Advancements in technology and the Internet have been gifting everyone with two definite perks: convenience and communication. With mobiles phones, apps, GPS, and the Internet, it has become easier for parents to check on their young kids and keep tabs on their teens' whereabouts.
However, it is a double-edged sword. Relying too much on gadgets also has its downside, especially regarding online safety. The Internet is a vast world, and not all people who use it have kind hearts. We've heard about cases of identity theft and digital kidnapping, but there's one more thing all parents should be aware of: grooming.
Online grooming is "when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking," according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), a charity that campaigns and works for child protection in the U.K.
Groomers are not necessarily strangers. Some of them are people the kids have already met through family and social activities. Last year, a U.K. study found that groomers don't necessarily pose as children. Researchers reviewed chat logs of teens and found that online groomers have successfully persuaded children to meet in less than half an hour of talking with them, with some even taking as few as 18 minutes.
Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization in the U.S., considers befriending the child, showing interest in his or her hobbies, and exposing the child to sexually explicit material, as a few of the acts used by online groomers to lure the child into trusting them. Abusers can also manipulate the child by listening to and sympathizing with the child’s problems and insecurities, affirming the child's feelings and choices, flattering and complimenting the child excessively, exploiting their natural curiosities, and driving a wedge between the child and his or her parents and friends.
To give you an idea how grooming works, watch the short video below. This film is based on the actual events that happened in the last thirteen days of 15-year-old Kayleigh Haywood from Leicestershire, U.K. She was groomed online by Luke Harlow, a man she had never met, before being raped and murdered by his next-door neighbor Stephen Beadman .
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According to Leicestershire Police, this short film serves as a "warning to young people, both girls and boys, about the dangers of speaking to people they don’t know online." It highlights just how quick and easy it can be for children to be groomed online without anyone knowing it's already happening. Kayleigh’s story is proof that parents should not dismiss the dangers of grooming and sexual exploitation online.
Incidents similar to these have happened in our country. In 2014, a 15-year-old girl ended up dead with 21 stab wounds in the hands of her Facebook boyfriend, a 23-year-old man. Earlier this year in January, another 15-year-old girl was rescued by authorities in Cebu after being kidnapped by her rumored boyfriend, a 33-year-old man whom she just met on Facebook. The threat online predators pose to children is real, and it is here.
Parents have been warned before about online predators, but it's even more crucial to observe your child carefully. How do you know if your child is being groomed? The NSPCC lists the following warning signs:
Being very secretive about their online activities
Wanting to spend too much time online
Having older boyfriends or girlfriends
Going to unusual places to meet friends
Having new things such as clothes or mobile phones that they can't or won't explain
Having access to drugs and alcohol
Having unexplained changes in behavior or personality (e.g., suddenly withdrawn, aggressive, anxious, clingy, depressed, changes in eating or sleeping habits, missing school, etc.)
Displaying inappropriate sexual behavior and using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know
Often, kids are not aware that they are being groomed. Telling them about it would sometimes be met with hate directed at the parents. Instead of waiting for these signs to show up, parents should talk to their kids about online grooming as early as they are given access to the Internet and social media. Remind children to remember these rules: 1. Never give out personal information, such as name, e-mail, phone number, home address, or school name, to people you don't know or barely know online.
2. Don't trust so easily. Confirm facts in real life. Not everyone is honest about the information they give online; not all information online is reliable and genuine.
3. Always seek your permission before meeting someone for the first time someone they've only been in touch with online. It's best if the parents are present during the meeting.
4. Never accept online invitations from strangers or people they barely know on social media. Never reply to e-mail messages and online chats. Never open files from unknown sources. These may contain viruses or inappropriate messages. 5. Tell your kid he or she can talk to you about anything anytime -- and make good on your promise. Be open, so your child feels safe to come to you about any person or activity that may get them feeling uncomfortable or worried.
Parents could also learn about apps that can help them track their kids’ phones and online activities. It's part of the reason why they should always be abreast with the latest technologies, programs, or apps kids use today. It all boils down to having an open communication with your children, especially teens.