How Predators “Groom” Children While Gaming Online
Earlier this year, Immingham and Wolds Community Policing Team in the United Kingdom reported that an adult made an attempt to “groom” a boy while they both played Minecraft, a game where users build constructions out of blocks in a three-dimensional world. This case is just one of many that shows the dangers that face children in the gaming world.
What is “grooming”?
Grooming is the process by which a child predator gains the trust of a victim by building a relationship with the child and then breaking down his or her defenses. After the predator has built a foundation of trust with the child, he begins to make some sort of sexual contact with the child, whether it is sending explicit messages and photos or attempting to meet in person to commit sexual abuse or rape.
Grooming & Gaming
Although children play games to have fun and escape from homework and chores, predators have a different motive. Unfortunately, predators have discovered that gaming is an ideal way for predators to connect with children over a shared interest and build a relationship by being on the same team or fighting the same mission. In fact, in 2012, Microsoft, Sony, Disney, and Electronic Arts shut down the accounts of over 3,500 registered sex offenders in a mission called “Operation Game Over.”
But, these 3,500 accounts are just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, predators are still using gaming as a way to gain access to children on a daily basis. Predators will most likely start off a conversation with an innocent question about the child’s name or age, and then move into more inappropriate questions as the relationship grows. After contact has been initiated, the predator may try to convince the child to take the conversation over to another app such as WhatsApp, Skype or Snapchat. Predators have become so skilled at grooming children through gaming, that they even know how to sense when a child is being supervised. If the child stops responding or begins to respond in an unusual way, predators typically sign off to avoid getting caught.
Even if parents do everything that they’re supposed to do by only allowing their children to play age-appropriate games, children can still become victims of grooming. Because of this, it’s important that parents recognize how groomers behave and what signs to look for in children.
What are the signs of grooming?
Children are vulnerable and, unfortunately, predators are well aware of it. Child predators begin to build trust with the child by preying on his or her vulnerabilities. If the predator senses that the child feels alone or left out, the predator will make him or her feel special with excessive attention or by offering a shoulder to cry on. In some cases, the groomer isolates the child from friends and family by making him or her believe that he is the only one in the world who understands the emotions that the victim feels. The groomer will most likely manipulate the child into keeping the relationship a secret so that parents or caretakers do not discover the inappropriate bond. Be on the lookout for these signs that your child might be a victim of grooming through gaming:
- Your child wants to spend more time online or playing games through a console but won’t tell you why.
- Your child does not want to discuss what he or she does online or what websites he or she visits.
- You notice that your child is using inappropriate language that he or she would not have heard within your home or at school.
- When you walk in a room, your child quickly changes the computer screen, mutes the volume on his or her gaming console, or turns it off altogether.
How can you protect your child?
It’s important to know the signs of grooming, but even more important to take the necessary steps to prevent your child from becoming a victim. Before your child enters the world of gaming, protect him or her with these tips:
- Check the parental controls on the game console and restrict strangers from gaining access to your child’s profile.
- From time to time, parents should play the game, too. Get a feel for the other people who your child interacts with, the language that they use, and whether or not your child is at risk of being groomed.
- Talk openly to your children about privacy and why some information should never be shared with people that you don’t know.
- Explain to children that even if they frequently talk to someone through a game, this person is still a stranger and should not be trusted with personal information.
If you believe that your child is being groomed online, talk to him or her openly, but firmly. Be sure to contact your local police department immediately if you find evidence that a predator has attempted to groom your child through online gaming or any other channel.