Anonymity and misrepresentation: Understanding the risks of online grooming and digital blackmail

The release of new reports and campaigns this month demonstrate the safety work that still must be done as the numbers of reported digital crimes continues to rise, especially in the areas of online grooming and blackmail. A report produced by Europol, Online sexual coercion and extortion as a form of crime affecting children: Law enforcement perspective, outlined criminal behaviour and the motives behind it. According to analysis by INHOPE member NCMEC (the US-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children), the primary motive of blackmail based on photos is to receive more, increasingly explicit photos (78 per cent), as opposed to obtaining money or goods from the child (7 per cent). In response to this new phenomenon of coercive crimes, Europol has created the #SayNO campaign, a series of videos depicting teens experiencing online extortion, with messages of help and information on how and where to find victims' resources.

Anonymity on apps and platforms that children use provides an opportunity for those who may seek to lie or misrepresent themselves for predatory purposes – a practice commonly known as grooming. A victim of grooming may then be coerced into taking sexual photos or videos of themselves which are then used for blackmail, either for financial payment or to continue receiving photos or videos. Naturally, children and young people are the most trusting and susceptible to this type of risk.

Online blogs, forums, games, social networking and many other types of apps now provide chat and messaging functions that allow users to interact with each other, making it easier also for predators to create false identities, to learn about a child's likes and dislikes in order to befriend them, or even to pose as a young child themselves. These methods are used to gain trust which may then lead to demands for increasingly explicit images, coercion to perform sexual acts via webcam or, in other cases, persuading and luring minors to a meeting offline.

In recent months, there has been frequent coverage of law enforcement's successful intervention in large-scale online child sexual abuse operations, from Canada to the Philippines. While this highlights the great technical advances that are being made to tackle crimes against children, it also reinforces the ongoing prevalence of the issue. INHOPE members have been active in addressing this area in both research and public education. Following an 89 per cent increase in sextortion cases among teenage boys reported to hotline Cybertip.ca, the newest awareness campaign by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection is Don't get extorted, send a naked mole rat. The campaign uses humour to reach a younger audience and spread the message that sending a meme instead of real sexual images is a way for teens to avoid extortion. The campaign especially targets boys.

It is extremely difficult to verify the identity and motives of every user online, which is why young people must be taught to think carefully about what they share with others on the internet. Children must also listen to their instincts and tell a trusted person in their lives, such as parents, a teacher, sibling or carer, when they have been threatened or feel that someone or something they've encountered online is not right. Because perpetrators may use misleading images, names, websites and other strategies to manipulate a vulnerable child, it is important that children have a strong sense of what is normal and acceptable online before they are allowed to use devices or be online independently. They should also develop a sense of responsibility online, learning how to report any illegal or abusive content they may encounter. These practices all contribute to building the resilience and judgment that children need to be safe and confident as they navigate experiences in the digital world.

Mediating online activity and safety is a shared responsibility between many people in a child's life, as well as a responsibility of industry. It is a high priority in awareness-raising efforts among educators, charities, and law enforcement; all bodies with a remit in child protection must recognise the vital importance of safeguarding potential victims from the possibility of harm by online offenders. Here, we highlight some of the independent resources created by members of the INHOPE network on the subjects of grooming, coercion and online extortion of children:

  • Sextortion and online enticement: a PSA from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) showing the story of a young girl who is coerced by someone falsely representing themselves as a friend.
  • Grooming and online predators: guidance for parents from NetSafe New Zealand on recognising the signs that grooming might be happening to a child and how to get help.
  • Online solicitation: a definitive explanation from Telefono Azzurro of how children can be targeted online by a malicious person for sexual purposes, and details of a new addition to the Italian criminal code in this area.

The nature of the internet means that crimes against children can happen anywhere, which is why it's important to remember that a vigilant public also has a vital role to play in fighting even suspected sexual exploitation. Anyone who comes across images or becomes otherwise aware of online interactions that they feel may be dangerous or illegal involving children should always report it to the proper authorities, and never ignore it. A single report can make the difference in preventing a child from becoming a victim.

Find out more about the work of INHOPE within the European network of Safer Internet Centres or visit www.inhope.org.


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