What is grooming?
Grooming is an English term describing the process whereby an offender develops a relationship with a child or young person to satisfy themself sexually.
Grooming involves an adult or more experienced person manipulating and seducing a child toward getting the child to overstep their own limits. It can take place both online and offline—or a combination of both—but today we see many cases of grooming exclusively taking place online.
The traditional archetype of a child-molester at a playground trying to tempt a child with a lollipop is therefore outdated. Today, sexual offenders have endless opportunities to contact children and develop friendships in the online universes in which children spend much of their time.
On this page, you can find more information about grooming and read about the different phases that are typically involved in a grooming process.
Phases in grooming processes
Research and analyses of cases of online-related child sexual abuse reveal how the same pattern often repeats itself. We know from research investigating online grooming that, in most cases, the groomer introduced sexualized conversation on the first day of the chat, sometimes within the first 30 minutes of the conversation. This suggests that the transition from friendship to a sexualized relationship can proceed very quickly. This form of online grooming therefore has consequences for how we as professionals are able to spot and prevent it.
Three researchers (Winters, Jeglic & Kaylor, 2020) have mapped the sexual grooming process based on the following five phases:
1. Selection of a child for grooming
The first phase involves a person trying to make contact with a child (or children) they can potentially groom. This can be, for example, in a "live" or by adding someone on Snapchat.
For the groomer, this phase is about observing the content of the child’s profile and asking probing questions, such as family relationships and whether the child’s Internet usage is being monitored. In the experience of the ReportIt consultancy work, we know that these can be questions like, "Don’t you think it’s really annoying when your mother checks your phone?", or "Who do you live with?" Are they often at work?” and so on. The person will typically present themselves as a friend or a trustworthy person to reduce the child’s skepticism or critical sense.
The groomer typically does this to investigate whether the child can be groomed and to get a sense of the risk involved.
Technology has made it easier to cast a very broad net—because what does the groomer have to lose? If it doesn’t work with one, it’s easy to move on to the next—or to work multiple children simultaneously.
We know that many children and young people are contacted by adults they don’t know online.
According to a study carried out by Rambøll for Save the Children (2021), one in four children between the ages 9‒17 is contacted online by adults they don’t already know. The investigation reveals how, in some cases, the stranger texts or chats with the child. In other cases, they send things to the child that they did not want to see, or they want the child to do things that the child did not want to do, such as sending pictures of their body.
2. Access to and isolation of the child
The second phase involves the groomer trying to build trust with the child, showering them with positive attention. Such communication will typically focus on the child’s interests, dreams, or problems the child is dealing with. The child will therefore feel a constant interest over time, and that they are seen and heard. If the adult interested in grooming a child finds out that the child plays handball, for example, they will typically say that they also like it.
In this phase, if communication has not already started on a private communication platform, the groomer focuses on making it private. This is about finding a way to talk to the child without others being able to see and possibly warn the child. At this point, the communication may move to Messenger, Snapchat, or other communication platforms. Here, there is often direct or indirect encouragement to keep the contact secret.
3. Development of a trusting relationship
In this phase, the groomer will try to strengthen their relationship with the child. The groomer will try to create an intimate relationship, where, for example, secrets are exchanged and the topics of conversation become very personal. The intention is for the child to feel “chosen,” special, or like “the only one.” The groomer will also typically spend a lot of time describing how special the relationship is, and how the groomer also expects the child to be loyal, because otherwise they could lose the good relationship and the benefits that go with it. The groomer might also threaten to reveal the secrets that the child has told in confidence. If a child lacks self-confidence, proper adult contact, and care, they are particularly vulnerable to the groomer’s blackmail.
4. Breaking down the child’s personal limits
The fourth phase involves the groomer introducing sexual themes, possibly by asking about the child’s sexual interests and experiences or how their body has developed.
The groomer offers their knowledge, provides examples of their own experience, and appears to inspire confidence in the child. This helps to push the child’s limits and to normalize sexualized behavior among children.
The groomer can also start to make demands of the child; for example, that they must send increasingly sexualized images in order to satisfy the groomer sexually. This reinforces the basis for blackmail that the groomer has already tried to create, and it can be difficult for a child to seek help if they feel that they themselves have gradually agreed to what the groomer is asking for.
5. Maintaining the relationship after the abuse
In this phase, the groomer focuses on emphasizing that the relationship is their private secret and that the child themself has been responsible for it developing in this manner. The groomer points out that what they and the child share together is something very special that others will not be able to understand or accept their relationship—and that it is therefore important that the child does not tell anyone else what has happened.