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Online child sexual grooming: Abuse and manipulation through communication

“you can cry on my shoulders as much as you want as well … trust me … Keep smiling”, “…i think im starting to like you”, “u should be asleep”

This is the kind of communicative support that we might like our children to experience within healthy digital relationships, from trustable others in their lives. Yet, sadly, these examples come from three digital conversations between online groomers and children. They are in fact typical of groomers’ use of trust-building talk – a communicative tactic that enables online groomers to manipulate children they target for sexual abuse. And trust-building talk is as salient as sex talk, which is what we tend reflexively to think of in a context of online child sexual grooming.

Those responsible for combating online child sexual grooming are well aware of different stimuli that influence how groomers establish and maintain abusive relationships with the children they target digitally. Situational factors undoubtedly play a significant role. These include digital affordances (e.g., privacy settings for different digital platforms), time and duration of digital contact (e.g., night-time; over a couple of days, weeks or months), place of contact (e.g., private space in the child-targets’ homes or public spaces such as a park), and so on. Socio-demographic and psychological factors – for example, age, gender, and mental state – are key too, both to groomers and their child-targets. However, for a long time now efforts to counter online child sexual grooming have been hampered by a failure to see it for what it really is, namely an abusive practice of communicative manipulation. Online child sexual groomers use language and other communicative means (e.g., emojis, images, videos) to persuade their child-targets to engage in sexual behaviour online and, sometimes, offline too.

The bad news is that the manipulation tactics involved in online child sexual grooming are highly sophisticated (see below) and therefore difficult for minors – and those of us who wish to keep them safe – to detect and resist. The good news is that we now have research-evidenced knowledge of what these tactics are and how children respond to them, meaning we can develop more effective detection and prevention resources. This is what Project DRAGON-S does, bringing together state of the art research in Linguistics, Artificial Intelligence, Criminology and Public Policy, and working collaboratively with stakeholders, to produce online child sexual grooming detection and prevention tools to support the work of child-safeguarding professionals and, hence, contribute to child safety online.

The remainder of this article focuses on three key, intertwined aspects of online child sexual grooming communication: inter-action, power abuse and a sophisticated tactical armoury.

  • At the risk of stating the obvious, online child sexual grooming entails two-way inter-action: the groomer and their child-target engage in digital communication. Like in all communication, digital or otherwise, what one person says, and how they say it, influences what the other person says, and how they say it. In the case of online child sexual grooming, this means that groomers can, and do, alter their communicative behaviours according to how their child-targets engage and react. Groomers alternate between ‘nice’ (complimenting, giving options, etc.) and ‘nasty’ (threatening, commanding, etc.) communication styles quickly and frequently, often from the onset of an interaction. This pivoting is cognitively difficult to process, making it hard for children to see that they are being manipulated.

  • So, online child sexual grooming entails two-way, continually evolving communication. Crucially, that communication is inherently asymmetric, whereby groomers have power over the children they target. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, there is a pre-existing power imbalance between them: the adult is more developed, communicatively and experientially. This means that, when negotiating the terms of their digital relationship, the groomer/adult has the communicative upper hand. Secondly, groomers are very focused on their sexual objectives when communicating with children, meaning their communication is highly tactical. By contrast, children generally have less clearly defined and hence more shifting goals when interacting with grooming adults online, ranging from friendship or romantic relationship seeking through to sexual curiosity and exploration. When groomer and child-target goals clash in the course of their digital interaction, they need to be negotiated. And it is at this point that the power asymmetry characteristic of online child sexual grooming puts the child at a clear disadvantage - a disadvantage that groomers fully abuse through a sophisticated tactical communication armoury, as we see next.

  • Research into online child sexual grooming shows that groomers use a number of communicative tactics to achieve their sexually abusive goals. These include isolating child-targets from their support networks, desensitising child-targets to sex, seeking to build their trust, and securing further contact with them online and, in the case of so-called contact grooming, also offline. Each of these manipulation tactics can be broken down into specific sub-tactics. In the case of building trust, for instance, groomers typically pay compliments to their child-targets, seek to elicit personal information from them, spend time discussing hobbies and relationships (theirs and with others, such as boyfriends and girlfriends), and simply ‘hanging out’ online.  When it comes to isolation tactics, groomers try to gain exclusive –and often secrecy-bound - access to the children they target, be that physical (for example making sure the children are alone when they chat online to them) or affective (for instance by eroding the value of other trusted relationships in children’s lives).

    Furthermore, online groomers deploy their sophisticated tactical armoury differently. We saw earlier, in the context of power abuse, that they pivot between ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ talk. Additionally, some online groomers primarily display a coercive communicative style, making numerous threats and being very direct in their requests for personal details, including receiving sexual images from their child-targets, etc. This may make children feel scared and, given the power dynamics at play, ‘give in’, leading to a downward spiral of increasing sexual abuse and fear, which in turn makes disclosure of the abuse difficult if not altogether impossible for them. Other online groomers, however, favour an indirect or ‘polite’ style, seemingly yielding power over the interaction to their child-targets. They may, for instance, state “it’s up to you, i only want you to do what you’re ok with” when framing cyber-sex between them. This may make children feel that they are in control. If and when they realise that this was never the case, they may develop acute self-blaming feelings that in turn create powerful barriers to disclosure.

    What is more, groomers’ tactical armoury is non-sequential, and the tactics exhibit considerable overlap. A compliment, such as “hot profile pic!” may be the first message a child receives in an online grooming context – even before basic personal details, such as names and ages, have been exchanged. That compliment makes the child feel liked, paving the way for trust development, and achieves a certain degree of sexual desensitisation – both within less than a minute of digital interaction. In other words, the compliment is clearly multi-tactical from the groomer’s perspective. Similarly, asking the child to talk about their relationships – about past or present boyfriends/girlfriends, typically – may lead to offers of emotional support, as in example 1, and advance groomers’ trust-building tactic. Yet, that very relationships talk may include discussion of sexual aspects of the child’s – and/or the groomer’s – lives, which activates the groomer’s sexual desensitisation tactic. It may also entail the groomer communicatively framing the child-groomer relationship – of support, trust, or (planned/actual) sex – as being better than other relationships, devaluing them, which is at the heart of groomers’ isolation tactic.

Conclusions

There is a tendency in some quarters to see online child sexual grooming (and other forms of abuse) as somehow less serious or damaging than offline abuse. This is not the case. The psychological trauma is profound, and the exchange of words and images is about and through sex acts. Children can, and at times, do resist online grooming - they recognise on some level that they have a right to be treated with respect and dignity in their digital relations, as in other facets of their lives. Nevertheless, the year-on-year increase of child sexual abuse and exploitation cases online testifies to how groomers’ power abuse and sophisticated tactical armoury create a confusing inter-actional context for children and constitute a major challenge to prevention and detection measures. Seeing and responding to online child sexual grooming as abusive manipulation through communication is therefore crucial to our collective efforts to safeguard children online. And by doing so projects such as DRAGON-S can, with the support and buy-in of all relevant stakeholders, make a major contribution to combatting this abhorrent form of sexual abuse and bring its perpetrators to justice.


Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, Applied Linguistics, Swansea University

Nuria Lorenzo-Dus is Professor of Linguistics and Communication at Swansea University. She is the author of several books and over seventy journal articles and book chapters and has held visiting research positions in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Spain and the USA. Her research examines interpersonal and intergroup communication in cyber-crime contexts, with a particular focus on child sexual grooming and ideological extremism.  Her research has attracted substantial research funding, including from United Kingdom Research Councils (e.g. AHRC and EPSRC) and charities (e.g. The Leverhulme Trust), and features extensive collaboration with academic teams and leading stakeholder groups worldwide. Nuria's latest initiative is Project DRAGON-S, financially supported by the End Violence Fund, which is developing linguistically informed digital tools to help counter online child sexual grooming globally.