Am I the only one that remembers a time before the internet? A time when a child was just that. A child. You know… innocent, safe, not a target? Before the internet, the average sexual predator could only attempt to make contact with teenagers or children through regular mail, telephone or in person.
To the advantage of parents around the globe, 3 things made these methods extra challenging for predators:
First is, back then most families made use of one home phone, and as such, the predator may not get the chance to speak to the child directly;
Second is the lack of privacy of written mail. Because a parent would most likely go through mail that arrives at their house, they knew that the method could not work more so with younger children because of their reading and writing skills and;
Third, the distance barrier was our friend because very few kids were left to roam the streets alone and without adult supervision. The predators were less able to find targets.
Sadly this is no longer the case. Now, your child can be in the same room as you and you would have no idea that they are being groomed. Much like the popular story of Justin Berry (age 13) or Amy (age 15).
This leaves me asking myself how we got here. Let’s take a little walk down memory lane with this brief timeline explaining how groomers have changed their approaches over the years.
Remember in the late 90s, when we regular people finally got internet access, and companies like AOL and Yahoo came up with the smash hit – internet chatrooms. I’m sure you remember them, they were the highlight of our youth.
I remember the joy I got from joining a random chatroom and getting to meet people from all over the world, visiting Rome and Paris and the Grand Canyon without even leaving my room. I get nostalgic just thinking about it.
Nothing wrong with that, it was all innocent right? Wrong! A chatroom was the prime location for paedophiles to hunt for teenagers and adolescents. Online grooming was on the rise.
There was just something so disarming about the then-novel invention; the internet. We would feel connections with people we have never met and share deep secrets. No one was happier about this innovation than paedophiles. They got to hide behind the cloak of anonymity the internet provided. They could pretend to be anything/anyone and have the innocent children believing they are talking to one of their own, “someone who finally understands”.
Groomers start up a conversation with a minor, stir the convo the way they want it to go, gain kids’ trust and exploit it. They ask for things like nude photographs (57% of the American population between 12 and 17 had experienced this), videos of the child masturbating (21% of the American population between 12 and 17 have experienced this), and even to meet in person for sexual offences.
These are then used as leverage to blackmail the children into keeping their relations, identity and sexual favours secret.
They made the process individualistic. The predator learnt about the child as the communication between them progressed. Then tailored flattery or gifts to fit the victim the more they learnt about them. Thereby building trust so that the child was unable to refuse their advances when they made their intentions known.
The late 2000s
After the era of chatrooms came ‘social media’. Facebook, twitter, and IM-ing (Instant Messaging) were all the rage. This was the era of the condition called ‘Texting thumbs’ (Soreness of the thumb from too much texting). Like me, you probably got your first ‘smart’ phone around this time. The first generation of smartphones.
This made the business even better for online groomers as not only did teenagers accept friend requests from people they don’t know, they would talk for hours with them, revealing a lot of personal information about themselves in the process.
Grooming through the web steadily increased due to this. There were so many cases. So much that countries like Canada, India and the UK had to pass grooming/solicitation/luring into law as illegal.
Fast forward 10 -13 years, our children, ‘Generation Z’ are growing up with technology as everything they know. Kids nowadays learn how to use that tablet before they are able to speak and now have social media accounts as early as 5 years old!
With over 36.68 million active social media users in the UK and 2.234 billion users in the world according to ‘We Are Social’ (2018), and with paedophiles hiding under this anonymity, it is very important that we guard our children’s social media use so that they do not end up a statistic.