Thorn: Online Grooming: Examining risky encounters amid everyday digital socialization
By Hannah Vankat
Link to Thorn Research: https://info.thorn.org/hubfs/Research/2022_Online_Grooming_Report.pdf
Thorn, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending child sex trafficking and exploitation, conducted research to examine the prevalence of online grooming in the everyday digital lives of young people. The report highlights that online grooming is a significant concern as teens and kids continue to engage in risky online behavior. The study surveyed 1,200 youth aged 9-17 to assess their attitudes and experiences with friendships and flirting online and their response to threats of manipulation, grooming, and abuse. This research analyzed its data by participants age, gender identity and sexual orientation.
The report’s four key findings reveal that 1 in 3 young people believe their closest friendship was formed online, with LGBTQ+ minors having more online-only connections than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Furthermore, 1 in 3 of 9–12-year-olds believed it was common to flirt with other minors online and 1 in 5 believed it was common to date a young adult online. Additionally, 2 in 3 minors have been asked by someone they met online to move from a public forum to a private conversation on a different platform. Lastly, nearly 1 in 4 minors stayed in contact with someone online who made them uncomfortable, with LGBTQ+ youth more than twice as likely to be in this position.
The report also highlighted that 45% of minors were somewhat familiar with the term “online grooming,” and 54% of minors believed it is a common experience. 1 in 4 minors reported they had shared photos or videos of themselves, privately live-streamed, or video chatted with an online-only contact. This number includes images and visual depictions considered by the respondents to be flirtatious but fully clothed (36%), revealing/near-nude (23%), or nude (16%).
Data was also collected regarding the specific apps minors are spending the most time on, and which platforms have the highest rates of daily messaging with online-only connections. In short – the report states “kids interact on- and are navigating risky encounters on – every platform.” Within the data, it reports the top 3 most common apps used by minors to be YouTube (94%), Minecraft (77%), and Tik Tok (71%). Minor participants reported the most daily messaging with online-only contacts to occur on Instagram (19%), Snapchat (19%), and Messenger (17%).
Of the 1,200 respondents, a subgroup was created of participants who met three criteria determined to put them at a heightened risk of exploitation and digital grooming. These respondents had shared all 3 key types of information with their various online-only connections. This information shared consists of identifying information, sensitive or emotional information, and sexual or flirtatious exchanges. Certain groups were disproportionately represented within the heightened risk subgroup with 30% of LGBTQ+ participants, 20% of 15-17-year-olds, and 18% of teen girl participants qualifying.
Overall, the report concludes that young people do not consider their online-only connections to be strangers; they categorize them as friends. The anonymity of the internet is disinhibiting and enables them to explore from the perceived safety of their homes, shielded from judgment by people in their offline communities. The report emphasizes that it is urgent to move beyond all-or-nothing warnings of online dangers and focus on relevant, scalable interventions that reduce online threats and empower young people as they navigate adolescence in a digital age.
These interventions should be based in empowering healthy relationships, self-awareness, and confidence, while intentionally educating about personal boundaries, consent, reporting options, diverse resources, and age-appropriate relationships. Beyond individual circumstances, the report pushes that further joint efforts between the many platforms on which digital grooming is taking place will be vital to impacting environmental and systemic change. Tech companies and platforms can increase user safety drastically by creating reliable reporting pipelines and improving the auto reporting functionality within the apps.