Online Grooming Report: Young people's online encounters growing riskier; flirting with adults they meet online viewed as "normal"

New research from Thorn surveys youth attitudes about online relationships and identifies potential risks for online grooming

LOS ANGELES, April 29, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — New research from Thorn, a technology nonprofit dedicated to defending children from online sexual abuse, finds that nearly half of all kids online (40%) have been approached online by someone who they thought was attempting to “befriend and manipulate” them. The research also reveals that tweens – or those aged 9-12 – view flirting or dating adults (people age 18 or older) they meet online as common among their age group.

The study, “Online Grooming: Examining risky encounters amid everyday digital socialization,” finds that the traditional “stranger danger” approach to digital safety education is out of touch with how young people tend to view their interactions online. Roughly one in three young people said friends they make online are among their closest confidants.

Thorn’s latest study builds on its earlier research examining the experiences of young people who have shared explicit imagery (“nudes”) of themselves. The research explores young people’s attitudes and experiences with making friends and flirting online, and how minors respond to online threats of manipulation, grooming, and abuse.

“While online socialization and exploration offers young people the opportunity to connect over shared interests and provides critical support, the anonymity also gives the opportunity for bad actors to build false friendships, isolate, and victimize youth,” said Julie Cordua, CEO of Thorn. “The importance of online relationships for children is only going to continue as new platforms for virtual socialization develop, which is exactly why we urge parents and caregivers to have open and honest conversations with their children about their digital lives and online safety.”

The report underscores the critical role that parents and caregivers must play to teach kids about healthy online relationships. In September 2021, Thorn launched Thorn for Parents, a digital resource hub designed to assist parents and caregivers in having earlier, more frequent, and judgment-free conversations with kids about digital safety. Thorn for Parents brings caregivers face-to-face with the reality that digital safety conversations need to start much younger than they may think and underscores the importance of having them more often to help guide kids through these difficult topics with understanding, empathy, and support.

In examining kids’ online social networks and behaviors, the online grooming research disentangles high-value from high-risk relationships to inform a series of recommendations and areas for further study.

Summary of Findings 

  • Young people view flirting or dating adults online as common. In fact, 1 in 4 9-12-year-olds see it as normal for kids their age to date adults aged 18-20. This group also reported flirting with or dating older adults aged 21-29, and adults age 30 or older, at similar rates.
  • Minors are regularly approached online by someone they believe is attempting to “befriend and manipulate” them. 2 in 5 minors (40%) said they have been approached online by someone they believe was attempting “to befriend and manipulate” them, with 47% of teen girls saying they have experienced this.
  • Many young people have experienced cold solicitations for nudes online. 40% of minors have experienced cold solicitations for nudes online, including roughly 1 in 4 (28%) 9-12-year-olds. Many who have experienced it claim it wasn’t a frequent experience, but around 1 in 7 (14%) minors reported this as a weekly or daily experience.
  • Online-only contacts often ask young people to move conversations from public platforms to private chats, increasing the vulnerability and opportunities for abuse. Nearly 2 in 3 (65%) minors said they have experienced an online-only contact inviting them “to move from a public chat into a private conversation on a different platform.”
  • Certain minors may be at heightened risk for online exploitation. Roughly 1 in 8 (12%) minors surveyed qualified as individuals at higher risk for online exploitation based on their sharing behaviors with online-only contacts. 30% of all LGBTQ+ minors surveyed fell into this category, as well as 20% of all 15-17-year-olds and 18% of all teen girls.

The study also shows where kids learn about grooming matters. Those young people  who are considered at high risk of being groomed were far less likely to have learned about “online grooming” from their parents or caregivers than other minors. They were twice as likely (47%) than their counterparts (23%) to have learned the term and its meaning from online communities. This is why parents and caregivers play such an important role in safeguarding children from online risks.

The study also notes that platforms, including private messaging services, must evolve how they understand and approach online grooming.

While platforms should continue to improve and prioritize reporting functionality and their ability to respond quickly, this approach offers only the most basic level of protection for users and still places the onus on kids to recognize and report attempts at manipulation.

It’s essential that platforms work collaboratively on this issue to innovate and deploy solutions that address the fundamentally cross-platform nature of online grooming. Without this approach, offenders will continue to exploit the siloed nature of digital environments to the detriment of the children they victimize.

Thorn’s full report, “Online Grooming: Examining risky encounters amid everyday digital socialization,” can be viewed online here.

Methodology: The survey collected self-reported data from minors aged 9-17. Both qualitative and quantitative research tools were used to collect data related to minors’ online experiences. In total, 25 minors aged 13-17 participated from November 12-21, 2020 in “online diaries” designed to safely capture a nuanced understanding of a minor’s experiences online. In total, 1,200 minors of a nationally representative sample participated in a 20-minute online survey from January 27-February 12, 2021. Data was weighted to age, gender, race, and geography, based on US Census data.

About Thorn: Thorn is a nonprofit founded in 2012 to build technology to defend children from sexual abuse and eliminate child sex abuse material from the internet. Thorn creates products that identify child victims faster, provides services for the tech industry to play a proactive role in removing abuse content from their platforms, and works directly with youth and communities to build resilient kids. Learn more about Thorn’s mission to build technology to defend children from sexual abuse at Thorn.org.

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SOURCE Thorn

Online Grooming Report: Young people's online encounters growing riskier; flirting with adults they meet online viewed as "normal" WeeklyReviewer

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