Paedophiles can start talking to children about sex in online chatrooms after just 120 seconds and arrange to meet them after 40 minutes, researchers have warned.
Academics who lead the Online Grooming Communication Project studied interactions between convicted child sex abusers and adult volunteers pretending to be children on behalf of the police in the US.
They said their work should dispel several myths about how paedophiles groom their victims.
Child abusers tended not to pose as children, lying about their age in the same way as ordinary people sometimes do, reducing it by about five years.
And the researchers said the grooming tended to be persuasive, rather than coercive, with an abuser often speaking in a polite way, paying the child a large amount of compliments.
But perhaps the most alarming finding was how quickly some of them would start talking about sex and how quickly they would move to asking to meet.
Dr Cristina Izura, who took part in the research, said: “Online groomers are, communicatively, highly skilled and can interact with their victims as if they care about them, and can pretend to be romantically – rather than only sexually – interested in them.
“They complement children regularly on a range of topics, rather than only on sexually oriented ones.
“We have found that depending on online grooming speed [of the abuser], sexually oriented compliments, whether on appearance or on personality, comprise between over half and a quarter of all the compliments online groomers pay.
“Moreover, online groomers use compliments not only to develop an emotional bond with the children, but also strategically to frame communicative exchanges in which they desensitise the children to sexual behaviour and isolate them from their family and close friends, thus strengthening their dependency on the online groomer.”
She said during the online interactions between the paedophiles and the adult volunteers, the fastest time an abuser mentioned sex was just two minutes.
And in one encounter the abuser arranged to meet the person he thought was a child after just 18 minutes.
While this may have depended to an extent on the adult volunteer’s replies, Dr Izura said this was not significantly out of step with what happened in real encounters with children.
Police had told them of a case where a child had been successfully groomed after just 40 minutes, she said.
“All of these findings resonated with them [the police] as quite real … it doesn’t seem that far off from what actually happens,” she said.
The researchers analysed more than quarter a million words in exchanges involving nearly 200 child abusers who were later convicted.
Her colleague at Swansea University, Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, said one thing that was unexpected was how polite online groomers could be, using phrases like “would you mind” and “perhaps you might” in addition to at times being sexually explicit.
She said this meant that software designed to detect paedophiles’ online activities by looking for language rich with sexual terms might not be as effective as hoped.
Professor Lorenzo-Dus said all children were potentially at risk — even hers and Dr Izura’s — and it was important for parents to talk about the risk to their sons and daughters.
“We know it is unrealistic to stop children using the internet and it is not always possible to monitor all their digital activities, but increasing their understanding of how online grooming works and the communicative tactics online groomers use will make it possible to recognise … some of the strategies our research has revealed and therefore to raise awareness of the potential dangers,“ she said.
“While this may be emotionally hard for adults, whether as parents, carers or professionals devoted to children’s well-being, it is paramount that they are informed so they can recognise the signs.”
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