Online grooming: knowing the signs

March 15, 2023

Collage by Exposure with image of black hole by dric, image of rabbit by Kate and image of hood by Pete Linforth, all from Pixabay

Jimmy (name changed) reports on how vulnerable youth are being lured down a dangerous rabbit hole

The grooming of young people by extremists is an urgently serious problem in the UK, and one which has been gaining increasing attention in the news and other media. Traditionally, the subject of greatest concern was the manipulation and recruitment of teenagers and young adults by Islamist terrorists, as exemplified by the case of Shamima Begum. Her story was recounted recently by Exposure.

In 2015, the then 15-year-old from Bethnal Green left the country for Syria to join the Islamic State, members of whom fed her detailed instructions on joining; Begum has publicly acknowledged that the group she joined is a terrorist organisation.

However, as serious as the grooming of young people by Islamist organisations undoubtedly is, more recently, attention has turned to the grooming tactics of white supremacists in the UK, whose efforts to recruit young people had previously often been overlooked.

At the age of 14, Rhianan Rudd began talking online to white supremacists in the U.S. and became absorbed by their views

This issue was brought to light early in January 2023 by the case of Rhianan Rudd, a teenager from Derbyshire.

At the age of 14, she began talking online to white supremacists in the U.S. and became absorbed by their views. In September 2020, her mother referred her to the British government’s anti-terrorism scheme Prevent after Rudd admitted to downloading a manual on how to construct a bomb.

Less than a month later, Rudd was arrested and, at the age of 15, became the youngest person in the UK to be charged with a terror offence. She was subsequently sent to a children’s home, where she took her own life in May 2022.

Rudd’s story received renewed attention when a BBC investigation found that MI5 had received evidence that she had been coerced and groomed by the white supremacists whom she had been in contact with online.

In light of this, her mother argued that the police should have treated her daughter “as a victim rather than a terrorist”. This echoes the extremely heated debate surrounding Shamima Begum, which was also renewed recently when the BBC released a podcast in which she was interviewed about her experience.

As grooming tactics used by white supremacists have become a more prominent talking point recently, they’ve even been raised on a TV soap

In 2019, Begum’s lawyer argued that his client was “groomed for exploitation” by the Islamic State, and condemned what he saw as “the failings of the UK government, which led to Ms. Begum becoming a child victim of trafficking”. This highlights a major issue concerning grooming by extremists: an increasingly blurred line between the young people as victims of manipulation or (as was known to be the case with Rhianan Rudd) outright coercion, and as conscious, willing participants in acts of violence.

As grooming tactics used by white supremacists have become a more prominent talking point recently, they’ve even been raised on a TV soap. Over the past couple of months, fans of Coronation Street will have been following the storyline of 16-year old Max Turner, who is drawn into a racist gang who exploit his feelings of alienation after being expelled from school and having his place taken by a migrant pupil.

This depicts a much less coercive but no less dangerous form of grooming, one which takes place off-line. Here, extremists make friendly overtures towards a young person feeling vulnerable, building a sense of trust which encourages them to take part in violence with the extermists.

[authquote text=”There are several common factors shared by victims of online radicalisation, the most prominent being a sense of vulnerability”]

However, in the real world, the vast majority of extremists of all hues groom young people over the internet. In the UK, the Police National Legal Database explains that there are several common factors shared by victims of online radicalisation, the most prominent being a sense of vulnerability, which can stem from either mental illness or a need for belonging or respect.

The NSPCC defines grooming as “when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.”

According to their website, signs that someone is being groomed include “being very secretive about how they’re spending their time, including when online”; “spending more time online or on their own devices”; “being upset, withdrawn or distressed”; and “spending more time away from home or going missing for periods of time.”

So, what can be done to combat extremists who are out to groom young people? Well, the Prevent scheme aims to counter grooming within its broader anti-terrorism remit. However, when many people hear about Prevent, it’s usually because of some pretty controversial mistakes making the news.

The first step to keeping safe from would-be groomers online is learning how to recognise their tactics

An example was in June 2021, when an 11-year-old primary school pupil was referred to the scheme after writing during a class exercise that he wanted to “give alms to the oppressed”, and a teacher misread ‘alms’ (meaning food or money) as ‘arms’.

Thankfully, the British Council’s webpage on online grooming and radicalisation offers plenty of useful resources about the nature of grooming in general. As the website aptly emphasises: “It all starts with education”.

This doesn’t just apply to young people getting to grips with how to keep safe online and recognise attempts to groom them, but also to parents in keeping up-to-date with the online world and the risks their children can face there.

The first step to keeping safe from would-be groomers online is learning how to recognise their tactics. It’s a vital move which can take us that little bit further to rooting them out and getting them off-line altogether.

Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation. Due to the sensitive nature of this project author names have been anonymised.

Exposure is a youth communications charity enabling young people to thrive creatively, for the good of others as well as themselves.

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