Preventing Online Grooming: Links to Child Trafficking, Harm, and the Need to Enhance Global Coordination
Facts About Online Grooming
Children, increasingly at younger ages, are connecting to the internet.
The proportion of youth (15-24 years old) using the internet in 2022 is at 75%, ahead of the estimate for the total population of 65%.
In addition, data show that, globally, 73% of children aged 10 and over own a mobile phone in 2022.
The fact that youth is the most connected age group worldwide is changing childhood.
A "bedroom culture" is emerging, with many children accessing the internet from the privacy of their bedrooms, thereby making their access more personal and less supervised.
While the internet and digital technologies are valuable tools for exercising human rights, including those of children, this growth in internet use by children, advancements in technologies, and the easy access facilitated by mobile phone ownership create new challenges for law enforcement, especially in the area of child protection.
The internet exposes children to multiple risks, including new ways for predators to connect with them and solicit them for sexual purposes. In the context of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children, this criminal act is referred to as "grooming" and is commonly used interchangeably with the solicitation of children for sexual purposes.
Although the grooming of children can also occur offline, “online grooming” is increasingly taking place through the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).
Online grooming refers to the process through which a predator creates a relationship with a child, a person under the age of 18, over the internet, to facilitate offline or online sexual contact with the child.
By establishing a relationship of trust with a child, the offender exercises control over the child for the purpose of sexual exploitation of that child.
Online grooming is a growing problem—It is a serious risk that children as internet users face today. Offenders often contact and solicit many children at once.
Making this problem worse is the high number of individuals looking to lure children for sexual purposes online, which counts approximately 750,000 individuals worldwide.
Parallelly, many children under 15 years old worldwide are likely to navigate the internet as adults over 25.
Online Grooming Statistics
57% of teens report having met new friends online.
Most victims of online grooming are girls (78%).
An offender can initiate sexual talks with a child within 3 minutes.
An offender can create a bond with a child in only 8 minutes.
An offender can arrange a physical meeting with a child within 18 minutes (in cases where the offender has the intention to meet the child offline for sexual contact).
1 in 9 American teens has been sexually solicited online.
Misconceptions About Online Grooming and Online Predators
Online predators ALWAYS pose as children: It is not always the case that predators pretend to be another child.
Online grooming is a LENGTHY process: Online grooming can happen alarmingly fast.
Stages of Online Grooming
Examples of Online Grooming and their Corresponding Exploitative Practice
Online grooming has an inherent exploitative intent from the perpetrator.
Online grooming of children for sexual purposes is an online sexual exploitation conduct that may also link to other sexual offenses against children.
Vulnerability and Effects of Online Grooming
Although there is no specific victim profile, offenders often target children who are more vulnerable to manipulation and victimization, such as those with low self-esteem issues, need for attention, or family problems, as these conditions may facilitate starting a sexual talk with a child.
Offenders may be motivated by their own sexual gratification or by the possibility of meeting children for sexual activity offline.
Interestingly, a 2016 study found that even though offenders who committed grooming of children via online platforms were located to their child victims in geographical proximity, none of them requested the child to meet offline, keeping the interactions purely in the online environment.
“Cyber relationships” formed between offenders and children are characterized by the authority of the offender over a child, where the offender takes advantage of the child’s position of vulnerability.
The impact of online grooming on children can be classified as one of the most severe in their lives.
The psychological impact of online grooming can be as severe as those who suffer offline abuse, with some children attempting or committing suicide.
Due to children’s special status by law, children should not be blamed for exploitative or abusive sexual acts committed against them.
Children cannot legally consent to any form of their own sexual exploitation or sexual abuse, including online grooming and the production of self-generated content as a result of being deceived, coerced, or blackmailed (regardless of the age to legally consent to sexual relations in domestic legislation).
The adult offender is the one responsible for such acts and should be held criminally liable.
Children who are victims of online grooming are victims of sexual exploitation and, therefore, are in need of protection and services.
Online Grooming and The Law
Laws in countries vary addressing online grooming, which is also referred to as online enticement, solicitation, or luring children. These variations highlight the need to improve legal clarity regarding online sexual offenses, including online grooming, across the world.
While there is currently no standalone international treaty aimed at criminalizing cybercrime against children for sexual exploitation, including online grooming, the criminalization of some elements of online grooming are covered in the following international binding instruments:
• The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, child prostitution and child pornography: Although the Optional Protocol does not explicitly cover online grooming, it may constitute an offense under the Optional Protocol when it involves the production and dissemination of CSAM. With 173 countries bound by the Optional Protocol, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (i.e., monitoring body for the implementation of the treaty by nations that are parties) calls on these countries that are part of it to take the necessary measures to adapt their national legal frameworks to address new challenges for the protection of children in today’s realities.
• The Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (i.e., the Lanzarote Convention) (Convention of the Council of Europe. But open for ratification to countries worldwide): While this is the only international agreement that addresses online grooming, this convention only addresses online grooming in instances where the online proposal of an adult to meet a child, who has not reached the minimum age for sexual activities, is followed by material acts leading to such a meeting offline (Art. 23. Solicitation of children for sexual purposes). However, this legal provision may leave children who are above the age of sexual consent per national law without protection against this form of crime.
• The ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182): This convention aims at criminalizing the worst forms of child labor, including the criminalization of “child pornographic performances,” and may therefore capture aspects of live streaming of child sexual abuse and exploitation, often linked to online grooming. However, the convention falls short by not defining “child pornographic performances” in its precepts.
• Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Protocol): The Palermo Protocol provides the international legal framework to combat human trafficking. It serves as a guide for countries to develop comprehensive national legislations and policies against human trafficking. In order to establish the crime of child trafficking under the Protocol, the element of “act” (e.g., harboring or receipt) is required to take place with intention to exploit a child (exploitative purpose of trafficking), in online grooming situations; the maintenance of a child in a situation of exploitation can fulfill the actus reus of trafficking in children (e.g., practices of harboring or receipt of children) with a view of their exploitation online, thereby capturing online grooming within the protocol’s definition.
However, the lack of a specific international instrument geared toward criminalizing the online exploitation of children, including online grooming, creates gaps in the current international framework.
This lack of clarity regarding the international child protection framework related to online offenses against children for sexual exploitation can lead to issues of incorporation in domestic legal systems and ambiguity in provisions, including criminal or penal law.
Recommendations to Prevent and Combat Online Grooming
The internet is a new and mostly unregulated environment that presents new challenges for investigating and prosecuting offenders who commit crimes against children for sexual exploitation, including online grooming.
Many countries do not have laws against online grooming in cases where it remains completely online (non-contact sexual abuse).
Countries usually criminalize online grooming only when the offender intends to meet face-to-face with a child; this is because most national laws were drafted in times when the internet was still in its infancy stage and thus do not take into account technological advancements and rapidly changing realities.
Countries should enact or adjust their national penal codes to increase the efficacy of investigating and prosecuting online grooming.
To effectively put an end to the impunity of online grooming offenders, countries should ensure that there are clear definitions of online grooming, distinguishing when it leads to offline abuse and when it remains online, with internet-related terminology in national legal systems, at a minimum:
- 1Criminalizing online grooming when the offender intends to meet a child offline (contact abuse-driven): mostly already criminalized by national law.
- 2Criminalizing online grooming of children, as a standalone offense and understanding it as a process that involve sexual conversations, in which the offender intends to exploit a child online only (there is no “hands-on” act/fantasy-driven).
- 3Ensuring the protection of all children up to 18 years old, from both types of online grooming regardless of the age of sexual consent in national law.
- 4Criminalizing the showing of pornography to a child as a means to soliciting the child (“corruption” of minors with the purpose of sexual exploitation).
- 5Criminalizing the coercion of children into sending illegal content (images and videos) and performing live-stream sexual acts.
- 6Providing services for victims of grooming (mental health and medical services for children).
Recommendations to the Technology Industry
The technology industry plays a critical role in the prevention of online grooming of children.
For effective responses and preserving the best interests of children at all times, this crime requires multi-stakeholder collaboration, including a proactive role by the technology industry, in particular by internet service providers, to work with law enforcement to help reduce the risk of children of being groomed or sexually exploited online.
This responsibility of the technology industry to prevent and combat online grooming of children should also apply to end-to-end encrypting messaging services. End-to-end encrypting messaging services are used by perpetrators and these services limit law enforcement’s ability to detect illegal content and activity.
What Is Human Trafficking Front Doing?
Human Trafficking Front offers practical tools and resources to effectively prevent and combat online grooming and protect children.
We train frontline professionals, including law enforcement and social and health service providers, to increase their efficacy in detecting grooming behaviors, effectively investigating and prosecuting offenders, and implementing victim-centered responses.
Human Trafficking Front advocates for legislation to improve child protection and create a safer internet for all children.
Human Trafficking Front educates the community at large to increase awareness and enhance the understanding of offenses committed against children online, including the danger of online grooming.
Act Now. For more tools and information, check out our Resources page.
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.
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