Predators often start talking about sex within the first three minutes after contacting kids through social networking sites, and after eight minutes of chatting, they're able to "forge a bond" with a potential victim, according to a new book on the subject. This process of building a child's trust and preparing the way for later abuse is called "grooming."
Criminologist Elena Martellozzo studied sex offenders, kids, and law enforcement over the course of four years for her book, "Online Child Sexual Abuse: Grooming, Policing and Child Protection in a Multi-Media World," and she uncovered some scary details. For instance, below are some phrases an actual predator used to "groom" a 12-year-old girl:
• “I’m a very gentle guy”
• “Discovered boys and sex huh?”
• “I’d give you lots of kisses in all the right places”
• “I'd love to be your first [lover]”
• “[The fact that you’re 12] doesn't matter to me - if you want to [have sex] that's all that counts”
Martellozzo told BuzzFeed Shift that not every predator cuts to the chase right away.
Some predators groom kids "very smoothly," so that the child "doesn't realize he's being groomed," she said.
Experienced predators know how to target kids who are "weak and vulnerable." They know how to make kids feel comfortable, including delaying explicit sex talk if they sense it would scare their potential victim.
And, says Martellozzo, "they know how to make a child feel special." But to predators, their victims aren't actually special at all. Many of the sex offenders Martellozzo studied shared a common belief that the kids in the images they looked at were "tradable objects" and not people.
Getting those images may be part of the goal of the grooming process. Other goals include getting a kid to agree to a webcam chat, or even an in-person meeting.
It's worth noting that online sexual solicitation isn't actually that common — and it may actually be on the decline. A 2011 study by psychologists Lisa Jones and Kimberly Mitchell found that 9% of kids had gotten unwanted online advances, compared with 13% in 2005. And not all of those advances came from adult predators — up to half may have come from other kids.
Mitchell noted, though, that education and publicity around online predators may have been partly responsible for the drop in solicitation. Martellozzo agrees education has been effective, to a point: she says kids know predators are out there. But she argues they still need a reminder.
Specifically, she says kids need be told (and re-told) not to chat with people they don't know, and not to post personal information on their public social networking profiles. Parents should also keep track of their kids' online "friends" — grade-schoolers with over 500 Facebook friends are cause for concern, because there's no way they know that many people in real life. Online pedophiles may not be the omnipresent scourge TV makes them out to be, but they do exist, and once they start a conversation, they can be remarkably efficient. The best defense is for kids not to talk to them in the first place.