March 31, 2022

3 Things You Need to Know About Grooming

Hannah Blair, Lived Experience Expert

It’s a Friday night and you’ve just finished an episode of your favorite Netflix show. 

50 minutes. 

 In the other room, your teen is chatting with a new friend online who has just asked them to meet up at the local park. 

50 minutes. 

 According to an analysis of offender reports, 50 minutes is all it takes for an online predator to build rapport and coerce a child or teen to meet them in person. They achieve this through a process called grooming. Grooming is a tactic that predators use to gain the victim’s trust so they can gain access to them. It works by gradually mixing elements of abuse with positive behaviors and it is one of the most common ways for children, teenagers, and other vulnerable people to be exploited and trafficked, especially online. 

 There is warfare on our youngest generation in the form of online exploitation. Fifteen years ago, 10% of global human trafficking victims were children. Today, over 30% are children, and the reality is that the internet has made trafficking easier. Your child could be trafficked from home without ever setting foot outside, which is why it’s so important to know the ins and outs of grooming. Here are three things we think you should know about the grooming process and what you can do to keep your children safe.

    1. The Targets

Trafficking and exploitation occur at the intersection of vulnerabilities. Anyone can be targeted and coerced into exploitation, but traffickers are experts at finding those moments when people are vulnerable by working the angle, manipulating reality, and leveraging fear. By determining a need and proposing to fill it, predators are able to manipulate and rope individuals into a life of exploitation. 

Traffickers often seek out children and teens online who appear vulnerable, depressed, seem emotionally isolated from family or friends, have low self-esteem, or appear to have a lot of unsupervised time. Online platforms are the easiest way for traffickers to introduce themselves to young people who are seeking attention and stability. 

 For example, social media incentivizes attention-seeking behavior with trends that result in more likes, follows, etc. Participation and engagement can show a vulnerability for much-needed attention and traffickers leverage this knowledge. They prey on this vulnerability and sometimes spend months over many different platforms grooming multiple children, casting a wide net and pouncing on those who continue the conversation. 

Ultimately, it is when the unmet needs of the human heart collide with challenging physical circumstances that vulnerabilities are likely to be exploited. Once those vulnerabilities are targeted, traffickers carefully calculate their next moves. They are intentional in the recruitment process and frequently resort to grooming. 


     2. The Process

Grooming is a form of abuse that involves manipulating someone until they are isolated, dependent, and vulnerable to exploitation. The process of grooming begins with seemingly normal interactions that build a relationship. This is where social media platforms become a predator’s playground. 82% of child predators admitted learning about their victims’ likes or interests through social networking sites. 

Traffickers monitor all kinds of platforms looking for a vulnerability they can exploit. They gather information such as places the victim frequents, where they go to school, things they enjoy doing – all of which allow the groomer to relate better to their victim. They may lead their target to believe they are the only one who understands them by making their victim feel “special” through gift-giving, extra attention (which soon involves secrets), desensitizing them, and more. As grooming begins, these online “friends” slowly expand boundaries. 

Maybe the predator poses as a friend from school or a friend of a friend. They may lie about their age, their name, their location, and their intentions to build a relationship with the child/teen. They flatter the child with compliments and promise lavish gifts, money, or electronics. Or perhaps they tell the child their parents are too strict and cunningly take photos or videos without their knowledge. They often use threats/intimidation or harassment, maintaining power and control over the victim to fulfill their sick desires. When a trafficker gains the victim’s trust, it’s easier to abuse it. 

The issue is not that our children are being violently kidnapped into trafficking every 30 seconds. The issue is that we think they are. Media and television lead us to believe that victims of trafficking are being violently drugged, kidnapped, or taken. But the reality is that children and teens are being trafficked right in plain sight. Love, betrayal, addiction, money, status, homelessness, runaways, abuse, a desire to belong no matter the cost – that is often what trafficking is. Traffickers use social media to connect and manipulate young people, giving them attention and building a relationship to solicit behavior that meets their demands. Often, we warn our kids about strangers, but we may not be preparing them for this specific type of situation. 

    3. The Solution

On any given day, there are over 500,000 active predators online and parents today can’t just lock their doors to keep their children safe. Traffickers are walking right through the internet’s virtual doorway into a potential victim’s home with seeming impunity. 

In 2020, 65% of the children who were recruited online for criminal sex trafficking were approached on Facebook, 14% were approached on Instagram, and 8% on Snapchat. The need to educate our kids on social media safety and the dangers that come with using technology has never been greater. Kids and teens need to learn red flags and warning signs that could point to a possible trafficking situation and what they should do when they come across situations like that. The internet has unfortunately allowed ease of access to this dark and dangerous world, and lack of education on the subject poses a great threat to our children and teens. 

Traffickers rely on these digital doorways being left wide open and unmonitored by parents, and they take advantage of those opportunities. According to the 2020 United Nations Global Trafficking Report, 76% of all transactions for sex with underage youth occurred online. The statistics don’t lie. They paint a very scary and heartbreaking picture of what our children are facing, and the role of the parents is vital to preventing child trafficking. 

Prevention begins in our homes and it starts with you. It’s not enough to make our children aware of the human trafficking problem. It’s not enough to help them identify how to profile a trafficker and perpetrator. We must take it a step further and become their safe haven, their place of refuge, and a place where they feel safe to speak about anything without fear. We must fulfill their basic need for love, attention, and affection because it’s the vulnerable children who fall prey to the hands of traffickers. 

Supervised screen time and utilizing restrictions on devices are also not enough. We have to give them tangible alternatives so the siren call of the screen isn’t so strong. Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don’t look, evil will go away, but to give them weapons against it – to inform them, because education is empowerment. Karly Church says, “The best prevention to human trafficking is understanding the true definition of consent and being empowered. It is incredibly difficult to traffick someone who is empowered.” 

It’s not realistic to live in a world where we don’t allow our kids to have access to the internet, but with safeguards in place, we can work together to protect them while navigating the online space. The lives of our children are at stake and we can’t protect them if we don’t make them aware. Take the first step today in educating your child on the red flags of human trafficking. Visit our Speakers Bureau page  to request a speaker to present our Human Trafficking 101 presentation. Education is the first step to prevention.

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