Alleged abusers use a variety of strategies to access and entrap young people. These strategies can be sophisticated and deliberately target young people’s inexperience, their need for belonging and their desire to be seen as adult. As with all manipulative and coercive behaviours, the key is to be aware of common strategies and notice them. If you are aware, you can educate the young people, families and communities you work with.
While each of the below methods of manipulation and coercion are different, alleged abusers tend to use a similar pattern of behaviour that progresses through targeting, friendship-forming, a loving relationship phase and an abusive relationship stage. These are further explored in Stages of manipulation and coercion.
Common strategies in the early stages of manipulation include:
- Manipulation and coercion through peers or friendship networks. The young person is introduced to the alleged abuser by their friend. The young person and their friends are offered gifts, car rides or other types of attention by the alleged abuser.
- The young person believes the alleged abuser is their boyfriend or girlfriend. The alleged abuser may offer them attention, gifts and a ‘loving relationship’.
- Groups of young people are invited to parties where they are given alcohol and other drugs and where sexual activities and violence are normalised. The young person is encouraged to invite their friends. The parties may be held a long way from home, making it difficult to leave.
- Online manipulation and coercion (otlined below).
Online ‘grooming’ and sexual exploitation
‘The boundaries between the physical and digital world are blurring, and even the term ‘online’ can be problematic as it still implies a deliberate discrete act of ‘using the internet’ when for many, we are connected throughout our waking hours. While that brings many positives, there are also risks. As lives increasingly become enmeshed with technology and the internet, this impacts children too – they are online earlier and for greater proportions of their time. More time online does increase potential risks of children encountering offenders, however, exposure to risk does not automatically mean more harm. The growth in social media use, gaming and child focused online spaces creates opportunities for offenders to access and groom children'. (NetClean Report, 2019)
Online manipulation and coercion, or grooming, may be used as a pathway to sexual exploitation. Online alleged abusers will typically send out messages to hundreds of young people and see who responds. The young person is enticed into an online ‘relationship’ with an alleged abuser. The young person may never meet the alleged abuser but may establish what they believe is a loving relationship or friendship with the alleged abuser online and may share intimate details of their life with them.
‘Grooming’ of young people under the age of 16 is an offence in Queensland (Queensland Criminla Code Act 1899, section 218B). Abusers commonly use social media sites, instant messaging apps, teen dating apps, online gaming platforms, and text and chat services to make connections with a young person. This approach means that they can learn about the young person’s interests, friends and family and use this knowledge to build a connection with the young person. Online abusers are able to hide their identity. They may pretend to be the same age as the young person to build a trusting relationship with them. Easy access to online platforms means that potential abusers are able to persuade young people to send sexual videos or images or take part in online sexual activity without ever meeting them face to face.
The coronavirus pandemic and related lock-downs increased the vulnerability of children to online abuse. In 2020, the National Society fo the Prevention of Cruelty to Children analysed information provided by children to the Childline Counselling Service about their use of online platforms and experiences of online sexual abuse during the pandemic. Some children reported feeling lonely and disconnected from support networks leading them to use online platforms to connect with friends, meet new people, and seek support from people they had not met face-to-face. Children who were targeted by child sexual abusers reported feeling coerced, forced or pressured into sharing sexual images, and some were offered money or electronic gift cards in exchange for online sexual activity.
The impact of these experiences left some children feeling scared, embarrassed, ashamed and questioning their self-worth, some children struggled with issues around eating and sleeping, some had difficulties trusting other people and forming healthy relationships and some had suicidal thoughts as a result of the abuse. (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2020)
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