Expert view

Zoe Hilton

Zoe Hilton is Head of Safeguarding and Child Protection at the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, the lead police agency dedicated to eradicating the sexual abuse of children. CEOP tracks and brings offenders to account either directly or in partnership with local and international police forces.

Online sexual grooming 

Zoe Hilton of CEOP, the UK’s lead police agency for protecting children from sexual abuse, talks to Digital Parenting.

Vodafone asked the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre to share their advice on how parents can protect their children online. As young people’s lives become increasingly digital, they sometimes forget to take the same precautions they would in real life. They might accept friend requests from strangers on social networking websites or start chatting to someone they don’t know while playing a multiplayer game. And, with webcams built into many laptops and cameras now available on most mobiles, they might even exchange photos and videos with people they have never met.

One of the concerns you might have as a parent is that someone could make contact with your son or daughter with the motive of preparing them for sexual abuse. While it’s unlikely that your child will be approached in this way, online sexual grooming does happen. Here Zoe Hilton offers insight into this sensitive issue.

Every day at CEOP, we sadly see the devastating effects on the lives of young people and their families when things go wrong online.

While the internet creates wonderful opportunities for children and teenagers and plays an increasingly significant role in their lives, there are real risks that parents should be aware of.

In early 2012, reports to CEOP stood at around 1,000 a month and related to online grooming, online sexual abuse, making arrangements to meet a child online, or a child being in immediate danger.

Young people now access the internet in an increasingly diverse number of ways – from their laptops, games consoles or smartphones. They share videos and photos and post comments online on the move, in an instant and sometimes without thinking about the consequences of their actions. Some make friends with people they don’t know in real life.

Research by EU Kids Online shows that just under a third of children in the UK have had contact online with people they had not met before.

Befriending strangers, posting provocative, naked or sexual photos and videos, or giving away too much personal information could expose them to the risk of grooming.

What is online grooming?

Grooming is a highly manipulative process and adults with a sexual interest in children may use online environments to gain access to young people. The techniques used to start contact can be quite sophisticated and may seek to exploit any apparent vulnerability in the child.

A young person may be made to feel special and loved by an offender, who can pretend online to be of a similar age or have similar interests to the child they are targeting. Alternatively, an offender may use bribes or threats.

Through the grooming process, an offender’s aim could be to get sexual photos or videos of young people or to arrange to meet them to abuse them in the real world.

What action can parents take?

Parents can play a pivotal role in protecting their children online, just as they do in protecting them in the real world. Understanding and playing a part in your child’s online life is one of the best ways to protect them so they can safely enjoy all that the internet offers.

Online grooming and the law 

In the UK, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines online grooming as ‘A course of conduct enacted by a suspected paedophile, which would give a reasonable person cause for concern that any meeting with a child arising from the conduct would be for unlawful purposes.’

CEOP checklist 

1 REGULARLY DISCUSS the kind of websites that your child uses, how to set safety features and how to report concerns

2 ADVISE your child to set their social network profile settings to private

3 ASK your child about their online friends and warn them that some people create fake online identities

4 SET appropriate Parental Controls on your child’s computer, mobile and games console

5 AGREE with your child that they will tell you if they are worried about something online

6 MAKE SURE you know where to get help if you’reconcerned about your child or another child

Useful CEOP websites 

You can find further information and guidance on the Thinkuknow website and in the CEOP Safety Centre, including a new online show called ‘The Parents’ and Carers’ Guide to the Internet’.

If you’re concerned that an adult has made inappropriate contact with your child, you can report this directly to CEOP. Go to the CEOP website and click on the red ‘Make a CEOP report’ button or click on the Click CEOP button available on many websites, including Facebook.