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Shining a spotlight on online grooming: a research blog post by Dr Sarah Wefers

08 March 2024

Research is at the heart of everything we do and we are pleased to announce that our recent article “Understanding and deterring online child grooming: A qualitative study” has been published this February in the academic journal Sexual Offending: Theory, Research and Prevention.

In this brand-new blog post, our Practitioner-Researcher Dr Sarah Wefers discusses how this research was carried out, what we learnt from the study and how this research could support us on our mission to prevent child sexual abuse.

“Online grooming is a serious and growing problem in the UK and globally and understanding this behaviour is a cornerstone of our work to prevent child sexual abuse. We use our insights from working with people who have offended to inform our work. Interviews with men who had used indecent images of children have helped us develop videos and deterrence messages” (see Bailey et al., 2022), says Sarah, who has worked at the foundation since January 2022.

“For this study, we interviewed 14 men who had contacted Stop It Now for help about online sexual communications, which we called online child grooming in this study. In these interviews, the men told us about their pathway to illegal online behaviours and what they think is helpful in preventing such behaviour in the future. We then analysed the transcripts of these interviews and identified themes,” Sarah added.

Dynamics of online grooming

The study identified five themes called Social Aspects, Mental Health/Psychological Aspects, Justification for offending, Secrecy and Technology; and each of these themes include risk factors for online grooming (aspects that help us explain why online grooming happens) and protective factors (aspects that are related to stopping or preventing online grooming).

“The men we interviewed shared that they used online chats to seek connections with others. They often felt that their online behaviour got out of control and escalated to riskier and illegal behaviours. The online chats were perceived as not real or fantasy and we found that the anonymity  of the internet and the chat platforms often facilitated the illegal behaviour.

The men who took part in this study said that having and building strong relationships offline, looking after their mental well-being and building a healthy lifestyle, and reducing the anonymity online and secrecy of their behaviour help in preventing online child grooming,” added Sarah.

From insights to action

Sarah now hopes that the findings from the study will help us and others continue to build strategies to prevent online grooming in the future.

“Those who have already offended need to be supported in building a healthy, happier and safer lifestyle to prevent relapsing.

More education about the risks of escalating online behaviour is needed. Online chat platforms need to make sure that children are safe, for example by using age verifications, moderating chat rooms, and using warning messages to deter risky or illegal behaviours.

Based on the interviews we did, we developed a new video called ‘Spotlight’ that we now use to reach more people who are having sexual chats online with children, aiming to help them realise that their behaviour may feel anonymous and secret, but comes with serious consequences,” added Sarah.

Understanding the how and the why

Online child grooming isn’t a new phenomenon but research like this help us better understand how and why people offend and what we can do to stop this behaviour.

“We interviewed men who have been detected by the police for their behaviour, so there is still more to learn from people who have not been detected. Their behaviour and their pathways into offending may be different from those who are detected by the police.

We also need to test which warning messages work best to deter online child grooming and encourage people to seek help as early as possible,” concluded Sarah.

If you would like to read more, you can access the full research article here.

Get involved

If you would like to donate to help us continue our ground-breaking work to prevent child sexual abuse, click here. 

Further research and publications

For free information and research to help adults, parents and carers and professionals protect children from sexual abuse, click here. 

To read more of our Faithfull Papers, click here. 

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