Children could become the victims of online chat room grooming in as little as 18 minutes, according to Swansea University academics speaking at the British Science Festival.

This is just one of several findings of the Online Grooming Communication Project (OGC), led by Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus and Dr Cristina Izura, which studied the language used in the online interactions of 192 convicted groomers, amounting to over 250 million words,

The researchers identified four processes that take place from point of contact with the child. The first is ‘deceptive/trust development’ activities, such as giving compliments to the child. The next is ‘compliance testing’ using reverse psychology, followed by mental or physical isolation. These lead up to sexual gratification for the abuser, which can be online or offline. Researchers emphasise that these processes can happen at the same time, which means that grooming does not necessarily need to take place over a long period. The fastest recorded time was 18 minutes of conversation and the slowest recorded time was 82 hours.

The language used by groomers to connect with children is far more subtle and non-sexual than we would perhaps think, as they try to develop an emotional bond with their victims and persuade, rather than coerce, them. This finding suggests that existing computer software used to monitor and catch online groomers would not flag up these conversations as they are designed to detect only particular types of vocabulary.

The groomers were relatively truthful about their age, generally only knocking off five years. They do not try to hide the fact that they are adults from their young victims. In this sample, the real ages of the groomers were between 21 and 65, whereas their ‘staged’ ages were 16-61. This raises questions about why children might continue these conversations and whether some children are more at risk than others.

In fact, no research so far has been able to establish a particular victim profile. Prof. Lorenzo-Dus emphasises, “All children are potentially at risk from being groomed online because all children regularly use the internet.”

She explained that it is less about home and family circumstances and more about the curiosity that the online world provokes.

Although the grooming conversations analysed as part of the research took place not with children, but with adults who were specially trained to play the roles of children online, the researchers are confident that their work so far has given new insight into the strategies of online groomers. They hope to continue this work in order to help inform development of more effective software.

Speaking about the importance of research to help protect children online, Prof. Lorenzo-Dus said, “It is our plea to move this forward by accessing an equally large corpus of data with real children, but this is incredibly difficult in the UK context. We have been trying for three years!”

The researchers have already begun working with law-enforcement, schools, and parents to help them better identify signs of inappropriate online communication.

Dr Rowenna Baldwin is a Manchester Metropolitan University Media Fellow. She is a Senior Research Assistant at the MMU Policy Evaluation and Research Unit.

Image credit: Amancay Maahs via Flickr