Online Grooming Advice

Online grooming is when someone befriends and builds an emotional connection with a child for sexual or other purposes. Understanding the risks, signs and where to get help is crucial to keeping children safe online.

If you are worried that a child or young person has been groomed or sexually exploited, you should report this to the police on 101 or 999 in an emergency

What is it?

Online grooming is when someone befriends and builds an emotional connection with a child online for sexual or other purposes. It is a form of abuse. It can happen to any child or young person under 18 years old.

Any social media, group chats/forums, messaging services, live streaming, gaming platforms or offline services like Apple’s AirDrop that allow one person to communicate with another can be used for grooming. Groomers could be a stranger or someone a child knows - such as a family member, friend or professional. They might target one individual child or contact lots of children at once and wait to see who responds.

Groomers present themselves as friendly, fun and appear to have the same interests as a child. They can easily hide their identity online by using fake pictures and may pretend to be a peer. This can make it really difficult for a young person to spot if they are being groomed, and often they will perceive the groomer to be a friend or girlfriend/boyfriend/partner. Once trust in established, a groomer may use power and control to pressure, guilt or trick a child into taking part in online sexual activity including sharing sexualised messages, nudes, videos and/or livestreaming sexual activity.

Here are some things that a groomer might do online:

  • Give lots of attention and compliments to a child and/or send them gifts/money
  • Ask if anyone else has access to their devices and encourage them to keep the communication a secret
  • Request personal information and details about their family/friends/school, etc.
  • Make a child feel special, cared for and ‘loved’
  • Have conversations of a sexual nature and encourage sexual communication
  • Send sexual or nude/semi-nude images or videos of themselves
  • Request sexual or nude/semi-nude images, videos or livestreams
  • Request to meet up offline and in person
  • Use threats or blackmail to pressure a child into sending images, videos or livestreams - or force a child to do something against their will. For example, they may threaten to post/share sexual or nude/semi-nude images or videos that a child has shared if they don’t send money or more material. This is known as sextortion

Sextortion is a form of online blackmail, whereby a perpetrator (posing as a child/peer) can approach a child through an online platform, groom them and gain their trust through conversation and encourage them to share sexual photos, videos or livestreams. Once sexual content has been shared, the perpetrator will usually threaten to publish/share the images or video recordings unless their demands are met. Typical demands include money or more sexual material.

It can have a devastating impact on a young person and the personal and psychological toll they face can be immense. Beyond fear, they may feel embarrassment or blame themselves and this can sometimes make it hard for them to seek help.  It is something that no adult could ever imagine happening to a child in their care. However, according to the police, children and young people under 18 years of age are targeted and sadly incidents are on the rise.

Watch the video below from the police that shows how an online chat can quickly develop into sextortion blackmail. The PSNI website provides further advice and information.

If you are worried that a child or young person has been targeted and is a victim of sextortion, you should report it to the police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.

Who is at risk?

Any child or young person can be at risk of online grooming regardless of their age, gender identity, ethnic background or location. A groomer might give a child lots of attention and compliments to try to make them feel special and cared for. This can be confusing and some children and young people may be more at risk than others, including:

  • Children who are vulnerable offline
  • Children who are feel unhappy and lonely
  • Care experienced children and those with additional vulnerabilities
  • Children who are exploring their sexuality and identity online
  • Children who have limited awareness about online risks and who consider all online contacts as friends 

Possible signs

Recognising the signs of online grooming can be hard as often groomers can tell children not to talk to anyone about it. Possible signs to look out for in a child can include:

  • Changes in behaviour, possibly becoming more sexual in the way they talk, dress or behave
  • Secretive use of who they are talking to and what they are doing online or on their devices
  • Engaging online with strangers/ people they don’t know personally or haven’t met face to face
  • Having a much older ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’
  • Finding sexual images/videos or sexual communication on a child’s device
  • Having unexplained items which they couldn’t afford, such as new devices and jewellery etc.
  • Being upset, worried, sad, withdrawn, angry, stressed, anxious or depressed

Remember - a child may feel uncomfortable or frightened about what is happening to them but they might not ask for help because they:

  • Blame themselves, particularly if they have exchanged sexual messages or photos/videos
  • Worry about disappointing/upsetting the groomer and ruining their ‘relationship’
  • Are scared about what the groomer will do if they don’t comply
  • Are scared about getting the groomer in trouble
  • Worry about what their family and friends will think and getting in trouble

Talking to a child about keeping safe online

  • Having early, often and open conversations with a child or young person about their online activity can help them understand who to trust online and empower them to avoid or safely deal with inappropriate contact. Internet Matters provides lots of advice and tips about how to start the conversation
  • Discuss how easy it is for someone to hide their identity online and the risks with sharing sexual messages, images, videos and/or livestreams with strangers or new online ‘friends’ that they don’t know in real life
  • Help them to recognise and report inappropriate and unhealthy communication, this might include:
    • Engaging with strangers or ‘friends’ that they haven’t met offline
    • Conversations about sex or sexual activity
    • Receiving or requests for nudes, sexual videos or livestreams
    • Requests to share personal info and asking to meet up offline
    • Receiving gifts and money from someone they haven’t met
    • Someone forcing them to do things, including sexual activity
    • Anything that makes a child feel unsafe or uncomfortable
  • Make sure that a child understands the basics:
    • Keep it private and don’t share sensitive, private of personal information online. Use privacy settings to protect their personal accounts and content
    • Keep your guard up and be mindful that people online aren’t always who they say they are, predators are skilled at faking their identity! Never share intimate and sexual images, videos or livestreams in online spaces
    • Ignore, block, report and tell a trusted adult if anything upsets them or makes them feel uncomfortable online
    • Always avoid nudity and never share intimate and sexual images, videos or livestreams in online spaces. If a child has shared an image of themselves then encourage them to report it and seek help

Responding to a disclosure

For parents, carers or other adults involved in a child's life, it can be difficult to know what to say and do when a child speaks out about online grooming and abuse. It’s important to listen, reassure and report.

  • Listen to what a child is saying, believe them and let them know that they have done the right thing by telling you
  • Reassure a child that it’s not their fault, and that irrespective of the content or circumstance, the responsibility always lies with the person who groomed them
  • Report a concern to the authorities as soon as possible

One of the greatest barriers to a child or young person seeking help and reporting online abuse, is feeling they are to blame for something that has happened to them. It is important that an adult response is supportive and non-judgemental. Language and behaviour that implies that a child or young person is complicit in, or responsible in some way, for any harm or abuse they’ve experienced or may experience is victim blaming.

Remember, a child or young person can never be expected to predict, pre-empt or protect themselves from abuse, and irrespective of the content or circumstance, the responsibility always lies with the person who abused them.

Where to go for help

  • Contact local police on 101 or 999 in an emergency, Health and Social Care Trust Gateway teams or report directly to CEOP or the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000
    • Belfast HSCT Gateway 028 9050 7000
    • South Eastern HSCT Gateway 0300 1000 300
    • Northern HSCT Gateway 0300 1234 333
    • Southern HSCT Gateway 0800 783 7745
    • Western HSCT Gateway 028 7131 4090
  • Children and young people can contact Childline for free and confidential support on 0800 1111
  • The Text-A-Nurse service can provide direct, secure and confidential advice and support to 11 to 19 year olds
  • If an adult has communicated sexually with a child - communication can include written note, email, photo, video, livestream, text message through social and gaming sites, chatrooms, etc. You can contact local police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.

    If someone is threatening to post or share personal sexual material - threats and blackmail should be reported to the police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.

    If a child receives a nude or semi-nude of a child under 18 - contact the police for advice and guidance. Do not delete the image and don’t save the image or send it to another person as you may be committing an offence.

  • If a child has sent or shared a nude or semi-nude image or video - they may feel scared or ashamed if they have shared a sexual image of themselves. It is important to be approachable and supportive, and reassure them that they are not alone. The quicker you respond the more control you have. Contact the police for advice and guidance on next steps. Even if the young person has technically committed an offence, the matter will be dealt with sensitively by the police, who will take into consideration all the circumstances.

    If a nude or sexual image or video of a child under 18 has been posted online, try the Report Remove tool to get it taken down.