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What is online grooming?

Online grooming is when someone seeks to build an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for sexual purposes. It happens both online and face to face. Groomers are not always strangers and can be someone a child knows - such as a family member, friend or professional. Online, children and young people may meet adults through social and gaming sites and they may be encouraged to share explicit images and videos or arrange to meet.

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How does online grooming happen?

Children now have access to numerous digital devices at home, meaning they are at greater risk to be targeted by online predators. Often groomers hide their identity online and may pretend to be the same age as a child. They may use fake profile pictures, pretending to have similar interests and offering gifts to gain the trust of the child before steering the conversation to a sexual nature. Once trust in established, a groomer may use power and control to make, force, blackmail, guilt or trick a child into doing what the groomer wants. They may persuade a child to take part in online sexual activity including sharing explicit images and videos and livestreaming sexual acts. Sometimes children don’t realise they’ve been groomed and may believe they are in a ‘relationship’.

A child may feel uncomfortable or frightened, but might not ask for help because they:

  • Blame themselves
  • 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

Where can online grooming happen?

Online grooming can happen anywhere online, including:

  • Social media and messaging apps
  • Photo sharing apps and sites
  • Dating sites
  • Chat rooms
  • Online games

What are the signs of online grooming?

Recognising the signs of online grooming can be hard as often child predators are incredibly manipulative and tell children not to talk to anyone about it. Signs a child may be being groomed include:

  • Sudden changes in behaviour, such as spending more or less time online
  • Spending more time away or going missing from home or school
  • Being secretive about how they’re spending their time, including when using online devices
  • Having unexplained gifts, big or small
  • Misusing alcohol and/or drugs
  • Having a friendship or relationship with a much older person
  • Developing sexual health problems
  • Using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • Seeming upset, worried, sad, withdrawn, angry, stressed, anxious or depressed

Online grooming and the law

It is a criminal offence for an adult to have ‘sexual communication with a child’ under 16 years under section 90 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. Communication can include written note, email, text message, chat room and messenger/gaming service, etc.

On 27th November, under the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 it will also be a criminal offence for an adult to pretend to be a child with a view of communicating with a child where the intention is to commit a future ‘relevant’ offence. Where that is the intent, masquerading as a child is an offence regardless of the nature of the communication. This creates almost a pre-emptive communication offence – where the intention is to engage in communication with the intention of committing an offence at some point in the future.

How to report online grooming

If you are concerned that a child may be being targeted and groomed online, please come forward to police by calling 101, or in an emergency 999.

Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) - Online Safety Hub logo
Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) - Online Safety Hub logo

Further Support and Advice

Developed by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI), the Online Safety Hub is a dedicated website for young people and adults, focusing on Online Safety.

You'll find valuable information and guidance on understanding online grooming and online blackmail. Learn to recognise potential risks, signs to watch out for and discover practical tips to protect yourself while navigating the online world.

Learn about Online Grooming and Online blackmail