Module 2: Grooming
There is no best way to detect an online exploiter. As grooming is a process, there are several tactics exploiters will use to build a relationship and they often follow six steps to groom online or in person. In this module, we will cover:
- 2.1 Target the Youth
- 2.2 Gain Trust and Legitimacy
- 2.3 Fulfill the Youth’s Needs
- 2.4 Isolate the Youth
- 2.5 Sexualize the Relationship
- 2.6 Maintain Control
- A brief description of grooming was given in module 1. Here we’ll go into more detail about specifically what “online grooming” looks like.
- Generally speaking, grooming is a careful, thought out form of manipulation. Online grooming is a process where an adult engages in an online relationship with a child or youth (under 18) to exploit them sexually.
- These interactions can happen over social media (Facebook, Snapchat, Tik Tok, Instagram, etc.), through online gaming platforms (Discord, Xbox Live, etc.).
- It can also occur through apps and games designed for children.
What do they do?
- An exploiter may lie and pretend to be an age-appropriate “friend of a friend,” someone from another school, or someone who just came across your profile.
- Other times the exploiter may be upfront with who they are and tell you they are an adult. The process of grooming offline can happen over longer periods of time.
- However, because many youths have their first cell phone by the age of 13 (often younger 11 or 12), exploiters can use the online world to access many youths on many platforms.
Who is at risk?
- Exploiters will often focus their time and energy grooming youth who are vulnerable and more likely to fulfill the exploiter’s wants.
- Working to build a relationship with youth isn’t always a long process; it can happen quickly. Sometimes in the first few interactions or the first conversation.
What are some measures you can take to stay safe?
Online predators aren’t always someone on the other side of the screen who a young person has never met. Often, exploiters are well-known community members who adults and youth have come to know and trust.
They could be a teacher, a doctor, a coach, or a family friend. Even if we know the person, they can still use the internet to contact and sexually exploit young people online. This is an easy, more private avenue to use where it may not be as obvious to the other adults in the youth’s life. Just because you know them in person doesn’t mean you can trust them.
Be aware of the times and types of conversation this adult wants to have with you:
- Are they talking to you when they know your parents aren’t around?
- Are they asking you to keep your conversations private?
- Are they using the fact that they’re in a position of authority to gain your trust?
- Are they actively trying to have private conversations with you?
- Are you uncomfortable with what you’re talking about and the amount of time you’re communicating?
- Are they asking you to do things you aren’t comfortable with (such as swimming or meeting privately)?
- Does the relationship feel like there is something off with it?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, talk to a safe adult you know you can trust. We live in a society where we’re meant to trust adults, but not all adults are safe people. Don’t be afraid of hurting this person’s feelings. You have a right to feel safe, and if someone is making you feel uncomfortable, they should respect that and learn from it.
Module 2.1 Target the Youth
It is important to note that anyone can be a target of an online sexual exploiter. Exploiters will typically look for vulnerabilities that they can manipulate and use to build a relationship with the young person.
Who could be a groomer?
- Sometimes the groomer is known to the youth and chooses to start the “relationship” online (such as a family friend, teacher, coach, community member).
- They may approach as themselves or act like someone else. If they are known to the youth, they will already have an idea of the youth’s general life experiences (such as social life, family dynamics, etc.).
- If the exploiter is not known to the youth, they will ask questions and fill a need that the young person is lacking. This need could be financial support (sending money/gifts), emotional support (being a confidant), or connection for a young person.
For more understanding of who is most vulnerable, head over to Module 4.
Module 2.2: Gain Trust and Legitimacy
Online exploiters know how to create relationships with youth. They build the illusion that they are the youth’s friend or they’re interested in them romantically. They build rapport and trust by talking about similar interests, act as a confidant, and/or sympathize with what the youth is going through.
How do exploiters establish this?
- They create a space that makes the youth feel special, heard, and validated.
- The exploiter will share secrets, send gifts/money, and/or generally just invest time into the youth. They’ll ask questions about friends and family that seem ordinary.
- Still, the exploiter will later use the information to manipulate the youth’s behaviours, boundaries, and relationships. They are working to create a strong and complex bond.
Module 2.3: Fulfill the Youth’s Needs
This is a subtle tactic that may go undetected by youth and adults alike. The exploiter will seem kind, helpful, and genuine. They will then subtly fill needs for the youth. This could come in the form of compliments, kindness, money and gifts, and attention.
How do exploiters establish this?
- Exploiters will often use compliments and praise to gain trust and build a relationship with the young person.
- These compliments may focus on appearance as we are conditioned by society from an early age to place value on our appearance (especially girls and those socialized as girls).
- The exploiter will also comment on aspects of the youth’s personality, abilities in certain areas, or material possessions.
- By commenting on a new device such as an iPhone, they can work to bridge the generational gap in communicating and asking, for example, the youth’s social media handle to start texting/normalizing photo exchanges.
- If the groomer is looking to gauge the compliance of the youth quickly, they will make sexually explicit comments early on.
- These comments can be about sexual performance, sexual remarks about physical appearance, or sexual comments about their personality.
- It is common for online groomers to communicate with youth in the same way youth communicate with their peers.
- Appearance compliments- “wow u r really good at that game.”
- Compliments about possessions- “so cool u got the new iPhone.”
- Sexually explicit comments- “I bet ur great in bed.”
- Sexual comments about physical appearance “wow u look so hot and sexy.”
- Other examples of sexual comments- “u have a sexy voice.”
What information may they gather from young people?
- The exploiter will ask questions to gauge the youth’s adult oversight. For example, they may ask about what the adults in the home do for a living. This helps the exploiter assess the home.
- Additionally, it gives the exploiter a good idea of the hours that the adults are in the house and when they will be away. Knowing this information, the exploiter can make a point to talk to the youth at times when they know adults aren’t home.
- Finally, the exploiter may also ask if anyone else uses the computer/device to see if their conversation are monitored. The more information an exploiter has about a youth’s life, the more they can identify unfulfilled needs and fulfill them.
How would exploiters communicate with young people?
- There have been many instances of online (non-contact) exploiters sending cell phones or other devices to youth to keep the relationship secret and talk in private.
- This is a form of isolation because the groomer is getting the young person “alone” by giving them a device (a secret) that’s just between them. If an adult does not know that the young person has the device, they can’t monitor what’s happening.
- Additionally, exploiters will use self-destructing messaging options such as Snapchat or Secret Conversations on Facebook Messenger to hide the conversation and leave no evidence automatically.
- Suppose the youth is aware that they are talking with an adult. In that case, the groomer may comment on this power imbalance to test and push the youth’s comfort zone (boundaries).
- The exploiter may also talk about the dangers of talking to strangers online to show the youth they have their well-being in mind.
- Doing so allows trust to build between the youth and the exploiter. Exploiters will tell youth they are special to them because they are taking a risk by talking to the youth.
- This manipulation fulfills the youth’s need to feel loved/special while conflating feeling loved with secrecy, discomfort, and control.
- The groomer may also use subtle ways to find out about the youth’s sexual experience and if they are interested in travelling to meet.
- It’s unlikely that an exploiter will come out and say, “will you meet me?” They may gauge the youth’s general interest in travelling by commenting on a fun activity/place/event that the groomer thinks will appeal to the youth.
Module 2.4: Isolate the Youth
- Isolation removes the circle of safe people in the youth’s life. Exploiters will isolate youth from adults and other youth alike because the other youth may speak to a safe adult about the exploiter.
- Isolation makes the exploiter the only “safe” person in the youth’s life, which allows the exploiter to further isolate them by reinforcing riffs between adults and the youth that already exist.
- For example, a youth who has a curfew much earlier than their friends may be mad at the adults enforcing the curfew. An exploiter would reinforce that the curfew is unfair to the youth.
Module 2.5: Sexualize the Relationship
- Desexualizing the youth to sexual conversations or materials is another tactic used. This is done when a relationship has been built, and trust has been established.
- However, it may be a subtle part of each step in the grooming process. They may ask about a youth’s sexual history or talk about masturbation.
- The exploiter could start by normalizing sexually explicit content in their relationships, such as images and texts.
- They may make sexual comments about the youth’s body, normalize being partially or fully naked (such as going swimming together), or ask for explicit photos/videos.
Module 2.6: Maintain Control
If you have been exploited, it is NOT your fault. Controlling youth is a common tactic that online groomers use. The exploiter may start to exert control if a youth says they won’t send an explicit photo or video.
What happens at this stage?
- The exploiter will use information gathered in the earlier stages of the grooming process to manipulate the youth. For example, if the exploiter sent the youth money, they will tell the youth they need to pay them back or that the youth now owes the exploiter money.
- They may threaten to release sexually explicit images/videos/texts of the youth publicly. They may tell the youth they will send the images/videos/texts to the adults in the youth’s life to create shame and place blame on the youth.
- Once an exploiter has control over the youth, they will work to maintain that control. They may threaten to hurt your family in some way.
- They will make you feel shame, guilt, and embarrassment for sending sexually explicit materials and starting the “relationship.” This is manipulation to maintain control.
- When talking about online grooming, it is important to note that these exploiters don’t follow a timeline. There is no checkbox list.
- These are common indicators to look for and be aware of. Accountability and transparency are crucial to ensuring an adult in a youth’s life is safe.
- Please remember exploiters have lots of practice keeping their activities hidden and undetected. Many people taking this training are new to recognizing the behaviours or exploiters.
- If you do/have missed signs, that’s okay and not your fault. Sexual exploitation of youth is ALWAYS the fault of the exploiters.
- What other questions or conversations with an adult may make you uncomfortable?