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Keeping Children Safe Online

Keeping children safe online is critical in our technological climate. The rapid rise of children using social media, particularly amid COVID-19, further increases online risks and provides greater opportunities for predators to access and exploit our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Predators use these social networks, including gaming chat, to approach children for the purpose of exploiting them sexually. The globalisation of the internet and the continuous increase in internet access have seen a corresponding upwards trend in online child sexual exploitation cases by police.

We know that child sexual abuse is most commonly perpetrated by people known to the children, however online child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation is rapidly increasing and is frequently perpetrated by strangers. Despite child protection efforts so far, children continue to fall victim to predators. New research from the University of South Australia is working to protect children from potential online sexual perpetrators by investigating the language and behaviours that online predators use to develop relationships, gain trust and secure secrecy during opening chat sequences. The research will focus on initial online contact and preliminary nonsexual interactions to better understand strategies used by online predators.

Funded by Westpac Australia’s Safer Children, Safer Communities grants, the research team will work with police to source data comprising online conversations between children and convicted predators. Many predators go straight to the point and immediately engage in sexually-oriented interaction, as highlighted by the research of Powell and Rouse (2021). However, the more deceptive predators, those who start out pretending to be children and/or friends, use ‘getting to know you’ behaviours which appear to be normal, non-predatory conversations. They talk about what they might have in common, through discussion of shared experiences, preferred leisure activities, and personal interests. To an unsuspecting child, these conversations seem perfectly innocent, but the child may inadvertently provide information which may lead to the predator locating them or manipulating them.

Research also shows that for perpetrators to extract personal information from their victim, they may reveal personal information about themselves, for example, their football club, the school they go to, and so on. Children often reciprocate, which is socially expected when engaging in a conversation.

The danger is that the manipulation strategies perpetrators use often initiate children to engage in ’wrong’ behaviours and children are often in way too deep before they realise what is actually happening. For example, once a child has shared images of themselves with no shirt on or in their underwear, the perpetrator has power.

Once an evidence base is obtained, the project aims to raise community awareness and educate children, parents and protective adults on specific chat sequences and language and behaviours perpetrators use during initial interactions. By presenting them with a mirror of their own interactions, it is expected that children will be more cognisant to online risks and more responsive to child protection efforts. UniSA researchers, Dr Enza Tudini, and Dr Lesley-Anne Ey say that the findings will also deliver new linguistic indicators to help better monitor, identify and apprehend suspects.

“Child online exploitation is an ever-increasing concern. While previous studies have focussed on establishing offender profiles based on case file information, this research will help identify how predators gain children’s trust in the very early stages of online interaction” Dr Tudini says.

“For example, we may find that predators are using specific grooming language and behaviours to encourage children to move to ‘safer’ online spaces such as Snapchat, where their conversation leaves no record.

“By tracking and examining these online conversations, we will deliver evidence-based information that can inform child protection authorities and contribute to educate children and protective adults on this type of online abuse.”

Data from eSafety – Australia’s national independent regulator for online safety – shows that one in four children (aged 8-12 years) and one in two teenagers (aged 13-17 years) have talked to a stranger online, with around 25 per cent of all young people having made friends with someone they met on the internet in the past year.


Words: Dr Enza Tudini & Dr Lesley-Anne Ey

Dr Enza Tudini (PhD; BA (hons)) is the Program Director in Languages at Education Futures, University of South Australia. Dr Enza specialised in applied linguistics and online interaction. She is a member of Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion.

Dr Lesley-Anne Ey (PhD; BECE (hons)) is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher at Education Futures, University of South Australia. Dr Lesley-anne Ey specialises in harmful sexual behaviour, sexualisation of children (media), child protection, and bullying in early childhood. She is a member of Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion and an affiliate member of the Australian Centre for Child Protection.


Originally published in Connected Caregiving Summer 2023


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