Online Grooming of Children for Sexual Exploitation: Nature, Challenges, and Implications for Child Protections

What is online grooming?

Grooming is the process of gaining the trust of a child to change the child’s expectations of what safe behavior is.[1]

The grooming process happens when the predator finds a need that a child has (e.g., friendship) and fills it.[2]

The person who is grooming the child is a predator.

The predator uses the ever-changing Internet platforms to strike up a friendship with the child.

Through the grooming process, the child can remain exploited online only.

The offense of grooming may involve luring the child into sending nude photos of himself or herself.

Predators rely on tactics such as shame and blackmail to keep children from telling a responsible adult what is happening.


Grooming has evolved from Facebook to Snapchat and Instagram, and now to TikTok.

Online gaming platforms such as Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite have also been used by predators to target children for grooming.

TikTok’s popularity has soared, in part, because of Instagram’s decision to hide how many likes a post or reel receives.

TikTok has a direct message feature and live stream feature where people can watch live videos and comment on the videos.

TikTok’s music, dance, and lip-sync videos have widely attracted children and predators.

The New York Times reports that approximately one-third of the TikTok users are children under age 14.

It is wildly popular with children aged 12-17.

TikTok is of the most addictive social media apps on the Internet right now.[3]

Social media has made it very easy for predators to groom children.

Direct messaging features that have the option to make messages disappear, such as Instagram or SnapChat, make it rewarding for predators to message children.

The algorithms also recommend children to predators by reading that a predator is frequently interacting with children and recommending more children under the people you may know or quick add features in Meta and Snapchat.[4]

The new metaverse, Horizon Worlds, does not allow children, but when tested, many children were found in the metaverse.

All that is needed to access Horizon World is to link a Facebook account and then as many as 20 avatars can be in the same metaverse space at one time, which has created a new way for predators to access children online and begin grooming them.[5]

The metaverse works by wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset and allows other people wearing a headset to meet and interact in a virtual world, similar to that of Roblox.

How Perpetrators Choose Their Victims and the Grooming Process

Predators look at pictures on social media, usernames, and social media conversations and comments to begin selecting their victim.[6]

They then select their victim based on how easily they believe they can groom the child.

There have been studies that show that perpetrators pick victims based on how geographically close the victim is to the perpetrator, in order to make it easier to meet with the child in person (in cases where the perpetrator intends to meet the child in real life).

Victims are selected by the perpetrator based on how attractive they are to the perpetrator (age, gender, physical attractiveness) and the ease of grooming the child (physical location, low self-esteem, little adult supervision, little or no privacy settings on social media accounts).

Once a perpetrator has chosen their victims, they will attempt to contact multiple children to see who responds.

When a child responds, the perpetrator will ask the child to share their name, age, and a picture of themselves.

Most predators do not hide the fact that they are an adult- only a small percentage will pretend to be a child.

The predator will then work to form a relationship with the child by portraying themselves as a friend and confidant to the child.

The predator will empathize when the child talks about problems in their life.

When a child tells a predator about a fight they had with a friend, the predator might say something like “Your friend said that about you?! They are not really your friend. I would never say anything like that about you.”

The predator will pretend to share interests with the child and will begin to move toward a romantic relationship with the child.

The predator is looking to normalize the behavior to the child and separate the child from their friends and family.

In the romantic relationship stage of grooming, the predator will slowly introduce sexual content to see how the child responds.

The predator is trying to see whether or not the minor will agree to meet them in person or continue to have a sexual relationship online.

The sexual content can range from subtle comments to overt requests.

Online grooming takes place very quickly.

Sexual content typically happens within the first day of contact, even the first half hour, in some cases.

Once the child has sent pictures or met the predator in person, the predator will either cease all communication or continue the abuse by threats or ending the relationship, blackmail, or praise to continue to get photos or sexual acts from the child.[7]

Signs That a Child Is Being Groomed Online

When a child is being groomed online, they may exhibit certain signs that can alert the safe adult(s) in the child’s life.

These signs include being secretive about who they are talking to online, being unusually distracted or preoccupied, being sadder or more withdrawn than usual, mood swings that change abruptly, and worry or stress about turning off their phone.[8]

However, children who are being groomed may not show any signs that they are being groomed.

Is Grooming a Criminal Act?

Under 18 United States Code (U.S.C.) §2251(a), “any person who. . . induces, entices, or coerces any minor to engage in. . . any sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing any visual depiction of such conduct or for the purpose of transmitting a live visual depiction of such conduct shall be punished. . . .”[9]

The punishment is laid out further in subsection e, which states, “[a]ny individual who violates, or attempts to conspire to violate this section shall be fined and imprisoned not less than 15 years nor more than 30 years. . . .”[10]  

Even though Congress enacted a statute in 1998 with the specific intent of stopping predators from grooming children online, the law is vague on some issues such as what constitutes an attempt under 18 U.S.C. 2422(b).[11]

This may highlight the need for Congress to review the law and establish clear standards on criminalizing predators when they use the Internet to encourage or invite children up to age 18 years old, in sexual encounters.

In the state of Washington, the offense "communication with minor for immoral purposes" was amended to establish that if the person communicates with a minor through the sending of an electronic communication it become a felony sexual offense (instead of a misdemeanor), and therefore the statute offers protection to children from instances of online grooming.[12]

During sting operations to catch child predators, police often interact with predators by pretending to be children.

When predators are charged federally under this statute, they often use the defense that they did not attempt to contact a minor because they were communicating with a law enforcement officer and all contact was consensual.

In Florida, it is a felony offense for a person over the age of 18 to knowingly receive a minor’s telephone number, address, physical characteristics, or other identifying information to encourage or solicit sexual conduct with a minor or the visual depiction of sexual conduct.

The fact that the communication was with an undercover police officer is not a defense in Florida.[13]

A new law in Utah was just passed that aims to prevent children from using social media without a parent’s knowledge or consent.

The law has been criticized by some, saying that it takes away a teen’s ability to connect with their friends across the globe.

The tech industry has criticized the law for invading the privacy rights of children.

Others are heralding it as protection against predators.[14]

Under this law, parents would have access to their children’s social media accounts and messages.

It would also require social media sites to block children from accessing it overnight.

Other states, such as California, have implemented less restrictive laws that require social media sited to put a child’s social media account at the highest security settings.

Even though grooming is a felony in Florida, it is difficult to catch predators.

Children often feel shamed or blackmailed after they have sent nude photos to a predator and therefore are reluctant to say anything to a safe adult.

Adults may not know that a child has been groomed or exploited if the child does not show signs.

If the child does show signs, it could be easy to misread signs as “normal teenage behavior” or some sort of stress the child is going through and believe that it will pass in time.

Additionally, many predators are caught during police stings, so it is easy for predators to not get caught if a sting operation is not happening on the platform that a predator is using.

For instance, if a sting is happening on Roblox, but a predator is on Instagram, that particular predator will not be caught in that sting operation.

Implications for Children of Being Groomed

After a child has been groomed, they may feel responsible for what happened.

A predator can make a child feel shamed for sending photographs or blackmail the child into believing that the predator will show the pictures to the child’s friends and family if the child does not keep quiet or send more photographs.  

A child can be made to feel that the behavior of the predator is their fault.

When a child’s trust has been harmed by a predator, they may have problems relating to people.

The child may feel that it was their fault, which can make it difficult for the child to talk about what happened.

The child may become irritable, embarrassed, experience anxiety, stress, and depression and may turn to substance abuse to cope.[15]

The child may struggle to define social values and appropriate or inappropriate sexual behavior. In some cases, the child could die by meeting the predator.[16]

What Parents and Guardians Can Do

Talk to children about the dangers of the internet.

Talk honestly with children about grooming and online predators and explain why they should not talk to strangers online or share personal information about themselves.

Let a child know that they can come talk to you about anything and that you will not be judgmental or get mad.

If a child understands that they can come talk to a safe adult without repercussion, they are more likely to open up to you when they feel something is not right. 

Be clear about what websites the child is allowed to visit and what websites they should not visit.

Set boundaries like not allowing social media sites without supervision.

Use parental control settings on devices and websites to limit exposure to predators online.

Google has an alert system that can inform you if your child’s name and photos are online.[17]

Ask your children about their online activities.

Don’t assume that they will try to hide it from you.

Try to understand the world from their perspective.

Their identities are both online and in person.

The internet is a lace where children can expand their identity.

Predators try to appear nonthreatening, and children will likely tell you about their new online “friend” who seems innocent to them, but is a red flag.

Try to get as much information about your child’s online interactions as possible.

Be alert if your child mentions that an online “friend” has taken an interest in their interests and hobbies. 

If you believe that your child is being groomed, report to the police immediately. It is important to report to the police to help prevent other children from being groomed and exploited.

If your child starts to show signs of trauma from grooming (irritability, withdrawal from social interactions, hiding activities, etc.), you may need to have your child talk to a psychologist to help them with the trauma they have experienced.

There is no single profile of a groomer and there is no single way to groom. If you suspect something, say something.

If you feel that your child is in immediate danger, call 911.

The Nation Center for Missing and Exploited Children (MCMEC) has a Cyber Tip Line where you can report suspected grooming.

You can also call 1-800-843-5678.

The line is operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by NCMEC, which partners with local law enforcement and the FBI.

Remember, even though it seems overwhelming, you are a superhero for doing your best to protect your child and you are not alone in the fight.

You have a whole community of law enforcement and support organizations, like NCMEC who can help you.

You do not have to do it all alone.

Act Now. For more tools and information, check out our Resources page.  

Additional Details

This best practices prevention guide and publication is part of the Human Trafficking Front's program: Putting an End to the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: Preventing Victimization and Strengthening Child Protection Systems.

Recommended Citation

Human Trafficking Front. (2023, April 11). Online grooming of children for sexual exploitation: Nature, challenges, and implications for child protection. 


[1] Online Grooming: What it is, how it Happens, and how to Defend Children, Thorn Blog (June 15, 2020),
[2] Everything you Need to Know About Online Grooming, Innocent Lives Foundation (Mar. 25, 2023),
[3] Kids are Obsessed with TikTok. So are Predators., Family Zone Blog (Mar. 25, 2023),
[4] Social Media Victims Law Center, Predators Grooming Children on Social Media (YouTube, Nov. 17, 2022),
[5] The Metaverse: Brave New World- or an Upgrade for Predators?, Family Zone Blog (Mar. 26, 2023),
[6] Online Grooming and Trafficking: What’s the Link?, Stop The Traffik Blog (Nov. 2, 2020),
[7] Elizabeth L. Jeglic, Ph.D., Understanding Online Sexual Grooming: Six Key Strategies to Keep Your Children Safe from Online Sexual Predators, Psychology Today (Mar. 16, 2021),
[8] Everything you Need to Know About Online Grooming, Innocent Lives Foundation (Mar. 25, 2023),
[9] 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a).
[10] 18 U.S.C. § 2251(e).
[11] See generally, Andriy Pazuniak, A Better Way to Stop Online Predators: Encouraging a More Appealing Approach to § 2422(B), 40 Seton Hall L.Rev. (2010)
[12] See Washington State Legislator, “RCW 9.68A.090 Communication with minor for immoral purposes—Penalties.”
[13] See FL Stat. § 847.0135(2).
[14] Michael Barbaro, A Sweeping Plan to Protect Kids from Social Media, The Daily Podcast (Mar. 27, 2023),
[15] Web of Darkness: Groomed, Manipulated, Coerced, and Abused in Minutes, Biometrica Blog (Nov. 7, 2017),
[16] Ibid.
[17] Social Media and Online Grooming, Social Media Victims Law Center Blog (Mar. 26, 2023),

Human Trafficking Front

Dr. Beatriz Susana Uitts is a human rights specialist, Internet child safety advocate, and founder of Human Trafficking Front, a research and advocacy organization for the prevention of human trafficking. Dr. Uitts holds a J.S.D. and LL.M. in Intercultural Human Rights from St. Thomas University College of Law in Miami Gardens, FL, and is the author of the book Sex Trafficking of Children Online: Modern Slavery in Cyberspace regarding the growing problem of online child sexual exploitation. In this book, she proposes solutions to prevent its spread and promote a safer Internet for children and adolescents worldwide.