Online grooming

Online environments offer diverse opportunities for those seeking to groom

A 2017 study estimated that by age 12, 50% of children in the world have social media accounts. As the number of children accessing the internet continues to increase, which undoubtedly offers them many opportunities, it may also lead to a larger risk of online grooming, unless protective solutions are implemented.

Grooming via online means is reaching new levels of complexity. This is due to some characteristics of the digital world. For example, the internet has to some extent normalised communication with strangers.

many messages flipOffenders can send a thousand requests in a matter of days, and receive 999 declines. It takes just one accepted chat or friend request to open the door.

Thorn, 2021

Online perpetrators are also developing different tactics not to be identified. This includes shifting a conversation from a public to a private messaging forum — a technique known as ‘off-platforming’. Often, these conversations are moved to applications using end-to-end encryption (E2EE) or lacking built-in detection tools.

COVID-19 is another factor that has exacerbated the risks of online grooming. The pandemic drastically reduced the opportunities for children to socialise offline, resulting in many children trying to fill this gap by building online connections, sometimes with strangers, with the increased risk of being groomed online.

Technical challenges persist but solutions exist to detect online grooming

Only 37% of tech companies surveyed currently use tools to detect the online grooming of children

WeProtect Global Alliance /Technology Coalition survey

To build efficient AI tools to detect online grooming, developers need to have access to the content of chats where cases of online grooming took place, to train algorithms. Another issue is about building tools able to detect grooming in different languages, and able to understand slang and codewords.

The solutions that are often most effective are the ones that detect online grooming before it happens. And “Safety by Design” solutions are at the forefront of this preventive approach, including age estimation and age verification tools.

Deeper knowledge of this threat is however needed to put in place better and more effective measures of prevention and detection.

You can find more detailed information about the issue of online grooming and child sexual abuse online, more widely, in our latest Global Threat Assessment.