prevent the pictures from being published.

FRIGHTENING FIGURES…

In Austria, grooming and cyber grooming have been punishable by law since January 2012. Section 208a of the Austrian Penal Code (initiation of sexual contact with minors) prohibits contact with persons under 14 years of age solely with sexual intentions in both real and digital space. Violation of this law may result in up to two years‘ imprisonment. Nevertheless, young people are victims of sexual violence on the Internet every day. 

On behalf of SOS Children’s Villages and Rat auf Draht, the Institute for Youth Culture Research has for the first time collected Austria-wide data on sexual harassment and violence among children and young people on the Internet. The representative survey of 400 young people yields alarming results: More than a quarter (27%) of all children and young people between the ages of 11 and 18 have experienced sexual harassment on the Internet at least once. In addition, the survey showed that both girls and boys can become victims of sexual harassment or cyber grooming on the Internet, with girls generally being affected more frequently than boys. In addition, one in ten of the respondents had already been blackmailed. However, the number of unreported cases is probably much higher. 

WHO IS PARTICULARLY AT RISK OF BECOMING A VICTIM OF CYBER GROOMING?

Regardless of age, gender or place of residence, any child who is active in the digital space can become a victim of cyber grooming. Nevertheless, there are certain risk factors that can promote grooming. 

This is particularly the case when the people concerned are very young. Accordingly, minors 13 and under are especially at risk, as they often do not yet have enough life experience to recognize potential risks on the Internet. In addition, children and young people who have already had experiences with (cyber)bullying are also at greater risk, as they often seek external confirmation and recognition, and are therefore vulnerable to the perpetrators‘ attempts at manipulation. 

Children with a small circle of friends and poor relationships with their parents are also at increased risk. This is because these children don’t have a confidant with whom they can talk about their wishes, worries or problems, leading them to respond to contacts on the Internet. Low self-esteem can also make children easier to influence. They feel understood for the first time and it flatters them that someone else is interested in them. This can lead to children accepting inappropriate requests or conversations with perpetrators, as they think it will help them build a special relationship or compensate for their insecurity. 

Daily chat duration may also be an indicator of increased risk of becoming a victim of cyber grooming. Children who spend an excessive amount of time online and are looking for social interaction may be more likely to encounter potentially dangerous contacts. It is therefore important for parents and guardians to be vigilant and educate their children about the risks of using the internet to protect them from cyber grooming.

THE POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF CYBER GROOMING

The consequences for the affected children and adolescents can be devastating and often range from deep insecurity to a disturbed sex life. 

The effects on the psyche of children and adolescents are serious and sometimes manifest themselves in anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Often the victims feel ashamed and have the feeling that they themselves are to blame for what has happened to them. As a result of this shame, they often do not dare to seek help and withdraw from their social environment, which can further aggravate their situation. Physical symptoms such as headaches or abdominal pain are also not uncommon. 

Victims of cyber grooming also have to endure the terrible fear that their intimate photos will be published or that worse threats will come true. Receiving nude photos or links to porn sites can also lead to deep disturbances in those affected and permanently shatter their trust in other people. In addition, cyber grooming can also influence the subsequent sex life of those affected – especially if sexual abuse has also occurred offline.

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO PROTECT THEIR CHILDREN FROM CYBER GROOMING?

In order to protect minors from cyber grooming, neither constant monitoring of children and young people nor a ban on internet access are effective. Instead, parents and guardians should encourage their children to use the nternet responsibly and educate them about the potential dangers in order to ensure the safe use of digital media in the long term.

The Federal Criminal Police Office provides the following tips on how parents can best protect their children from cyber grooming:

  • Promote trust: Clear and open communication between parents and child is particularly important. Parents should show interest in their child’s online world and signal to him that he can always find help and support from them if he has problems, without being punished.
  • Create awareness of the problem: Children should be educated about the dangers on the internet and about sexuality in general. Parents should talk to their child about the fact that not all people on the Internet have good intentions and how you can possibly tell if they are a „groomer“. Children should accordingly be encouraged to question things critically both online and offline.
  • Avoid bans: It is unrealistic to forbid children from contacting strangers on the internet. Instead, parents should develop strategies together with their child and agree on safety rules to surf the net safely.
  • Strengthen gut feeling & practice saying „no“: It is also important that children learn to always listen to their gut feeling and also to clearly say „no“ in order to defend themselves against advances. In this way, they quickly become unattractive to potential perpetrators. 
  • Protect personal data and photos: Children should be advised never to share personal data or photos with strangers on the internet, as these can also be misused for the wrong purposes. It is best to set up social media profiles together accordingly. Parents should also be careful with children’s photos within the family. 
  • Only meet in public: If the child wants to meet with an online acquaintance, parents should insist that this only happen in public places and that they are informed about it. It is recommended that parents accompany the child and stay in sight.
  • Stay calm: When parents talk to their children about cyber grooming, they should remain factual and calm and not panic. Children should feel that they can ask their parents for help if the worst happens.

WHAT TO DO IN CASE OF CYBER GROOMING? 

If the worst has already happened, it is important not to panic, but to remain calm. If you suspect that you or someone you know has been the victim of cyber grooming, there are some important steps you should take:

  • Talk to a trusted person such as a parent, friend or counselor.
  • Save any evidence such as screenshots of messages or recordings of calls. These are important for later proceedings. In addition, you can go to the police (together with the parents, if necessary) and file a complaint.
  • Report and block the offender on all online platforms where you have had contact so that consequences can follow. 
  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help in this stressful situation.

Translated by Emily Schiffer

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