Social Media Companies and Online Grooming of Children

Close up of a hand using a computer mouse.

While social media sites present many concerns for parents, online grooming of children is one of the most common—and dangerous—problems. Grooming is a term used to refer to the act of using the internet to trick or pressure a child into doing something sexual. Those who engage in grooming activity often do so to obtain nude pictures; however, grooming is also used by child molesters to gain the trust of their victims.

Typically, predators slowly erode a child’s natural skepticism by attempting to develop an emotional relationship. Almost always, a groomer’s initial efforts seem harmless; however, this is by design. In reality, these seemingly innocent interactions are intended to get the child to lower their defenses. Once a predator is confident of the bond they’ve created with a child, they transition to more explicit communications, eventually using the child’s fear to motivate them to do what the predator wants.

The Link Between Social Media and Online Grooming of Children

Today more than ever, children are spending a greater percentage of their day online. By some estimates, children spend between five to seven hours per day online, most of which is spent on social media. Indeed, social media provides child molesters and pedophiles with 24/7 access to would-be victims.

Predators know that children are inherently more trusting than adults. However, most children have been repeatedly told to refrain from engaging in any kind of sexual relationship online, especially with an adult. Thus, many children hesitate to develop an emotional connection with an adult. However, predators on social media have the ability to slowly chip away at a child’s doubt by maintaining frequent contact.

Social media sites also give predators a window into a child’s life. For example, a predator can do their homework by finding out what their victim is interested in, what sports they play, where they go to school, and who their friends are. This can act as a shortcut, making the grooming process quicker and more likely to result in a trusting relationship.

Laws Designed to Prevent Predators from Grooming Children

Congress has passed laws making certain grooming activities illegal on the federal level. For example, under 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b), it is illegal for anyone to use a computer or any other electronic device to persuade, entice, coerce or threaten a minor into engaging in sexual activity. Under § 2422(b), it is also a crime for someone to attempt to persuade, entice, coerce or threaten a minor into having sex.

Various states have also passed laws making online sexual grooming of children illegal. For example, under Florida Statutes § 847.0135, it is a felony to “seduce, solicit, lure, or entice, or attempt to seduce, solicit, lure, or entice, a child or another person believed by the person to be a child, to commit” certain sex acts.

Another example of a state online sexual grooming law is from Illinois, where 720 ILCS 5/11-25 makes it a felony offense to “seduce, solicit, lure, or entice, or attempt to seduce, solicit, lure, or entice, a child, a child’s guardian, or another person believed by the person to be a child or a child’s guardian, to commit any sex offense.”

How Are Social Media Platforms Combatting Sexual Grooming of Children?

While some state and federal laws prohibit online grooming, these laws focus on punishing predators rather than sanctioning social media companies. Thus, by and large, social media platforms are responsible for self-regulating their policies, technologies and procedures as they pertain to the sexual grooming of children. Of course, social media companies want to maintain their goodwill among the general public, so most have strict policies against online grooming.

One of the most basic controls social media companies use is age restrictions. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, Instagram, Snapchat and other major social media platforms require users to be at least 13 years old to create an account. Of course, the efficacy of this policy has been called into question on several grounds. First, there is no enforcement mechanism to prevent younger users from misrepresenting their age when signing up for an account. And second, online grooming doesn’t stop at age 13; in fact, many predators target tweens and young teenagers when stalking potential victims.

Otherwise, social media companies vary in terms of the protections they afford to children. For example, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, Google, Discord, The Meet Group, Snap, Inc., Roblox, Bumble, TikTok, Twitter, Zoom and a handful of other technology companies created the “Tech Coalition,” which is an “alliance of global tech companies who are working together to combat child sexual exploitation and abuse online.” However, these efforts are largely focused on preventing the sharing of sexually exploitive material, such as nude pictures and other forms of child pornography, rather than curtailing potentially inappropriate communications between adults and minors.

Thus, while these efforts are a step in the right direction, they fail to solve the problem. This is because, in the vast majority of cases, predators tend to shift the communication off of the major platforms and to a lesser-regulated platform once they’ve developed a minor’s trust. For example, sites like 8kun (formerly 8chan, Infinitechan, or Infintychan) provide minimal administrative oversight, making them an ideal venue for predators.

What Can Parents Do to Prevent Online Grooming?

Parents can take several roles in preventing the online grooming of children. First, parents can act as gatekeepers, limiting what their children are exposed to. For example, parents can install software on any home computer, cell phone or tablet, preventing access to certain websites. This approach can be effective in preventing grooming behavior; however, its effectiveness can be limited based on the type of software and the child’s desire to find workarounds. Regardless, parents should also go through the privacy setting on any device their children can access to ensure sensitive information is not available to the general public.

Second, maintaining an open and respectful dialogue with children regarding the sites, apps and games they use can keep parents in the loop. Establishing a good rapport between parent and child can also go a long way in creating a stronger bond, which may make it harder for predators to breach the child’s defenses. This will also provide parents with the knowledge they need to identify who their child is communicating with, who their friends are, what they are talking about, etc.

Parents who believe that their child is being groomed should be prepared to face some pushback, especially if a predator has been successful in starting the process. Predators will often try to foster an “us or them” mentality, pitting children against their protectors. Thus, fostering a strong bond not only makes it harder to reach a child but may also give a child the confidence they need in their support network to reach out when they know they need help.