The European Online Grooming Project, which is being conducted by NatCen (National Centre for Social Research), Kingston University and Royal Holloway, University of London, is looking at how sexual offenders use the internet.
The internet is changing the way sexual offenders select and groom their victims. Whereas some offline sexual offenders tended to socialise a young person over a number of months, early findings from the European Online Grooming Project show that sexual offenders appear to be using the internet to fast-track the abuse process. The research conducted by NatCen (National Centre for Social Research), Kingston University and Royal Holloway, University of London, will be presented at the UK Council for Child Internet Safety's first annual summit this week attended by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Children's Secretary Ed Balls.
Previous research into child sexual abuse had shown that offenders spent a number of months befriending a young person, and in some cases their family as well, to prepare for the abuse. This new research suggests that the grooming process by sexual offenders operating on the internet is much faster. Rather than selecting one particular vulnerable person to abuse, some offenders appear to target numerous young people until they find someone who is willing to meet them.
There are however examples of some online groomers targeting specific young people, using information that a young person shares online to develop credible approaches. This research also shows that sexual offenders who use the internet are becoming very technologically-advanced, often operating in communities sharing indecent imagery between countries. In addition sexual offenders are increasingly using social networking sites such as MSN and Facebook.
Professor Julia Davidson, a lead researcher from Kingston University, said. "The research shows that the grooming period has been speeded up with chat room communication becoming almost immediately sexualised. Offenders may try to justify this by claiming their behaviour is fantasy or simple role-play when using the internet."
Stephen Webster, the lead researcher on the European Online Grooming Project, said: "This is a public health issue and we need an immediate and informed debate about how we effectively manage online sexual offenders," he said. "We have a public safety obligation to raise awareness and empower parents and carers to use the internet safely." As part of the public safety initiative, the research would also be able to inform the development of the most robust intervention programmes for online sexual offenders, he added.
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