Online Grooming: Helping parents and children recognise the signs

By Lorin LaFave, founder of The Breck Foundation

Grooming. It’s an uncomfortable word – but one we must use directly and openly when we talk about online safety. It’s only by confronting the issue and using the correct terminology that we will empower parents, teachers, carers and children alike to spot the dangers, and give young people the confidence to tackle any potential issues at the earliest possible warning sign.

Recognising the signs of online grooming

Grooming can be hard to spot at first, or identify as malicious, because it’s built from a false foundation of trust, friendship and even admiration. With mobile phones in easy reach, and the ability to interact at the touch of a button, it can be easy to forget that everyone is a stranger online. That doesn’t mean that everyone is dangerous – but it’s a reminder that the only picture we are able to build of someone we are ‘talking’ to is created by the snippets they choose to present to us.

Conversations can start, and then develop from shared interests, having fun, a feeling of being looked after, compliments, or even perceived mentoring. Of course, none of these are harmful in their own right, but it’s important that we equip our young people to understand what a healthy relationship looks like – both on and offline – to help them spot and report when these behaviours are becoming inappropriate, controlling or coercive.

The Breck Foundation

I created The Breck Foundation  to help create a safer internet for all children and young people. This charity was set up with the aim of raising awareness about the various issues that young people face online every day. The Foundation’s tagline - #PlayVirtualLiveReal, is a reminder to everyone to never meet someone you’ve met online in a private place.

This Foundation is named after my son, who was tragically murdered in 2014 aged just 14, having been groomed online. I had my suspicions that something wasn’t right, though he couldn’t see the danger of the relationship that he had developed on an online gaming platform.

I am passionate about using Breck’s story to help young people see the risks, and realise that as parents, it’s not just that we’re all ‘paranoid’, and creating unnecessary rules to spoil their enjoyment. My wish was for Breck to be ‘healthy, happy, and safe’, but unfortunately the predator used this against me by telling Breck that I was trying to control him. The predator was actually controlling Breck for his own selfish and sick behaviours.   

A key part of the Foundation’s work now, aside from our work with parents, teachers, carers and police, is empowering young people to keep safe online by looking out for each other. Encouraging them to be an ‘upstander’ rather than a ‘bystander’ if they suspect someone may be in trouble. This peer-to-peer support and awareness is so important, as often the victim may not recognise the danger until it’s too late. It is in this spirit of peer-to-peer learning that our group of Breck Ambassadors deliver presentations to schools, and pupils perform our engaging and hard-hitting verbatim play, Game Over, which retells Breck’s harrowing true story.

Spotting the signs of online grooming

As a parent, I’d encourage you to be vigilant for any of the following behaviours in your children, which may indicate that something is wrong.

  • Seeing changes in their personality – they may seem tired, depressed or angry
  • They begin to isolate themselves from friends, family and their usual support system
  • Missing school
  • Becoming more secretive than usual
  • Receiving expensive gifts and being unwilling to say who they’re from

There is no type, gender or background that excludes anyone from vulnerability to online predators. As the police investigation unfolded around Breck, it became clear that many people from all professions and of various ages could have changed the course of action for Breck if only they had been educated on recognising the signs of grooming and exploitation, and felt empowered to do something about it.

Prevention through education: The Breck Principles

The Breck Foundation’s Breck Principles are designed to remind everyone how to keep safer online.

Be aware and believe (Be aware of the different forms of grooming and Believe predators exist)

Report any concerns to parents, school, NSPCC, Childline, CEOP, or the police.

Educate and empower young people to make safer choices for themselves online

Communicate concerns within friendship groups as parents may not be able to see online behaviour

Know the signs of grooming to keep safe online

Prevention through education is essential. Sometimes, all it takes is for someone to step in.

If you’d like more information, or to get involved, visit The Breck Foundation

If you’re concerned about a young person you believe may be involved in grooming, please contact CEOP