It can take less than 20 minutes for highly skilled paedophiles to groom a child on the internet, according to new research.
Parents have been urged to take more of an interest in their children’s online activities after the four-year study found that paedophiles employ a range of techniques to persuade children into doing what they want at worrying speed.
In contrast to popular belief that paedophiles always pretend to be children, academics from Swansea University have said that in the vast majority of cases those doing the grooming had admitted they were adults.
Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus and Dr Cristina Izura analysed conversations between 192 online sexual predators and researchers posing as children as part of the Online Grooming Communication Project, which will be presented at the British Science Festival on Thursday.
They said the strategies used by internet paedophiles include ‘small talk’ to develop a sense of trust and compliments to increase trust.
The study found that the time between initial online and the first sexual requests ranged from between 18 minutes and 82 hours.
We have carried out a detailed analysis of the language used by more than 100 online groomers which shows that they are skilled communicators who use a range of strategies, said Professor Lorenzo-Dus.
These include seemingly innocuous ‘small talk’ to develop a sense of trust in them, requests and commands to gauge the children’s disposition to meet online groomers’ desires for verbal or visual sexual engagement and compliments on various topics to increase feelings of trust and emotional bonding.
The researchers found that the age range of the online predators was between 21 and 65, with the majority admitting they were not children.
Online groomers are communicatively, highly skilled and can interact with their victims as if they care about them, and pretend to be romantically – rather than only sexually – interested in them, said Dr Izura.
“They complement children regularly on a range of topics, rather than only on sexually-oriented ones.
“We have found that depending on online grooming speed, sexually-oriented compliments, whether on appearance or on personality, comprise between over half and a quarter of all the compliments online groomers pay.
“Moreover, online groomers use compliments not only to develop an emotional bond with the children, but also strategically to frame communicative exchanges in which they desensitise the children to sexual behaviour.”
They warned that many of these conversations are not picked up by online grooming protection software because of the groomers’ level of communicative sophistication.
And they have urged parents to talk openly with their children and make them more aware of the strategies used by groomers. They have called for parents to have regular discussions with their children about their favourite internet activities and how they spend their time online.
“It is unrealistic to stop children using the internet and it is not always possible to monitor all their digital activities, said Professor Lorenzo-Dus.
“However, increasing their understanding of how online grooming works and the communicative tactics online groomers use will make it possible to recognise the potential dangers.”
Dr Izura added: “Parents could try to open up discussions with their children about the dangers on the internet, including online grooming.
“Listening to them carefully and taking an interest in their online activities is a good way to build their trust in us and help reduce the risk of children looking for trust elsewhere online.”
The NSPCC said children are increasingly contacting its ChildLine service about online predators.
A spokeswoman said: “In 2015 a change in the law, as a result of NSPCC campaigning, banned adults from knowingly sending sexual messages to children, as a prelude to carrying out sexual abuse.
“It’s quite incredible that a year after this new legislation was passed it has still not been implemented, at a time when police are under crushing pressure to tackle this type of crime.
“We hope these insights into how predatory adults groom children online will help educate young people about staying safe, and assist the police in catching offenders.”
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