By now, everyone has heard that online grooming exists. But many of us still think that these are isolated cases, that we communicate well with our own children or the pupils entrusted to our care and that they will no doubt tell us if something like this happens in their environment or even to them themselves.
As developments show and are confirmed by almost daily news of entire paedophile rings being rooted out, this is a tragic mistake. Online grooming is unfortunately not the exception but sadly part of everyday life for the many children and young people who have (unsupervised) access to the Internet.
This was shown not least by the two-part documentary “Angriff auf unsere Kinder” (Attack on our Children) broadcast by RTL on 8 and 9 March 2021. To be honest, RTL is not a channel I particularly admire, but this programme deserves my respect.
The current (German) criminal statistics from 15 April 2021 reveal over 14,500 reported cases, which correspond to an increase of 6.8 percent in criminal cases in this field. The reason for this is, as always, complex. On the one hand investigations in these areas are more frequent than in the past, on the other hand the number of assaults is constantly increasing, not least because more and more young people and children are on the Internet.
The worst thing is that of course only those cases that come to the attention of the authorities appear in the statistics. As all those involved repeatedly emphasise, a high number of unreported cases must be assumed in the area of sexual offences. Online grooming not only takes place on erotic or pornographic platforms but everywhere where children and young people are active, in “harmless” games (which all groups and the associated chats offer today), on TikTok, Instagram, Telegram, and even in Ebay classified ads.
Why don’t our children tell us about it? There are two main reasons. The first is the shame they experience, because even if the children do not understand the pornographic content and sexualised propositions presented to them, they immediately feel that there is something forbidden and indecent about it. On the other hand, there is the understandable fear of the reaction of their own parents. It is, after all, not only the children who use their own devices who are affected, but also everyone else who is shown pornographic pictures and videos by their peers, usually without being asked, on the school bus or wherever else.
This is not only about the fear of being seen as a “telltale” if they turn to adults, but above all about the fear of the consequences. Children who are not yet allowed to access the Internet are worried that if they report it, their parents will deny them access in the future as well. Children who already have their own devices are worried that they will be deprived of them again in the event of such an incident. In addition, if doubts arise , there is the concrete pressure that the perpetrators exert on their victims.
What can we do? Just as there are clear rules in non-virtual reality, e.g. that we don’t allow 12-year-olds to go to pubs and discos alone, there are also already clear rules on the Internet, but so far they are rarely respected. The German “Knuddels” chat app is allowed from the age of 14, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook from 16. Those who allow children access earlier allow them to lie and should not be surprised if the lying then occurs elsewhere.
Children are happy to be allowed to participate and then want to keep up. They bask in the approval and recognition of adult strangers. And when they are told that “everyone does it”, they are forced into things. It makes sense that there are rules, but only if parents ensure that they are followed, both in real life and virtually.
The other important thing is that we should accompany our children, not because we distrust them but because the perpetrators can psychologically outmanoeuvre them and a simple educational talk is not enough. From time to time we should take a look at the children’s chat histories and other Internet activities.
And finally, if your child is being sent pornographic content or is being sexually harassed in any other way, this should be reported to the police. As long as the perpetrators feel safe, the problem will not be solved.
About the author: Uwe Buermann is an educational and therapeutic media consultant at the Mittelrhein Free Waldorf School and director of the training course to become an educational and therapeutic media consultant at the teacher training seminar in Berlin. Guest lecturer at various teacher training seminars.