Unwanted contact and grooming
Socialising online can be a great way for children to build friendships, but it can also put them at risk.
Unwanted contact is any type of online communication that your child finds unpleasant or confronting, or that leads them into a situation where they may be unsafe. This can happen even if they initially welcomed the contact. It can come from strangers, online ‘friends’ your child has not met face-to-face, or from someone they actually know.
The worst danger is ‘grooming’ — someone building a relationship with a child in order to sexually abuse them. This abuse can happen in a physical meeting, but it increasingly occurs online when young people are tricked or persuaded into sexual activity on webcams or into sending sexual images.
How to deal with unwanted contact
If someone is contacting your child and this contact is unwanted or makes them feel uncomfortable, here are some things you can do to help.
Make their accounts private
For younger children, ensure their social media accounts are not publicly available and establish rules around what types of content they should share online.
For older children, suggest they make their social media accounts private, or revise their privacy settings so they can control who can look at their photos and posts. By adjusting their privacy settings, they can stay in control of who sees what they post online and who can contact them directly.
Delete contacts they don’t talk to
Encourage your child to delete contacts they don’t talk to. Ask them to go through all the people who follow them or they are friends with on social media and check that they actually know them. If not, it is probably a good idea to delete them.
Report and block
Let your child know that they can talk to you at any time if they receive any contact that is inappropriate or makes them feel uncomfortable — and there are steps you can take together.
If you child receives any unwanted contact from someone they know or a stranger, encourage them to report and block this person on the site or service used to contact them.
Delete requests from strangers
Encourage your child to delete friend or follow requests from people they don’t know. A good tip is to get them to check whether new requests share mutual friends. If they feel unsure about someone, encourage them to delete the request.
How does online grooming work?
Grooming involves building a relationship with a child in order to later abuse them.
Groomers can use sophisticated strategies to gain your child’s trust online:
- They frequent sites that children use, sometimes pretending to be young people themselves to trick children into chatting and sharing.
- They may be adults. They may also be under 18 themselves and groom a younger child, or they could be another young person that is coerced into obtaining sexual images of other children.
- They use personal information they have gathered about a child to develop a connection with them and as the relationship grows, the child becomes comfortable sharing more information about themselves.
- They build secrecy in the relationship and aim to physically and emotionally separate a child from their family and friends.
- They test and gauge how willing a child is to engage in sexual activities. Some young people may use the internet to explore their sexuality and initially welcome and be open to online contact that facilitates this.
- They share sexually explicit material and may ask for an intimate image of the child. This can then be used as a tool to pressure the child to send more material, or to meet in person.
The risk of online grooming increases if your child does any of these things:
- posts personal details like their full name or school on a social networking site without using the privacy controls — this means the information is accessible to people who could use it to build an inappropriate relationship with your child
- accepts contacts or ‘friend’ requests from people they do not know — this allows strangers to access their personal information and images
- responds to anonymous users on apps and websites
- visits sites targeted at adults, such as some social media dating, online chat or gaming sites — this increases the likelihood of your child being contacted by older teens or adults for sexual purposes
- posts ‘sexy’ photos and messages or uses a sexually suggestive screen name — children may see this as being mature or funny, but it might attract dangerous people.
How can I protect my child?
Stay involved in your child’s digital world
- Keep up-to-date with the sites, apps and online chat services they are using, and explore them together.
- Consider whether you are comfortable with the content of these sites and the potential for contact with others, including adults.
- If you are concerned they are visiting sites they have not told you about, talk to them about your concern. As a backup, you could look at your child’s internet browsing history — but this should be a last resort. The aim is to establish trust and open dialogue.
- Try to be aware of who they socialise with in the real world and who they know only in the virtual world.
Build an open trusting relationship
- Keep communication open and calm so they know they can come to you when someone is asking them to do something that does not feel right.
- They especially need to feel comfortable about telling you if they have done something they regret and someone is pressuring them as a result.
Help your child to protect their privacy
- Guide your child to use their privacy settings on social media sites to restrict their online information to known friends only.
- Encourage them to use only a first name or nickname to identify themselves in online chat and on social media, and never to disclose their phone number, address or school.
- Explain that they should not send photographs of themselves that clearly show their identity.
- For younger children, ask them not to post or text images or videos without your permission.
Teach your child to be alert to signs of inappropriate contact
- Help your child recognise signs that an ‘online friend’ may be trying to develop an inappropriate relationship, even if they initially welcomed the contact. See warning signs for your child below.
- Young people may be particularly vulnerable if they are starting to explore their sexuality through their online activities. Check out our advice for parents about online pornography.
Warning signs for your child
Encourage your child to be wary if an online ‘friend’
- asks a lot of questions about personal information soon after meeting
- starts asking them for favours and does things in return — abusers often use promises, gifts and favours to gain trust
- wants to keep the relationship secret — online groomers typically try to keep their relationships with their targets extremely private from the beginning, asking for it to be something ‘special’ just between the two people
- contacts them frequently and in different ways, like texting, through Instagram or online chat services
- asks them things like who else uses their computer or which room their computer is in
- compliments them on their appearance or body or asks things like, ‘have you ever been kissed’?
- insists on meeting — tries to make them feel guilty or even threatens them if they are unwilling
Many of these warning signs can apply to people the child knows in real life, as well as to strangers. If your child starts to become uncomfortable about the relationship, they should block the person and report inappropriate contact to the site or service used to contact them.
Establish safety guidelines for meeting online ‘friends’ face-to-face
- Explain that it is safest to keep online ‘friends’ online, but if your child does want to meet someone face-to-face, emphasise that for safety reasons you would like them to ask your permission first.
- Explain that it is safest to meet in a public place during the day, and they should be accompanied by you or another trusted adult.
- Remind them always to at least tell someone where they are going and who they are meeting.
What to do if something goes wrong
Your child may not tell you if an online ‘friendship’ has become compromising or difficult because they are embarrassed or ashamed, or afraid it might make things worse. This is what online groomers rely on. Your child may also have welcomed the initial contact until it made them feel uncomfortable.
Be alert to worrying changes in your child’s behaviour or mood. Watch for signs of withdrawal, anxiety, sadness or changed interactions with family or friends.
If your child is being bullied online, our guide to cyberbullying for parents and carers can help you work out how to respond.
If your child has provided a photo or given information to someone that they are concerned about, or if they are being pressured to do so, there are things you can do.
Stay calm and reassure your child they are not in trouble
- Explain that even adults get tricked into doing things they regret.
- Talk to them without being judgemental or angry and make them feel like they can come to you with anything, without fear of being punished or criticised.
- Do not cut off your child’s internet access, as they may see this as punishment and not open up to you in future.
Act to protect your child
- Call the police immediately or child help line if their physical safety is at risk.
- Before you or your child block someone or delete posts or other material, take screenshots and collect evidence, including dates and times.
- However, if the material involves sexualised images, be aware that possessing or sharing such images of people under 18 may be a crime, even if you have just taken a screenshot for evidence purposes
- Help your child block the person who has made them uncomfortable, and report the unwanted contact to the social media platform.
- Grooming and procuring of children over the internet are crimes investigated by the police. If you have encountered this kind of activity online, contact your local police station.
This material has been adapted with permission from the Australian Government eSafety Commissioner. Permission to adapt content does not constitute endorsement of material by the eSafety Commissioner.