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Grooming in a pandemic

As a therapist I specialise in supporting survivors of sexual violence and severe trauma. I am often surprised by the lack of awareness of how grooming happens, and the platforms that are used to access children. There have been many recent cases in the media about how children could be accessing inappropriate content on a variety of websites such as TikTok, Youtube and Snapchat.

Due to the current pandemic, our children are spending more time on screens, more than ever before and that combined with parents who are working from home, trying to juggle everything, this often leads to prolonged periods of time that our children are unsupervised online.

This is not a form of criticism or judgement. We are all just doing the best that we can with the tools that we have. During the first lockdown my Father was taken to hospital due to COVID-19. He spent an agonising time battling the disease in intensive care in a coma. It was exhausting then to put what energy I had left into home schooling and battling some days with my ten year old daughter to get through the work. All the while I tried to explain why online learning was so important to her. After home schooling had finished and we had done our 1hour allowed daily walk, I had nothing left to give. I wasn’t sleeping at all due to the stress and worry and I spent the rest of my time on the phone, cooking dinner or breaking down. My husband is a lecturer, so he was teaching from home and would try hard in the evenings to focus his time on my daughter and also to comfort me. This meant my daughter would spend an amount of time on a screen that she had never been allowed to before. I am so grateful to share that my Father pulled through, and that he is now recovering slowly.

I think back to that time with a huge amount of guilt because my daughter is an only child. Myself and my husband have always spent time with her and been accessible, so that she does not feel alone. However, during that period Minecraft, Gacha Life and kids Netflix were her best friends and babysitters who she would spend her downtime with. I am ashamed to admit that, but I think we all have to be honest. There are times we look back and wish things had been different. It makes me realise how easily my daughter could have been targeted and I am so grateful that this wasn’t her experience. Now the balance is readdressed, often meaning my daughter perceives me as the worst parent in the world because she doesn’t have access to Tiktok or Instagram. We are still currently in a period of time where she spends huge amounts of time online for home schooling, but I am really keen on trying not to normalise this and often talk about how good practical subjects like art, design technology or science will be again when she is back in the classroom.

Recently when exploring the impacts of prolonged screen time on children, I stumbled across a piece on the NSPCC. The sad news is that like my daughter, many children are being left unsupervised and devastatingly this has led to a huge potential increase in online grooming. According to their findings (incorporating the beginning of the first lockdown) within the 18 months to 29th May 2020 over 10,000 online grooming offences had been reported, up from 5,000 in 2018. The NSPCC shared that the data obtained revealed the below:

· the number of offences is accelerating, with 23% taking place in the six months up to October last year.

· Facebook-owned apps (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp) were used in 55% of cases, from April 2017 to October 2019, where police recorded information about how a child was groomed.

· There were over 3,200 instances of Facebook-owned apps being used, of which half involved Instagram. Snapchat was used over 1,060 times.

Unfortunately, as technological platforms advance and develop, so too do the channels of communication for groomers to use. Games such as Roblox, Fortnite and Among Us have chat facilities that can be accessed by adults posing as children.

Whilst this all seems bleak there are proactive steps that we can take as parents to understand how the grooming process works and what to look out for within our children’s behaviour. This can help you protect them further.

What are the 6 main stages of sexual grooming?

Stage 1- Identifying a victim – Abusers who groom online will often look for the patterns of time children are online for. For example, after or before school, weekends and particularly during lockdown lunch and break times. Children may talk about a new friend or share a name that they have not mentioned before. At this stage, children may be happy and would ask for extra time on their games.

Stage 2 – Gaining trust Abuser will be sharing the child’s interests and talking about relevant programmes and games, sharing fake school and friendship worries. This develops the child belief that the abuser is either the same age as them and they begin to trust they have similar interests or views as they do. Children may be more outspoke about their views at this stage (especially teenagers), if this is reinforced by the abusers, younger children may mention a new name when referring to a theme i.e “… Jo likes Minecraft.. he’s even killed an Enderdragon”. It might be the first time that you have heard about Jo. Children will be more enthused about playing a particular game at this stage and are disappointed when they have to stop playing.

Stage 3 – Filling a need The abuser will ensure they are available to chat, talk, play or offer understanding to the child when others don’t. They may have an opinion on why the teachers are wrong for telling the child off. They will be on the child’s side. One of the most obvious things to look out for at this stage is an increase in game-credits or gifts being given. Many games are available as download only requiring a code to be given. Your child might suddenly be playing a new game that they wanted to before but couldn’t afford. Depending on the need being meet, the signs to look out for can be really different. For example, if a physical need is being met i.e. food, phones or gifts you may notice obvious signs like the child withdrawing from mealtimes or stop asking for the things they had previously desired the most. Alternatively, if there is an emotional need being met, the child can become defensive, passive aggressive or disengaged as their needs are being met elsewhere. This can especially be the case for teenagers. Younger children may become or more self-sufficient, seeming disinterested.

Stage 4 – Isolating the child Abuser will often make negative comments about parents, friends and teachers ensuring that the child feels they are disliked, misunderstood and alone. The aim is to stop the Child confiding in their friends, teachers or in their wider support network. Abuser will encourage the child to stop engaging in normal routines and activities, suggesting to the child to find ways to disengage with their support network.

Children can often be withdrawn, angry, upset, often choosing to spend time away from family and friends. They can be more reluctant to go to school and become more confrontational or difficult. They can also seem more emotionally unpredictable and experience mood swings. Younger children may seem confused and unsure what to do when they are being asked to complete tasks.

Stage 5 – Sexual contact The abusers will then encourage the child to share sexualized images via a mobile phone, webcam or a website. They also may engage in sexualised chat within chat facilities. Sometimes they will share pornographic images or videos too and ask the child to watch them. Children may start to close their bedroom door or hide their screen, seem sulky, withdrawn or they may be scared. They may wash more frequently, begin to self-harm or engage in risky behaviour. Younger children may begin to wet the bed again, have more anger or mood swings, become clingier and find being separated from their parents more challenging. All children may appear to be more anxious, experiences panic attacks or nightmares.

Stage 6 – Maintaining control Often abusers will use threaten behaviour to control the child. Either threatening the victim with sharing the sexual images they have shared or threatening to hurt their friends and families in order to share them into doing what they are told. Abusers may also threaten to send images to parents workplace, or threaten the child to come to their home to begin the abuse there. Children can sometimes appear robotic, isolate themselves, stopping talking to others, self-harm, use substances to numb and in extreme cases even run away. Younger children can regress, begin to pull their hair out, and they also may experience nightmares.

When working with previous clients they reflected these behaviours at these stages. But, it’s important to remember however that your child is individual and therefore they may have different responses than the examples above.

During lockdown it may be harder to notice these differences in behaviours. The current situation makes it so difficult for parents to be aware of the signs of grooming as children are already showing a wide range of different emotions caused by the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health. In many cases, they are struggling with home schooling. They are trying their best to hold it all together, but our reliance on technology has increased the opportunity for groomers to reach our children.

I believe that there are simple things that we can do to keep our children safe online. Firstly, you should be honest with them in an appropriate way. Talk to them about how people online might pretend to be other people, ages or genders. Talk openly about the differences between real life friends and online friends. Check how they are doing. Ask them what they are needing. Ask if there is anything you can do for them.

Most of the popular app’s Facebook, Tiktok, Youtube and Instagram have an age restriction of 13 years old. When I reflect on this, I am shocked at how many children at my daughter’s primary school had access to these apps when they were under 10. I think I should also highlight that it’s not just about what they are sharing, but it’s about what they can see or are able to access too. At 10 their emotional resilience was not developed enough to cope with the materials that they potentially were open to.

It is important to be aware of in the terms and conditions before allowing your children to use them. Giving in to ‘pester power’ may normalize these applications because it seems like everyone else’s

children are using them. It can diminish the warnings signs, but it is important to gauge your own child’s capability to understand their actions and the consequences for engaging in the game or app.

As parent, it’s important that we don’t continually punish ourselves for trying to get through things. We often feel guilty and punish ourselves for getting things wrong. The most vital things we can do is remember to connect with our children, really pay attention to the chats about their games, apps and programmes and to check in on how they are feeling, what they are worried about and what’s new for them.

Being a parent has never be as tough as it right now. Remember we are human, and we can only ever do the next right thing for us.

There are also really good tips on the ways we can take more precaution online at internetmatters.org:

1: Check the privacy settings for all devices.

2: Review what sites are visited, games, apps and chat logs regularly.

3: Have an open-door policy so that you can always see the screen of what your child is doing.

4: Encourage your child to stay safe by not sharing any personal information.

If you think your child may have been groomed or you would like some support. Please see the list of support options below:

Childline – 0800 1111
NSPCC – 0808 800 5000