Online grooming in online games: How to protect your children

August 15, 2022

  • 14-year-old Eileen was murdered at the end of July, she knew her alleged perpetrator through the online game Fortnite
  • Online grooming is one of the most common breaches of boundaries that children and young people experience online
  • Open communication and education are the best ways to protect your children

“You can build trust very well through shared gaming experience. (…) This is exactly what makes games fun for sex offenders.” (Thomas Gabriel Rüdiger, Cybercriminal)

Aileen’s murder case: I got to know the culprit from the Internet

On July 21, 14-year-old Eileen disappeared without a trace. For a week, emergency services with sniffer dogs and helicopters are looking for young people. On July 29, the girl’s body could only be found by locating the cell phone. A short time later, a 29-year-old suspect was arrested. He and his victim met through the online game Fortnite, which is popular with young people. There, the alleged perpetrator may have tried for weeks to gain the 14-year-old’s trust, and emergency services are now evaluating the data. It can be assumed that Eileen was a victim of “electronic grooming”.

Electronic grooming: what is it?

When strangers adults try to gain the trust of children and young adults online, this is referred to as “online grooming.” In most cases, this is done with a sexual intent. An adult often follows a pattern with the goal of getting a minor to exchange sexual content or meet. According to the research behind the unwanted receipt of sex-related image material, online grooming is the most common breach of boundaries that children and young adults experience on the Internet.

More basic information and tips to protect against online grooming can be found in this video from the North Rhine-Westphalia Information Authority:

Uncontrolled chats

Video games are more popular today than ever, especially games that are played online by many players. Communication is important for talking about goals in the game, for planning, but also for making connections beyond the game tour. Problem: Unlike most social media, medium support for the respective conversations is limited or even non-existent. This makes online games attractive to those interested online. And there is another advantage of online games that you “use”: increased anonymity. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, games often don’t use a profile picture. This makes it easy for the electronic nanny to impersonate their peers.

Be careful with strangers and personal topics

There are some basic rules that we can teach our kids about playing games online. So it is important that you never add people you don’t know to your friends list. In the case of in-game chats, we must point out that you should definitely be careful if the chat is no longer about the current game but about special topics. Once strangers on the Internet suggest a real meet, absolute restraint is the order of the day. The general rule is: Never meet strangers. The EU initiative Klicksafe offers other important tips to prevent electronic grooming and other digital dangers.

Competent parents

In order to protect our children in the best possible way, it is very useful if we, as parents, are familiar with children’s games and gaming platforms. We don’t have to become an expert on every single game. It is enough that we know the games and platforms our children use and have basic knowledge of them. A good way to learn about different platforms and make them safer is the “Media Childproof” service provided by state media authorities. There is a detailed description of how to set security settings for the most popular gaming platforms and consoles.

Best precautions

The most important recommendation from experts is to be open and ready to talk with our children. They need to feel that they can always turn to us with their problems and situations online, even if they are uncomfortable. That is why experts recommend talking regularly with our children about games, even when viewing one or the other or playing it yourself. Because – according to experience – if we regularly discuss computer games, on the one hand, we automatically have a better overview of what our child is currently busy with, and on the other hand, a trusting relationship develops in this area. This increases the chance of our children “connecting” if they have had unpleasant, unusual, or even upsetting experiences.

The European Union’s initiative for greater safety – klicksafe.de – has a list of possible advice centers for those seeking help on its website.

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