Have you heard of child grooming? Most likely you associate it with a child’s appearance. But child grooming is a relatively new and dangerous concept in Sri Lanka that refers to the manipulative and intimate long-term process of exploitation of children. Also known as sexual grooming, child grooming is a predatory process in which a [...]


The wolf in sheep’s clothing: Beware of child grooming online


Have you heard of child grooming? Most likely you associate it with a child’s appearance. But child grooming is a relatively new and dangerous concept in Sri Lanka that refers to the manipulative and intimate long-term process of exploitation of children.

Also known as sexual grooming, child grooming is a predatory process in which a perpetrator initiates a relationship with a child gradually building it with the intention of sexually exploiting them.  Most often it happens without the knowledge of parents or guardians. This person will carefully choose a child who is more likely to be vulnerable and have less parental intervention in their life.

The key intent here is to build enough trust between the child and themselves, so that the child will open up to this person by sharing personal information that gives this person direct access to the child’s life. Eventually, this person builds a “special relationship” with the child.

Sometimes the perpetrator could be of the opposite sex, but pretend to be of the same sex in online interactions, to gain the child’s trust. Once a comfortable rapport is built with the child, the perpetrator may start requesting images of the child or even plan a meeting, usually demonising the child’s family and friends and so isolating the child. This allows the perpetrator to protect themselves from potential allegations of abuse as well.

Child grooming online

The Crimes Against Children Research Center reported that about 90% of children who are sexually abused in the United States know their abuser. A similar study in the Jaffna district found that 75% of the perpetrators of child abuse were known to the family. This makes acts of grooming easier, as the perpetrator is more likely to have an existing relationship with the child. However, in today’s world, with children increasingly exposed to technology and spending more time online, studying, playing games, or engaging on social media, they are also more vulnerable, unknowingly becoming targets of predators online; trapped in situations that pose serious dangers to their life and well-being.

A study published in early 2021 by the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs of Sri Lanka, Save the Children and other project partner organizations on online violence against children in Sri Lanka highlighted the increasing number of children who are exposed to violence online. The one-on-one study conducted from 2019 to 2020 revealed that of the 1911 children interviewed, 28% of them have experienced some kind of online violence of which girls (29%) have faced more online violence than boys (27%). What’s important to note is that generally when online sexual abuse of children is reported, it highlights more common, yet pertinent issues, such as sexting, harassment, or bullying. Unlike other forms of child sexual abuse that is reported, grooming isn’t reported as much, as it is mostly private in nature, but it is rapidly creeping its way into Sri Lanka’s cyberspace.

Noting the significant growth in cyber harassment on popular social media space, new restrictions have been introduced by social media platforms such as Facebook, such as on sharing sexually explicit or nude content. However continuous developments enabling live communication features such as instant messaging, audio calls, and video calls, have unfortunately also enabled perpetrators to gain easier and direct access to targets privately.

As grooming revolves around building a relationship with the target, most often it takes place in private chats or private groups. Observations related to online grooming reveal a rise in Facebook Messenger groups or group chats on other platforms that are dedicated to sharing content on children, child sexual abuse content or solicitation. As such groups are private in nature, it is difficult to be able to track them and filter them out, unless reported by a member of the group.

Case study

Data has been captured by Hashtag Generation of possible incidents of grooming online. One such instance was a Facebook group dedicated to “young school gay boys”. It was observed that this group contained several posts from anonymous individuals who used fake profiles or profiles. The posts were explicitly seeking information or relationships with individuals of a target age group.

The particular examples referred to are of posts on this specific group, where the persons concerned were trying to initiate a relationship with children/adolescents/young adults. It is also most likely that they would befriend someone on the pretence of getting to know them better or simply being “friends.” But, one must be aware that this is a red flag and could potentially be a sign of the initial stages of grooming. Similar incidents also most likely take place within closed groups and unless reported to the platform and taken down, they will continue to be accessible to members within the group or new members who join the group.

International and
legal framework

The Lanzarote Convention, i.e. the Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (Council of Europe), defines grooming as ‘preparation of a child for sexual abuse, motivated by a desire to use the child for sexual gratification’ and is the first international instrument that calls on states to define and prohibit grooming.

The Luxembourg Guidelines provide that the following elements are necessary to constitute grooming: (i) contacting a child; (ii) if online, through ICTs; (iii) with the intent of luring or inciting the child; and (iv) to engage in any sexual activity by any means, whether online or offline.

Section 360E of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka criminalises the solicitation of a child either within or outside Sri Lanka for the purposes of sexual abuse. While this section does not meet international standards as online solicitation is not explicitly covered, there is a question over whether the law may be interpreted to cover grooming that takes place both online and offline.

Prevention rather than cure

It is important to explore preventative measures as a first step. Parents and guardians should have conversations with their children on issues around consent as well as navigating online spaces safely.

Parents and children should also have the awareness and tools to be able to detect and deal with online grooming. Some red flags of grooming have included the following signs:

When a child wants to spend more time on the internet but is secretive about it

When a child begins to use language/ sexual terms that they would otherwise not be aware of

When a child possesses electronic items without the knowledge of the parent

When a child would suddenly open new tabs or switch off the computer monitor when a parent walks into the room

A booklet on cyber safety for teenagers released in 2018 by the Ministry of Home Affairs in India which dealt with the issue of grooming has some important tips :

Never accept friend requests from strangers online

Never share your personal information online

Avoid talking to anyone in a group, chat room or through gaming who asks you uncomfortable questions

Do not turn on your webcam if the person you are chatting with does not have their video turned on.

As many children now spend an increasing amount of time online, children’s cyber safety and well-being have become vital components in their general safety and well-being. Parents and children must increase their awareness on the risks of engaging in online spaces and also on the availability of additional features provided by digital platforms to navigate them safely.

(Harindrini Corea is an Attorney-at-Law and Sanjana Ravi is a Research Fellow, both at Hashtag Generation)


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