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The Stages of Online Grooming

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

Posted By Travis Uresk|

Grooming is the process by which someone befriends and gains the trust of a child (and sometimes the child’s friends and family) in order to take advantage of the child for sexual purposes.

Friendship Forming Stage: Targeting and Gaining Trust

The friendship forming stage is composed of conversations in which the predator tries to get introduced to the child. Predators target vulnerable children – those who are needy, unhappy, unable to talk about abuse, or have less parental oversight. Next, the predator will gather information about the child and the child’s family to gain the child’s trust over time. It’s extremely important to be aware of new people in your life and the amount of time they spend with your child and your family. Make sure your child knows that they can talk to you about anything and that you’re there to listen.

Example: Predator exchanges information with the child or parent to get personal contact information, such as email addresses or usernames for social media sites. Additionally, the predator inquires about the relationships in the household.

Relationship Forming Stage: Filling the Child’s (or Family’s) Needs

After gaining access to the child, the predator starts forming a relationship by talking to them about family and school life. Next, the predator fills some sort of need that the child or the family has to ingrain himself into their lives. This may be monetary in nature; for example, a single mother struggling to pay the bills may receive cash or offers to take care of bills.

Predators may also fill a child’s desire for attention by buying them gifts, taking them places, etc. Be aware of any gifts your child may receive from other adults, especially electronic devices. Be extra cautious if someone you haven’t known long offers to help in an overly generous manner.

Example: The predator tries to know more about the interest and hobbies of the child so that they can exploit them. They deceive the child into believing they are in a relationship. At this stage the predator gives soft compliments, calling them “sweetie,” “cutie,” etc.

Risk Assessment Stage: Gauging the Level of Threat

The predator at this stage tries to gauge the level of threat and danger the caregivers pose. They ask questions to see how closely the child is monitored online and in real life. They try to gauge how close the child is to the family and whether their actions will be reported and believed.

In an interview with two child sex offenders, WBIR 10NEWs reported that one of the top deterrents for predators were adults who monitor the electronic communications of the child. Close relationships, close monitoring, and a child who has been warned about predators are huge threats to a predator.

Use your child’s online interactions for possible grooming. Bark sends alerts on these potential issues so you can address them with your kids.

Example: Predators will ask questions like, “Are your parents around?” and “Who else uses the computer?” or “Can you delete your chats?” and “Do your parents monitor your online accounts?”

Exclusivity Stage: Isolating the Child from Others

At this stage, the predator tries to gain the trust of the child completely. The predator asserts that they share a special bond. Often the concept of love and care are introduced.

A predator will look for opportunities to spend time alone with the child. They will often use sly tactics to create these situations and use this time to further reinforce the idea of a special relationship. Trips to amusement parks, offers to tutor your child for free, and other similar situations may signify that your child is being groomed. Trust your instincts should you feel something is amiss.

Examples: Feelings of love and exclusiveness are expressed by the predator. Strong compliments are given. They will say things like, “You are a sweetheart,” or “You are so cute when you look like that,” or “I feel a deep connection with you I don’t feel with anyone else.”

Sexual Stage: Desensitizing the Child

During the sexual stage, predators ask questions about the child’s sexuality. They will ask things like, “Are you a virgin?” or will talk about masturbation. Some pedophiles talk in great depth about sexual activities with the child to desensitize them to the language and content. They do this to prepare the child for actual physical interaction.

Predators have been known to show children pictures of other children without their clothing in order to make it appear “normal” and “natural.” Some even take the child swimming naked together in an effort to play to the child’s natural curiosity. The predator may introduce porn videos. For this reason, it is important to maintain an open line of communication with your children and act on anything that doesn’t seem typical age-appropriate sexual curiosity.

Examples: The predator gives sexual-oriented compliments, exchanges sexualized pictures, and gives body and figure descriptions. They will say things like, “you are sexy,” ask the child to be their boyfriend or girlfriend, or ask for nudes and sexual text messages.

Conclusion Stage: Controlling the Child and Situation

The conclusion stage occurs when the pedophile begins the physical abuse. Once it begins, they will go to great lengths to maintain control. In most cases, the offender uses secrecy, blame, and even threats to keep the child from saying anything.

The predator’s goal is to maintain the child’s participation, all while hiding it from everyone else. If your child appears withdrawn and sullen, or if they appear fearful and depressed when it’s time to see a particular person, this may be a sign that they’ve been conditioned to remain silent about activities with this person. Let your children know they can come to you when anyone asks them to do something they are not comfortable with — even if that person is an adult.

Examples: A predator will ask questions in this stage like, “Are you able to meet up with me alone or do your parents always have to know everything?” or “Can you sneak out of your house and meet up at a McDonald’s for a treat” or “When we meet I can’t wait to hug you and kiss you” or “Can you walk to our meeting place or is there a place away from your house I can pick you up in my car?” Questions like this ensure the child comes alone and the predator controls how they meet.

Grooming Signs of an Online Sexual Predator

There are a number of signs to be aware of that may suggest online grooming is taking place. Although some may seem like typical teen behavior, it’s still important to watch out for:

  • Wanting or asking to spend more time on the internet

  • Being secretive about the sites they visit or who they are talking to online

  • Switching screens when you come near them when they are on their computer or phone

  • Possessing new items you haven’t given them, especially electronic devices

  • Using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know or that is not age-appropriate

  • Emotions that become more volatile

An informative study by the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology found that a predator does not necessarily move sequentially through the stages. They also discovered that the relationship forming stage is the most dominant online grooming stage. In other words, more than one stage can be in process at once, and predators do not necessarily go in any particular order.

The truth is, grooming signs can be difficult to spot. This is because sexual predators tend to also befriend parents and caregivers. Maintaining an open line of communication with your child and paying extra attention to the amount of time they spend with other adults, as well as with Bark, can help protect your child from online sexual predators.

Spotting the Warning Signs of Child Grooming

What Is Child Grooming?

In both the real world and online environments, children are at risk of encountering predators. Due to a surge of underage activity on social media websites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc, more and more children are being groomed. Perpetrators of this crime strive to establish a connection with children either online or in-person to earn their trust.

The process of child grooming prepares children for a meeting; when children are in contact with a groomer, they become vulnerable to manipulation, exploitation and sexual abuse. Perpetrators may target and exploit the perceived vulnerabilities of children, including emotional neediness, isolation, neglect, an unstable home life, or lack of parental supervision, etc. Groomers can be of any age, gender, race and may already be acquainted with the child, or they may be strangers.

Child grooming can take place over a long period (months or years) or could occur over a short period of just a few weeks.

Types of Child Grooming

Child grooming can take place online and in person, the perpetrator may begin an initial relationship with children online in order to prepare them for a face-to-face meeting. Predators do not always pursue a romantic connection at first. They may choose to present themselves as an authority figure, mentor, or a young person to who the child can relate.

These criminals may be operating on multiple platforms to have access to as many children as possible. Groomers use the same social media websites, games, and apps as young people and study the profiles of the children they wish to groom. This ensures that the predator can learn more about the young individual and use this information to form a connection. Groomers often conceal their identity by sending photos or videos of other people.

They also utilize other forms of communication such as email and messaging apps such as WhatsApp as well as social media websites to maximize their chances of grooming children. Online groomers may employ tactics such as giving advice or attention to especially vulnerable children who may lack a leader figure in their lives. Groomers who operate in person and who may already know the child that they are grooming might buy the child presents or take them on trips.

A common tactic of groomers is to isolate the child from their family and friends so they are more susceptible to the perpetrator’s power and control.

Warning Signs Of Child Grooming

The warning signs of child grooming are not always obvious. Often, child grooming goes undetected as children do not realize what is happening to them. However, parents or guardians should look out for the following indicators of child grooming:

  • Having a boyfriend or girlfriend who is much older than them.

  • Being secretive about how they’re spending their time, including when online.

  • Having new clothes and expensive items such as a mobile phone.

  • Not wanting to talk about where their new stuff has come from.

  • Skips school or sporting activities.

  • Substance abuse (underage drinking or drug-taking).

  • Spending more or less time on their phone, laptop, tablet etc.

  • Being upset, withdrawn, or anxious.

  • No longer talking to you about their feelings.

  • Using inappropriate language or showing an understanding of sex that’s not appropriate for their age

  • Disappearing for long periods with no explanation as to where they have been.

Gaining The Trust Of The Parent/Caregiver

Groomers do not only target children; perpetrators work to gain the trust of parents/caregivers to lower suspicion and gain access to the child by providing seemingly friendly support. The following signs might indicate that someone is grooming you or your family with the intention of sexually abusing your child or the child you’re caring for:

  • They offer to babysit your child.

  • They offer to take the child on excursions/trips away.

  • They buy the family gifts.

  • Plays with your child and touches them in a non-sexual way as a means of getting you and your child used to physical contact.

  • They often compliment your family and your style of parenting.

  • They try to initiate a romantic relationship with you.

  • They offer to mentor / individually coach your child.

How You Can Help

Child grooming is a barbaric crime. If a child you know or a child in your care experiences grooming, you shouldn’t feel guilty as these perpetrators are highly experienced and know how to proceed undetected. However, it is important to trust your instinct; if you have suspicions about an acquaintance of the child you should:

  • Prevent your child from being alone with the person you have suspicions about.

  • Refrain from letting the person do favors for your family.

  • Speak with other families who also know the person; ask them what their relationship is like with the suspect.

  • Limit your child’s online activity.

  • Ask your child how they feel about the person by asking questions like ‘Do you like the way Person X acts around you?’ or ‘what type of activities do you do when Person X babysits you?’

  • Encourage your child to open up by asking questions like ‘Is anything worrying you?’ or ‘Are you OK?’

How to Protect Your Children from Online Grooming 2022

Grooming is the process by which someone befriends and gains the trust of a child (and sometimes the child’s friends and family) in order to take advantage of the child for sexual purposes.

To accomplish this, predators are masters at manipulation, often appearing kind and helpful. However, there are grooming signs you should be aware of, including the six stages of grooming. These red flags could mean a child is experiencing grooming by an online sexual predator.

Utah Sex Offender Watch

National Sex Offender Public Website


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