The communicative modus operandi of online child sexual groomers - Recurring patterns in their language use


Grooming of children online is a legally punishable form of child sexual abuse. In the UK, for instance, the Serious Crime Act makes it a criminal offence for an adult to send a sexual message to a child. The incidence of this offence is known to be on the increase. The UK-based charity NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), for example, reports a 16.8% growth in police-recorded cases of online sexual grooming in England and Wales from 2015/16 to 2016/2017 (Bentley et al. 2018). Moreover, these figures are known to underestimate the real scale of the issue, which is significantly under- reported (Davidson and Gottschalk 2011; NSPCC 20183). The seriousness of the offence and its increasing prevalence over time may account for a growing body of academic scholarship investigating OCSG over the past decade or so. This scholarship has been primarily conducted within the disciplines of Criminology, Psychology and Computational Text Analysis (See Section 2). In contrast, Linguistics scholarship into OCSG is still “in its infancy” (Chiang and Grant 2018:2). This is sadly ironic given that OCSG is an internet-enabled communicative process of entrapment in which an adult uses language and other semiotic modes (e.g. images) to lure a minor into taking part in sexual activities online and, at times, also offline. Against this backdrop, the present study is – to our knowledge – the first to identify the linguistic patterns used regularly by a large number of convicted child sexual offenders with the intention to sexually groom their targets online.

Journal of Pragmatics