Results from a three-year EU-funded study into the methods and behaviours of sex offenders show that online paedophiles who seek out children in chat rooms are abandoning the traditional 'grooming process'; instead, they are adopting a highly sexualised tone within two minutes of starting a conversation.
The European Online Grooming Project, funded in part under the European Commission's Safer Internet Plus program, a multiannual Community program on promoting safer use of the Internet and new online technologies, brought together researchers from Belgium, Italy, Norway and the United Kingdom.
The team carried out a detailed examination of convicted sex offenders' online chat logs, provided by a British and Italian police force. The team also had access to in-depth interviews with male paedophiles convicted of online grooming in Belgium, Norway and the United Kingdom.
"It is clear from the recent police chat logs we were given access to that the conversation between an online offender and a child can now become sexualized within two minutes," says one of the study authors, Professor Julia Davidson, from Kingston University in the United Kingdom. "On social networking sites, if the child does not respond, the offender will simply move on to the next child. During our interviews, offenders said they didn't need to bother with a grooming process when they could immediately ask children for sex or to meet so they could abuse them."
Although there was still evidence that some paedophiles use a longer term grooming approach in some cases, the final outcome of online sexualised chat was often a physical meeting. These meetings frequently take place at hotels, car parks, parks, bus stops or even the offender's or victim's bedrooms.
Some pedophiles would spend up to six hours online a day. Many carried out 'fishing trips' where they added hundreds of children as contacts on social networking sites and worked through the list until they found a child willing to interact with them.
"Sometimes offenders have several children on the go at once, with paedophiles assuming several different identities," comments Professor Davidson. "They keep across many different conversations and keep meticulous notes on each child in a very calculating way."
The research also revealed that some young people still have a very stereotypical view of online groomers, as project leader Stephen Webster from the National Centre for Social Research in the United Kingdom explains:
"Young people think of them as 'fat old men' - a perception that our research proves to be untrue. The online groomers we spoke to were all ages and some of them significantly altered their identity when targeting a young person."
Stephen Webster notes that the problem can often be increased when young people add people they do not know as friends on social networking sites:
"Many youngsters feel a sense of competition for friends when social networking, with the result that profile pages and identifying details are readily available online. Groomers told us they used this information to help identify potential victims. The Internet industry can also help, by ensuring accounts default to the highest privacy setting when they're first set up."
The advice for parents is to set up basic parental controls on all computers in the home, and to not let children under the age of 13 use social networking sites. Professor Davidson emphasises the importance of dialogue: it can be trickier to communicate the dangers to older children without scaring them.
Although parents and teachers have been alert to the dangers of social networking sites for a while, the report also highlights how new gaming platforms, such as the Xbox Live, are now also used to target children, particularly boys.
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Kingston University: www.kingston.ac.uk/