Everyone knows online predators target kids. But how many of us actually know what these predators do to groom their victims? And why do many predators behave in predictable ways?
Because online predators prey upon two things that every person truly wants: love and status.
Love is a “warm personal attachment or deep affection” for another person, according to dictionary.com. We all want to feel appreciated, accepted, and cared about.
And status means “position or rank in relation to others,” according to merriam-webster.com. Status means someone who is looked up to, is considered valuable, or appears better in some way than the average person.
Kids are not immune to wanting love and status either. They want to know that people genuinely care about them, despite their blunders. And they also want to feel cool, well-liked, confident, funny, ambitious, attractive — whatever elevates them above the average.
Predators know this all too well.
In fact, the Crimes Against Children Research Center1 states that the majority of online predators target kids between the ages of 12 and 15. This is right when puberty is influencing natural and age appropriate sexual curiosity, as well as creating a lot of confusion about identity in general.
That’s why predators understand relationships — defining that love and status — are really important for online grooming.
Some online predators are speedy and aggressive and some are very patient groomers, but most will use the following five tactics.
1. Predators find common ground
Predators pick up on a kid’s likes and dislikes very quickly. They gather this information from photos, videos, and text. They engage in conversations and establish common ground that kids build their identity around — what they do and don’t like.
Predators begin to “share” these likes and dislikes and engage in a way that wins affection or friendship. They may offer gifts that make these common likes even more enticing.
Example: A predator may zero in on a kid’s favorite music group and offer to buy tickets to an upcoming concert or send money to buy music online.
2. Predators exploit loneliness
It’s so easy for kids to feel lonely. They are trying so hard to figure out who they are and what they think and feel, that friendships can come and go quickly. Even more surprising is that this loneliness can feel very real even when kids are part of a loving and engaged family.
Predators know this is a powerful tool. They listen and ask questions when no one else seems interested. They give the impression that they understand the victim while also telling their victim that no one else understands.
Example: A predator listens sympathetically, encouraging the conversation and the feeling of confiding in someone that cares. “Your friends don’t get what you’re going through, but I do.”
3. Predators gain trust
Trust is a shared experience. Often a predator achieves trust by creating conversations or “secrets” between them and their victim. This is meant to help the child feel a bond with the predator.
These secrets may start out looking pretty harmless, but they become more perverse over time. It’s a kind of “my turn, your turn” game with the predator encouraging the child to share their own secrets. Predators are creating an exclusive bond. This trust gives the child an elevated feeling of status.
Example: The predator will share something they’ve “never told anyone before.” They ask questions and encourage the child to explore these secrets through normalizing behaviors like masturbation or the sharing of pornography.
4. Predators aim to sabotage family relationships
Open and talkative families are a predator’s nemesis. Predators can be both subtle and aggressive when trying to drive a wedge between a kid and their families. They really want to create disconnect in that relationship.
The more isolated they can get their victim, the better their chances of success.
Example: “Your parents just don’t get you” or “Even though your parents don’t want to hear about it, I do.”
5. Predators answer (and introduce) natural sexual curiosities
Puberty is a time of sexual curiosity. This is natural. As kids’ bodies sexually mature into adult bodies, all those hormones start to create complex and uncertain feelings and thoughts. And with technology at a kid’s fingertips, it is so easy for them to just ask on the spot.
Predators seize these sexual conversations. They especially search out victims that don’t appear to have these conversations at home — it means they can teach the child themselves.
Predators educate on sexual topics through telling dirty jokes, talking about masturbation, sharing porn, or introducing sexual games. They’ll also give sexually-oriented compliments.
Example: A predator will make comments like, “You’re sexy” or ask questions like, “Do you masturbate too?” or “Are you a virgin?”
What WE can do
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed after realizing how online predators target kids. But there are many things we can do to protect our kids and help them understand how to protect themselves.
Our kids — and any other child that comes into our circle of influence — need to know we’re there for them. They need to receive that love and status from us, not someone online.
We need to express interest in their likes. We need to have conversations that allow us to connect with them and build a genuine relationship. We need to validate them as human beings and help them feel valued.
We also need to talk to our kids about sexuality — they need this information now. One of our best defenses for keeping our kids safe is to talk to them openly and often.
- Crimes Against Children Research Center. https://unh.edu/ccrc/