Grooming in the Zoom Room: How to Spot Online Predators

Research reveals the importance of child-proofing virtual platforms.

Posted May 22, 2020

Zoom and similar platforms have created opportunities for the general public to join a wide variety of social and special-interest related meetings for free. Lacking password protection or professional screening, virtual events and meetings open to the general public attract both children and adults, with intentions ranging from the innocent to the insidious. 

Particularly with respect to events specifically geared to children, the question is not whether sexual predators will infiltrate some of these meetings—they will. The challenge is spotting them before they spot your child. Online grooming—where predators seek to befriend and develop a relationship with underage victims with an eye toward sexual exploitation—is detectable, and preventable. The challenge is knowing how to spot it in the first place. 

#SafeAtHome But at Risk Online

Statistics indicate a spike in online victimization as a result of stay-at-home orders, which have children spending more time than usual on the Internet. In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Rector explores the COVID-19 related reasons child predators are ramping up their efforts to contact and exploit underage victims online. [i]

He reports that law enforcement officials nationwide have seen a spike in online sexual abuse tips. With children spending more time at home and online than in school or in after-school activities, he notes that officials report that predators are spending more time attempting to solicit videos and photographs from victims. He notes that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children took 4.1 million child cyber abuse reports in April 2020, which is four times as much as in April 2019, according to John Shehan, the center’s head of the exploited children division.

One of the most alarming parts of Rector’s piece highlights the documented activities of sexual predators in response to the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. According to Shehan, “would-be predators have been observed on the dark web discussing the stay-at-home orders and how they might target kids who are increasingly going online for their education, entertainment, and social interactions.” Shehan notes that child sex traffickers, in response to decreased demand for live contact, have focused instead on obtaining and selling explicit images of minors online.

Chat Room Predators

Researchers have been tackling the behavior of Internet predators for years, in search of ways to protect young people. Catherine D. Marcum, in “Interpreting the Intentions of Internet Predators,” examined the behavior of predators in online chat rooms. [ii] Examining three chat room transcripts, involving adult volunteers from “Perverted Justice” posing as children, her study sought to analyze words and behaviors of sexual predators targeting vulnerable youth.   

One of the important findings in Marcum’s study, relevant to spotting online predators, is not only how much child sexual abuse occurs online, but how predators often use blatant tactics of manipulation—which, unfortunately, are often successful.  

Peter Briggs et al. also examined the strategies of chat room sexual predators. [iii] They studied the behavior of 51 defendants who had been convicted of an online-initiated sex offense involving attempting to seduce underage victims into sexual activity using an online chat room. Examining behavioral and clinical data, as well as actual chat room transcripts, the researchers found, among other things, that unlike offline child molesters and rapists, “chat room sex offenders avoid relationships and spend a significant amount of time in online chat rooms as a primary social and sexual outlet.” They classified the offender group under examination into two subcategories: those who sought to progress to offline sexual exploitation with targeted adolescents, and those seeking to engage in cybersex only. 

Red Flags Online

Pairing research and practical experience, and considering the different types of online predators, we can look for some common red flags. These include:

  1. Using language designed to assure the child he or she shares a “special relationship” with the perpetrator.
  2. Bestowing gifts, including online gift cards for Internet merchandise or gaming—things that can be redeemed online without a live delivery tipping off parents.
  3. Conversations about adult relationships, often sexual in nature.
  4. Sending photos of other children in stages of undress, as a desensitization technique and an attempt to make such behavior appear normal.
  5. Sending photos (purporting to be) of themselves, often showcasing comforting, smiling, attractive features and attire.
  6. Questions specifically designed to explore the level of parental monitoring of online activity. 

Working together to identify child predators is particularly important at a time when law enforcement resources are spread thin addressing the wide range of COVID-19-related concerns. By knowing what to look for, and taking steps to look, we can spot online predators before they spot our children.



[ii] Marcum, Catherine D. 2007. “Interpreting the Intentions of Internet Predators: An Examination of Online Predatory Behavior.” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse: Research, Treatment, & Program Innovations for Victims, Survivors, & Offenders 16 (4): 99–114. doi:10.1300/J070v16n04_06.

[iii] Briggs, Peter, Walter T. Simon, and Stacy Simonsen. 2011. “An Exploratory Study of Internet-Initiated Sexual Offenses and the Chat Room Sex Offender: Has the Internet Enabled a New Typology of Sex Offender?” Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research and Treatment 23, no. 1: 72–91. doi:10.1177/1079063210384275.