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Young boy has seen harmful internet content© Ben_Gingell,istock

I was groomed online at age 14 – I was scared and alone, then Childline saved me

LONG READ: *Thomas was blackmailed into sending explicit photos of himself online by a male perpetrator. Here, he bravely shares his story to help others

Sophie Hamilton
Parenting Editor
May 17, 2024
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 Thomas* was in year eight of secondary school when his family moved to a quiet rural area and his feelings of loneliness began.

School was tough for Thomas, and looking for company, he joined a friendship meeting website for young people. To start with, things went well, but Thomas soon found himself coerced into sending explicit images of his body to an older man, and then the fear set in. How could he stop it?

Thankfully, he contacted the NSPCC's Childline for support and was able to take back control of his life. He's now determined to warn other teenagers and children of the dangers online by sharing his story.

Teenage boy lying on his bed looking at his phone© Getty
Teenage boy on his bed looking at his phone

The NSPCC defines grooming as: "A process that involves the offender building a relationship with a child, and sometimes with their wider family, gaining their trust and a position of power over the child, in preparation for abuse.

Read Thomas' story here…

I was quite a happy child. I grew up in a village in Norfolk with my mum, dad and two older siblings. My parents - who both managed their own businesses - worked hard to give us the best upbringing they possibly could.

This was both fantastic but hard work. It made me grow up a lot earlier than I probably should have as I was doing more around the house to help them, which helped me to be independent and think for myself, but it also put a lot of pressure on me and therefore brought a lot of stress.

Two years into secondary school, we moved to a rural location about 40 minutes away, which meant a long commute to school and no friends in my area.

The village was full of older people which was isolating and quite lonely. I didn’t have many friends in school and in year nine, someone started a rumour that I was homosexual because I was in a close friendship with another boy, so I felt very isolated again.

I got my first smartphone in year eight. At that age, I just enjoyed a lot of games, but there was pressure for me to join social media as everyone else was on it and I was lonely and wanted to connect. I was on Instagram then Snapchat became popular, so I joined that platform.

Friends holding mobile phones sharing social media content © Getty
Thomas got his phone in year eight at school

Meeting the male perpetrator

I first met the male perpetrator when I was 14 on a site called Mylol.

It was a friendship meeting site and I thought it was a safe platform because it was designed for and targeted at young people who wanted to make friends, and I believed we were the same age.

Our first conversation was quite simple. It was an absolute relief to have someone to talk to. The only way I can describe it is like having the most supportive person that you could ever meet. It’s like they created the perfect person for you.

The conversation initially started as casual friends, talking about video games or films, and then working up to talking about experiences at school.

What I found was that he mirrored everything. If I was having an experience at school, he was also going through the same thing. Looking back, I can see it was very manipulative, but I didn’t know about grooming then. He just did and said everything to help me relate and to create a bond. We were talking every day, morning and evening.

For the first few months, I felt quite secure and safe, but now I know he was grooming me and building trust and friendship.

The friendship changed

Things escalated when he started to move the friendship towards a romantic relationship. A lot of the conversation became about homosexuality and trying to convince me that I liked him in that way. I couldn’t separate my feelings of whether it was friendship or something more and it was very confusing.

After about a month, the pressure started to build, with him trying to prove that I was gay. That’s when he started sending explicit pictures and pressuring me to send images to him.

I did send him pictures, but I didn’t like it and I didn’t want to do it anymore, but he kept making me feel bad about all the time he had spent on me and saying I wasn’t doing anything in return.

I began to realise he didn’t have my best interests at heart.

I started to question who he really was, but at the same time, I didn’t want him to leave me alone again. So, I continued to send the images he asked for, but I knew I had to tell him I couldn’t do it anymore, which is when it turned nasty, and the language became quite abusive.

I was scared. He said he had saved the images and would send them to everyone if I stopped sending more pictures. I realised that I simply wasn't the person that I wanted to be at that point.

I didn’t want all the hard work I had put in at school and all the hard work of my parents to come crashing down because of this. There was a constant fear in the back of my mind.

I made the decision to block him, but he made a new account and asked why I had blocked him. I just wanted to de-escalate it, so I blocked him again.

That was a process I had to do four or five times and I thought he was never going to leave me alone. I was trying to come up with some strategy to get away from him so I also changed my Instagram name. I was trying to hold it all together, go to school and be around my family, and it was like living two lives.

man types at laptop in stock image© Delmaine Donson
The online world can be dangerous for young people

Asking for help

It got to a point where I couldn't go on any longer without getting some advice, so I called Childline.

The first time I was worried they would have to report it, but they were completely confidential. That conversation with Childline was the turning point that allowed me to get a perspective of what had happened. I had no idea what grooming was until I spoke to them. To me, in a weird way, it felt normal, like I had met someone and just had a bad experience.

The advice Childline gave me was to see if there was someone I could trust to talk to. They explained the option of reporting it to the police, but I knew I couldn’t do that - I was too scared of it getting back to my parents.

I did want to talk to someone and there was a meeting at school when a teacher noticed how much I had changed and asked me what was wrong. I just cried and I really wanted to tell them, but I felt like I couldn’t.

I had become really isolated. I stayed by myself and kept away from other people. I didn't come across as particularly happy, even though I kept a strong facade.

I was worn out. I even fell asleep in a couple of lessons because the perpetrator was messaging me through the night. I tried to put my phone down, but I was too anxious about what he would say or do.

I just kept it all hidden. There was never a moment of calm. Childline were the only people I spoke to and back then, I was calling them a couple of times a week.

Life improves

Things started to get better when I turned 16 and moved away to college for a fresh start. I made some friends and got independence from my family and more of a social life. It was hard trusting people though – the experience made me suspicious of everything, to be honest.

Sometimes even now, I might get a message from someone I don’t know, and I find it hard to answer even though it has to do with networking for my career. I find it difficult to message people in general. Sometimes, it takes me forever to get back to messages because there's a feeling of dread or being overwhelmed.

I still haven’t spoken openly about my experience or told my parents.

I started to want to be a bit more vocal about it and to feel more comfortable speaking about it so there are a couple of friends who know, but not in detail.

I'd say I'm over the worst of it, but after college ended, I had to move back to my village which was a very difficult time. Being back in that same isolating environment was hard and I was worried I would fall into a relapse of wanting to talk to the perpetrator again, even though I know how much damage they had caused.

I was able to focus my attention on learning an instrument and keeping my future goals in mind and now life is much better, and I am moving forward.

Advice to others

My advice to other young people would be to just remember yourself, remember who you are and stay in control.

I would recommend trying to find ways of grounding yourself and to have an idea of your direction, to really try and spend time figuring yourself out.

There are a lot of people who are anxious and feel lost and when you have all these challenges, you are vulnerable and can run into the wrong situation or the wrong people. You never think it is going to be you who gets trapped in a situation like this, but it could be.

Be careful of who you are talking to online. If you don't know someone, particularly if you're 13 to 16, make sure you do your groundwork. Some people plan it really well. The person who groomed me had stolen someone else's photos.

I think the other key thing to be aware of is the risks of when someone might be using you and trying to pick out the language and communication they use.

When someone is a bit over-enthusiastic about you when you don't know them, they might want to use you or get you on their side. Particularly online, you should think about their intentions.

Look out for whether they are mirroring a lot of what you are saying. My perpetrator would say he had experienced the same things as me and tried to get me to relate with him.

Another thing is if you feel you're becoming too dependent on someone, maybe think about exploring other friendships. If you feel things are starting to shift in a direction that you're not comfortable with, no matter in what way, remember yourself and stay in control.

I’m now passionate about raising awareness about online safety and preventing other people from experiencing what I did. I'm worried about how many people aren't reporting their experiences, particularly young men, because it is an awkward thing to talk about.

I want to get to a point where it doesn't feel like something I have to hide in my life or forever be tormented by. It's in my past and I want to do something positive with my experience to help others.

The NSPCC shares advice for families on online grooming

Signs a child might be being groomed

  • Sudden changes in behaviour, such as spending more or less time online
  • Spending more time away or going missing from home or school
  • Being secretive about how they’re spending their time, including when using online devices
  • Having unexplained gifts, big or small
  • Misusing alcohol and/or drugs
  • Having a friendship or relationship with a much older person
  • Developing sexual health problems
  • Using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • Seeming upset or withdrawn
  • Mental health problems

What can parents and carers do?

  • Teaching children and young people about healthy relationships and how to stay safe online can help to prevent grooming. It’s important to encourage transparency in what your children are doing online, try using parental controls and keeping up to date on the apps and games that children and young people are using.
  • It’s also important to make sure children and young people know that they can talk to trusted adults about any concerns, such as at school or Childline.
  • If a child reveals that they’re being groomed or they disclose concerns, it’s important to listen carefully to what they’re saying and let them know they’ve done the right thing by telling you. It’s crucial you let the child know it’s not their fault and that they’ll be taken seriously. Explain what the next steps are and never confront the alleged abuser.
  • If your child discloses they’re being groomed, then you can report this to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP), a UK police agency that supports children and young people who are worried about online sexual abuse.
  • The NSPCC has several services that can help children recognise the signs of abuse, such as the Speak out Stay safe assemblies and the Talk PANTS rule. Children can also reach out to Childline with any concerns, no matter how big or small.

Advice pages

Report Remove is here to help young people confidentially report sexual images and videos of themselves and remove them from the internet.

Grooming is a page on the signs of grooming and what to do if a child discloses or you suspect abuse.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection is a UK police agency that supports children and young people who are worried about online sexual abuse.

Talk PANTS is developed in consultation with children, parents, carers and teachers. Talk PANTS is here to help children understand their body belongs to them, and they should tell a safe adult they trust if anything makes them feel upset or worried. 

Speak out, Stay safe is a safeguarding programme for children aged 5 to 11. It is available to all primary schools in the UK and Channel Islands.

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