“I thought he cared for me” and “it felt like we were in a relationship”. These are some of the comments made by victims of online child sexual grooming when trying to make sense of the abuse they suffered. Indeed, the comments accurately reflect the relationship-building language that online groomers use when interacting with their victims. Phrases such as “im just here to talk” or “I think I’m starting to like you” build victims’ trust as a vehicle to advancing their sexual goals and isolating children, physically and emotionally, from family and other support groups.
Groomers’ goals are developed in and through language – broadly understood, so words, but also images, videos, etc. Just how they establish and maintain abusive relationships responds to different stimuli. Situational factors play a part. Digital affordances (e.g., access protocols to different digital platforms), time of contact (e.g., night time), place of contact (e.g., private space in the victims’ home) and so on are all important. Also instrumental are socio-demographic and psychological factors of the groomers and their victims, such as age, gender, mental state and so forth. These variables have been extensively studied within academic disciplines like Psychology and Criminology. Their findings provide an invaluable basis on which to build.
Online child sexual grooming is, first and foremost, a practice of communicative manipulation: one that has to do with the manipulation of trust through language. Profiling groomers’ and victims’ language is crucial to the detection and/or prevention of online child sexual grooming. Linguistics, as an academic discipline, provides a robustly tested toolkit to undertake such profiling. By applying this toolkit, we are able to discern the nuances and hidden meanings of language in use: when – and exactly how - ‘love’ means ‘sex’, even if no sex-word is used; when offering to help – financial, affective – means threatening to sextort; when seemingly innocent small talk paves the way for addictive engagement online.
Linguistic analysis lies at the heart of Project DRAGON-S. Our effort to find out what language has got to do with online grooming demands we go beyond explicit referents to sexual objectives to uncover also coercive expressions, ‘polite talk’, strategic vague language, and so forth. We then integrate our findings with Artificial Intelligence to develop more effective detection and prevention capabilities to keep our children safe online.
For some of our research findings into the language of online child sexual groomers, see – link to infographics
Nuria Lorenzo-Dus is a Professor of Linguistics at Swansea University and leads Project DRAGON-S