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Digital Grooming: What Parents & Carers Need to Know

Whilst online, there’s a chance that your younger loved ones may encounter people that aren’t who they say they are.

Grooming. It’s uncomfortable to talk about, and can be difficult to recognise, but by confronting the issue together we can empower parents, carers, and young people to spot the dangers at the earliest possible warning sign and prevent further harm to those most vulnerable.

What is digital grooming?

Also referred to as online grooming, UK-based charity Childnet.com identify it as follows; ‘online grooming is where someone befriends a child online and builds up their trust with the intention of exploiting them and causing them harm.’

The new relationship formed between the perpetrator and the victim can and will be used by the groomer to further manipulate, exploit, and abuse the young person.

Grooming may happen quickly, in a matter of weeks, or develop over a longer period, months or even years. The perpetrator may even try to insert themselves in the young person’s life and appeal to family and friends as a trustworthy or ‘safe’ individual.

Young people who are groomed online or in person can be sexually abused, criminally exploited, or trafficked.

A young child sits at a laptop in the dark with headset on

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How does it happen and who is at risk?

According to Ofcom, nearly all children aged 5 – 15 years-old (97%) went online via a device in 2020, an increase from 2019. Another form of entertainment for children in 2020 was online gaming, around 7 in 10 children played games online, with 69% of them using a video games console to do so.

Regardless of age, gender, or location, any child can be at risk of being groomed.

Online groomers will typically target children on websites and platforms popular with young people, this could include but not limited to, TikTok, Snapchat, Discord, Xbox Live, or PlayStation Network.

A groomer will take time to learn about the young person’s interests and use this knowledge to build a meaningful relationship with them. They also may employ tactics like pretending to be younger to appeal to the victim, offer advice and show empathy towards them, give them undivided attention, or buy gifts of monetary value for them.

A young child with headset smiling in a pink t shirt

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All of this is motived by the groomer to take further advantage of the young person, they may try and make them do things like:

  • have sexual conversations either via text messaging or over voice chat
  • send naked photographs or videos
  • drug dealing
  • commit crimes, such as theft, shoplifting, or pickpocketing
  • run away from their home
  • meet up with them in person

Recognising the signs of digital grooming

Grooming can be challenging to identify, especially as the young person may not wish to openly talk about a new relationship and they may not recognise the potential dangers.

Some signs that may indicate a young person is being groomed online are:

  • being secretive about how they’re spending their time
  • having an older boyfriend / girlfriend
  • spending more or less time on their devices and social media
  • new unexplained items or money
  • being withdrawn, upset, or distressed
  • underage drug or alcohol consumption
  • self-harming
  • being away from home more frequently or going missing

Although a tactic employed by the perpetrator may have been to lie about their own age or gender to get closer to the victim, this isn’t always the case. In some instances, the young person may sincerely believe that they are in a relationship with the online groomer regardless of an age difference and may not understand or recognise the signs of abuse.

The effects of digital grooming

Grooming can have short and long-term effects on the individual. A young person may find it difficult to sleep, be anxious, or struggle to concentrate and complete their schoolwork. As mentioned within potential signs to be aware of, they may become withdrawn, irritable, angry, and upset.

Following the experience, they may also feel shameful and become embarrassed which may lead to depression, anxiety, and stress. Unfortunately, the effects of grooming can be long-lasting. But there is support available to help people through it.

A young teenager with ginger hair and black t shirt is looking at a laptop screen

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What to do if you learn that a young person has been groomed?

Discovering that a young person has been groomed / is being groomed is a complex and difficult time for you both. However, knowing what to do next can help parents and carers begin to help their loved one make sense of what has happened.


If they’ve disclosed this directly to you, give them a safe space to tell their story and don’t be outwardly shocked by what they say. They may feel embarrassed or confused and need that room to work through their emotions together with a trusted adult.


You can report any concerns you have about grooming directly to COEP. CEOP is part of the National Crime Agency and helps keep children and young people safe from sexual abuse and grooming online.

You can find out the process of reporting to COEP and how they can help here.


If you think someone in your care – a young person or vulnerable adult – could be in immediate danger, contact your local police at once.

Further online support for young people

Opening up can be difficult. If they’d rather speak anonymously to a professional and seek specialist support then there’s a few useful online, trusted resources for young people to access:

  • The Mix Helpline offers a free, confidential helpline and counselling service via their online community.
  • Fearless.org is a part of Crimestoppers and is a service that allows you to pass on information about crime 100% anonymously. It is also a great resource to learn more about different types of crime, e.g., criminal exploitation.
  • Childline offer 1-2-1 online counsellor chats via their website, as well as their free, 24/7 telephone service.