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Recognize the Signs of Grooming to Protect Your Child Online

Michael Buraimoh talks about the signs of grooming that everyone should know.

Many parents assume that grooming is something that happens to other kids, not theirs. But that assumption means they may miss signs of grooming in their child. They also pass up a valuable opportunity to teach their kids what to watch for. Any child could be targeted by groomers and manipulated into making bad choices or putting themselves in danger. As a parent, you need to be aware of the danger so you can protect them.


See 5 Things to Teach Your Kids about Predators with Michael Buraimoh for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Michael Buraimoh is the CEO of the Breck Foundation, an organization devoted to creating a better online world for children and young people and providing education and resources to keep children safe. He has a background in working with young people in the criminal justice system, but also experience helping small and medium-sized charitable organizations grow and increase their impact. The Breck Foundation’s founder wanted someone who could move the organization forward to greater impact and a further reach. Michael has children of his own, and it inspires him to create a safer digital world for them to grow up.

The Breck Foundation

The Breck Foundation was founded by Lorin LaFave, mother of Breck Bednar. Breck was groomed for over a year by someone he met online and was ultimately murdered by the groomer in 2014. After the tragedy, his mother realized more knowledge and awareness was needed.

Online grooming wasn’t on the radar for many people at that time, but Lorin recognized very quickly that something was going on with her son. She saw the signs of grooming and recognized them for what they were. But even though she reported it to his school and to the police, she couldn’t save her son. She believes that if someone had been to Breck’s school and shared a real-life story like this, he would have recognized the danger and would still be alive. Lorin started the Breck Foundation to share his story and make sure what happened to Breck never happens to another child.

What the Breck Foundation Does

The Breck Foundation focuses on two things. The first is educating young people through a whole community approach. They believe every adult and child should hear Breck’s story. Every adult should know the signs of grooming to spot when something is happening with a child. Every child should also know the warning signs that someone is trying to groom them. Their whole community approach empowers young people, trains teachers, speaks to parents, and works to educate anyone whose job it is to help, protect, or interact with youth, including police.

Every adult should know the signs of grooming. Every child should know the signs of grooming.

Michael Buraimoh

The second thing the Breck Foundation works on is policy. Ultimately, there is a limit to what parents can do. There are limits to what parental controls are possible and how much children can do to protect themselves. It’s important for people to have that knowledge. But it’s also important to strengthen the governance of the internet to keep children safe.

What Parents Need to Know About Grooming

Parents need to be open with their children when it comes to online safety. And children have to know they can be honest with their parents and they won’t be judged. They need to know that if something goes wrong online, their parents will understand and it’s safe to share.

In protecting young people, there has to be honesty.

Michael Buraimoh

As an organization, the Breck Foundation is very pro-tech. They don’t think kids should be banned from gaming devices or other technology. In fact, they want kids to use technology because there’s a lot of positive things that come from digital life. In fact, avoiding all things online will cause them to miss out on education, social lives, and even more opportunities. It’s just how the world is now – kids have to be online. But parents have to be involved so they can use those devices safely.

Parents need to be involved in their kids' internet use to help protect them, build trust, and spot signs of grooming.

Not being judgmental is the key. When you’re talking to your kids about their online activities and online safety, you need to let them know that there’s no need to be secretive . If they are afraid you will judge or punish them if they tell you about something that happened online, they just won’t tell you. You need to show that you’re on their side and your goal isn’t to punish them, but to keep them safe and help them deal with scary and uncomfortable situations online.

Parents Must Ignore Misconceptions About Grooming

There are a lot of misconceptions about there about grooming. If parents buy into these misconceptions, they may miss the signs of grooming in their child because the situation doesn’t fit the stereotypes. As a parent, it’s essential to ignore misconceptions about grooming.

A common misconception is who groomers are. People often think that groomers are middle-aged men hiding in a basement looking for children to groom. But that’s not necessarily the case. Breck’s groomer was seventeen years old when he started grooming Breck, and eighteen at the time of the murder. Breck was fourteen. The groomer in this case didn’t fit the stereotypes. The age gap was so small that some parents may have assumed they were friends. A lot of parents overlook warning signs in the actual content of an interaction because the person doesn’t fit the profile of a groomer.

The other common misconception is that there are certain children or certain types of children who can be groomed or are targeted by groomers. Breck’s story again illustrates that this isn’t true. Many people think only young girls or young children are groomed, but Breck was a teenage boy. People assume that grooming victims become victims because their parents don’t love them or pay attention to them. But Lorin was loving and attentive enough to quickly recognize the signs of grooming.

Many parents assume that grooming can’t happen to their child. But it doesn’t matter your child’s gender or age, your family’s socioeconomic status, where you live, or even how good of a parent you are. Grooming can happen to any child. It’s essential to ignore misconceptions, or you might overlook signs that your child is in danger.

Many parents think that [grooming] is something that happens to other people’s children, not theirs.

Michael Buraimoh

Protecting Your Child Online

One of the reasons there is so much risk of grooming is the internet is the one place you can’t put up a barrier to keep your child safe. If there’s something physically threatening them, you can bring them inside and lock the doors to protect them. But with online dangers, the thing that can harm them is in the house with them.

Michael believes the best way parents can keep their children safe is by being actively involved in digital life. It could be simple things like playing games with them and knowing what games they play. Or you could ask them what’s the latest thing. Discussing the latest gaming tech with kids who love gaming will build a connection. They’re more willing to be open about online friends, who they’re playing with, and what kind of things people say online.

Parents and their children often differ in their technology knowledge and use. Not all parents grew up with technology, but kids these days are digital natives. We’ve passed the days where it’s cool to not understand it. Michael encourages parents to familiarize themselves with the newest technology, even if they don’t actively use it themselves. Talk to your kids about it, too – it’s both an opportunity to engage with them and learn about the technology.

You can also experience things with your child. Sit down with them and say, “I’ve heard this game is fun, can you show me how it works? Can we play together?” Being there with them creates trust and will lead to them being more able to tell you what’s happening online.

If you’re there with them, it creates trust, and trust is what will lead to them being able to tell you anything that’s happening to them online.

Michael Buraimoh

Signs of Grooming Adults Should Watch For

There are signs that a child is being groomed that adults should watch out for. Michael says “adults” because it isn’t just parents who should be watching for signs of grooming. Teachers and people who work with children professionally should be on the lookout. But if you have a child anywhere in your life, even a niece or nephew or a friend’s child, watch out for signs that they might be targeted.

Not only parents – anyone really that has a child anywhere in their lives should be on the lookout for any [grooming] signs.

Michael Buraimoh

Changes in behavior can indicate that someone is manipulating your child. There are a variety of different types of behavior kids might show, or stop showing, if they are being groomed. In Breck’s case, he stopped engaging normally with the family. He repeated things he heard from the groomer about why he shouldn’t listen to his parents and why he shouldn’t let anyone, including his parents, “control” him. It was an obvious sign of a common groomer tactic – convincing the child that the only person they should listen to is the groomer.

Another warning sign is isolation. Breck was increasingly isolated, including from his closest friends. He was spending more time online talking to this person that nobody, not even Breck, had ever met. He spent less time with his friends and with other people. Groomers try to drive a wedge between their victim and anyone who might notice something is wrong. If a child is becoming isolated, that is a warning sign.

Other behavior changes might include taking more risks or sudden sexualized behavior. If your child is coming home with unexpected gifts or free items or keeping secrets when they normally wouldn’t, that’s also suspicious.

Normal Adolescence or Signs of Grooming?

Adolescence comes with its own set of unique challenges and changes. Relationships naturally evolve, and children may have falling-outs with friends. Changing hormones can lead to emotional changes, different behavior, and less engagement with the family. It can be difficult to tell the difference between normal adolescent changes and something more sinister.

Essentially, there’s no sure way to know if changes are caused by normal adolescence or grooming. If you see a number of warning signs at the same time, it’s a possibility. But Michael’s ultimate recommendation is that if you recognize something strange, seek help. If it turns out to be normal, that’s great – your child is safe. But if it turns out to be grooming, you haven’t assumed it’s normal and let the situation get works.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between normal teenage changes and signs of grooming - that's why it's important to investigate any strange changes.

A lot of changes happen as young people mature. But it’s absolutely essential that parents don’t just assume, especially if there are multiple signs at once and your child is spending a lot of time online. Look more into it. It’s better to investigate something harmless than let your child be targeted by a predator because you dismissed warning signs as normal adolescence.

Signs of Grooming Kids Should Watch For

Parents should be watching for signs that someone is grooming their child. But children need to watch for signs that the person they’re talking to wants to groom them. One of the biggest ones to watch for is someone being too friendly, complimentary, or flattering, or showering them with attention and gifts. That’s what Breck’s groomer did. He told Breck that he was cleverer than his friends. He claimed to have a lot of money and own several businesses and said that Breck was the kind of person he was looking for to take over everything when he retired. If a kid feels flattered or are receiving a lot of compliments, they should be suspicious.

Another warning sign of grooming is trying to create a wedge between the child and their family or friends. Breck’s groomer told him all sorts of negative things about his friends and family. If someone tells a child that they shouldn’t trust, talk to, or spend time with their family or friends, that should ring alarm bells.

A final red flag that children should watch for is someone asking them to keep secrets. If someone is telling a child to keep anything a secret just between the two of them, something isn’t right. They may ask to keep a conversation a secret, or to send photos or videos of themselves and not tell anyone. Similarly, threats are a huge sign that something is wrong. If they threaten something horrible if the child doesn’t keep the secret or if they don’t do something the person asked them to do, that’s a sign that the person is dangerous. If someone they’re talking to is asking for any of those things or behaving in any of those ways, children should know to report it to a trusted adult.

Reporting Signs of Grooming

For young people noticing signs of grooming behavior in someone they’re talking to, the first step is to report it to a trusted adult. This could be a parent, a teacher, or anyone else they could report to. For parents, if it’s a serious emergency and your child is in immediate danger, call emergency services for help.

There are also agencies and resources where you can report signs of grooming. In the UK, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) will investigate reports of child exploitation, abuse and grooming, and the Internet Watch Foundation and Childline have additional resources. Check what resources are available in your country. And if you think something is going on, don’t hesitate to report it. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it’s better to investigate.

Even if it turns out that there’s nothing happening, you should not at all overlook any suspicious signs that your child has been groomed.

Michael Buraimoh

Young people can report suspicious messages directly to platforms, as well. Instagram, Discord, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, Roblox, and Twitch all have reporting mechanisms. Michael encourages people to report online.

Finally, the Breck Foundation is currently running a campaign called SSR – Screenshot, Shutdown, Report. It’s a three-step process for what kids should do if something makes them feel weird online. First, Screenshot, because it provides evidence for future investigations. Second, Shutdown communications you don’t want to have. Third, Report, whether it’s to the platform or adults they trust. The screenshot step is especially important, because if the suspicious person shuts down that account, without a screenshot it’s hard to prove anything.

It’s Not a Tech Problem

Ultimately, grooming isn’t a technical problem with a technical solution. You can’t fix grooming by taking apps off your kid’s phone or putting technical protections in place. There is a place for some of those things that work. Parental controls and phones that limit access can be helpful. But when they fail, and they do fail, the final protection that young people can count on is going to be their own empowerment. It’s going to be what they know about protecting themselves and about the relationships they have with their parents.

That’s why Lorin thinks that if Breck knew about grooming the way the Breck Foundation teaches, he would have been able to protect himself. He didn’t believe what his loved ones were saying when it was happening. But if he’d known in advance, he would have known what to look for.

No matter what technological solutions we have, the relationship with young people, the empowerment of young people, and creating the environment for young people to be able to talk to their parents about things they’re experiencing online is crucial, and I would say more important.

Michael Buraimoh

Michael tells young people to play virtual, but live real. Your real friends are the people you know in real life, even if you play games with or talk to people you don’t know online. If something happens online that feels weird, be bold and confident to report it to the adults in your life.

The Breck Foundation is a charity registered in the UK. Resources for parents are available at breckfoundation.org/help. There are a lot of resources there to help you keep young people safe, including conversation starters to talk to your kids about their digital lives. You can help support the Breck Foundation’s mission by donating at breckfoundation.org.

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