You’ve probably heard of (and maybe even taught your kids about) “stranger danger.” This is the idea that we can’t totally trust strangers, and it’s used to help children especially stay safe.
But what if I told you that teaching kids and teens about “stranger danger” isn’t enough to keep them safe online? That dangerous situations aren’t always the typical “man in a white van offering candy” we hear about?
It’s true. Some of the most dangerous situations don’t seem scary or threatening at all, at least at first. This phenomenon is called “grooming,” and it can happen online and through apps. It’s when a predator builds an emotional relationship with a young person and tricks them into feeling safe and engaging in sexual acts.
Because the groomer treats the teen well – other than exploiting their vulnerabilities and worries, manipulating them – the teen may not see the groomer as a stranger or threat. In fact, to a teen, building a relationship with a groomer may look like building a relationship with a friend.
The effects of online grooming on mental health are serious, too. Survivors may struggle with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, drug and alcohol problems, and more because of what they went through. In other words, being able to recognize the signs and prevent grooming from happening to your teen is crucial.
Signs of Online Grooming
The signs of grooming are insidious and can seem innocent, especially to impressionable and emotionally vulnerable teens. According to Childline, some signs a person is grooming a teen include:
● Sending lots of messages, especially ones that compliment the teen’s appearance. Predators will engage with the teen consistently and make them feel good about their body. They will also send sexual messages — more subtle ones at first — about how far the teen has gone, et cetera.
● Trying to isolate the teen or ensure the teen doesn’t tell adults what’s happening. The predator will ask the teen to keep their relationship a secret, and may ask if their parents are around and able to see the messages exchanged.
● Asking the teen to do something sexual. The predator may ask to meet up, initiate a sexual conversation, or want a naked picture (even offering to send one themselves, as well), and more.
● Trying to blackmail them. Predators will continue the cycle by sharing how “hurt they are” if the teen refuses to engage in a sexual act, or they’ll threaten to post the pictures already sent if the teen doesn’t send more.
Keep in mind that as a parent, you may not know about all of this going on. Your teen may not understand the harm, and they’re probably being manipulated into keeping it a secret. For tips on how to help protect your teen actively, keep reading.
Protecting Your Teen From Online Grooming
You can help your teen avoid or escape being groomed online in a variety of ways. Some examples from Thorn entail:
● Giving them what you probably needed when you were younger. Your teens most likely have the same wants and needs you probably did at their age: attention, independence, and validation. When this comes from someone older, it can feel extra special. Talk with your teen and make sure they feel these needs and wants are being met so they don’t need to turn to people online for it.
● Eliminate shame around sex and mistakes. When teens feel you’ll shame them for being sexual or messing up, they may be less likely to come to you when they’re caught up in a groomer’s blackmail. Help them feel comfortable sharing these difficult situations with you or another trusted adult.
Ensure your teen is well-informed about what grooming looks like. Be clear about the fact it may seem harmless, and that it doesn’t suddenly become “okay” when they turn 18.
Additionally, be aware of the apps and websites they use. Bark has a list of places where online grooming happens if you don’t feel the most tech-savvy. Also, make sure your teen knows what information should stay private, like their address.
Lastly, people of all identities, levels of intelligence, and more can be predators and survivors of online grooming, so keep that in mind when assessing a situation and keeping your teen safe.