It can take as little as eight minutes for an online predator to groom a child online, according to research from Middlesex University.
Criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo was given unprecedented access to the Metropolitan Police’s high tech crime and paedophile units to observe the behaviour of child sex offenders using the internet to groom youngsters.
Now she has published her evaluation of sex predators’ online behaviour and policing strategies implemented to combat online child sexual abuse.
Dr Martellozzo observed that after breaking the ice with children as young as 12, within less than three minutes of chatting for the first time predators cut to the chase and to turn the conversation to sex, enabling them to build a bond within eight minutes.
Examples of phrases used by an online predator during the opening minutes of an exchange with a 12 year old girl:
• “I’m a very gentle guy”
• “Discovered boys and sex huh?”
• “I’d give you lots of kisses in all the right places”
• “I'd love to be your first [lover]”
• “[The fact that you’re 12] doesn't matter to me - if you want to [have sex] that's all that counts”
During her four year study Dr Martellozzo found that there are common and alarming features across child sex offenders:
1. They see children depicted in images as tradable objects and not as real people
2. Actions are justified by neutralising guilt through claims that they are helping the child to learn about sex for the good of the child
3. Offences are justified by making excuses or minimising the impact the abuse might have had on the victim
4. Two thirds of offenders expose themselves through a web cam - this is seen as part of the grooming process
5. Once arrested, online groomers denied their offence and involvement with the online offences, claiming that their behaviour was pure fantasy
6. The web is seen as a veil for anonymity, many believe they will not be caught
7. It is a belief that ‘everything is accepted’ on the web, including child abuse
Dr Martellozzo said: “Whilst there is no such thing as a typical online child groomer, it is nevertheless both possible and instructive to identify a range of distinctive child grooming behaviours. The majority of online predators see the internet as safe environment where all forms of behaviour are allowed, including child abuse, but police are increasingly aware of this.
“Internet grooming is often different from ‘real world’ grooming. This is so because some offenders spend less time chatting in order to get straight to the point, sometimes within a few minutes. This would suggest that the internet might act to remove inhibitions that might be heavily present in face-to-face contact. Research suggests that some sex offenders spend a long time online identifying the right victim to groom and eventually abuse.”
For worried parents, Dr Martellozzo suggests that talking about social media is the most simple practical step that could prevent their children being groomed online: “Parents must ensure their children understand that cyberspace should be treated exactly as they treat the real world. Children say and do things online that they wouldn’t usually do, including swapping photos of themselves, seeing it as innocent fun rather than something that could later embarrass or hurt them
“I've discussed online behaviour with hundreds of young people and many do not realise that everything they do online leaves a digital footprint that will always be there.”
Other simple steps include looking out for a change in a child’s behaviour when they have been online, or parents themselves engaging in social media and befriending their children.
She revealed her findings in a new book ‘Policing Online Child Sexual Abuse: Grooming, Policing and Child Protection in a Multi-Media World’.
For press enquiries contact Richard Hayward: R.Hayward@mdx.ac.uk or 0208 411 6761