Online Grooming and Human Trafficking in the UK: How the Two Connect


By Sara Marie Battey MSc, Digital & Campaigns Volunteer

Human Trafficking is not a new concept (although becoming more prevalent in the news than before) that has continued to develop in order to succeed in the 21st century. This adaptability of human traffickers has once again been highlighted in their ability to harness the internet as a tool that is advantageous for them. Now in the 21st century, where most of the population is online, human traffickers are using social media as well as dating apps and gaming sites in order to expand their reach. It is important to note that grooming can happen to anyone but the main targets are children and young people.

According to the NSPCC, online grooming crimes reported by police have increased by approximately 70% since 2021, where it hit an all time high in the UK that year. In their article, which calls for support of the Online Safety Bill, they obtained a Freedom of Information request from 42 police forces in England/Wales and found:

Almost half of the offences used Facebook owned apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger

Instagram was the most common site used, flagged by police in 32% of instances where the platform was known last year

Snapchat was used in over a quarter of offences, meaning the big four were used in 74% of instances where platform was known

The purpose of the grooming process is for a trafficker to be able to gain full control over their victim and manipulate them into cooperating in their own exploitation.

While every situation is different the overall grooming process usually involves the following steps:

Targeting the Victim: Traffickers use the internet (primarily now via social media apps) to identify people with noticeable vulnerabilities or needs.

Gaining Trust/Meeting Needs: Once the potential victim is identified the traffickers will strike up a relationship with them, gaining trust through the sharing of problems, empathy or emotions. After the victim has been targeted and trust has been established, traffickers will tend to offer a solution to meet those needs/desires. These needs could be physical such as a job to support themselves or their family or something more emotional like love, affection and a sense of belonging or confidence.

Meet up and Coercion: What can happen next is that the trafficker arranges to meet up with their victim in a public place, which could then be trafficked into one of the various forms of exploitation. Other times, online groomers can make their victim feel trapped before even meeting in person. Both can be accomplished by using deception, coercion or even threats to pressure the victim into sending sexually explicit photos/videos (which is then used as blackmail to control the victim).

Maintaining Control: After traffickers establish control over their victims, they have to carefully craft strategies to maintain it. These strategies differ depending on the person or the situation. Once traffickers are able groom their victims online, it is only the start of a criminal operation involving the recruitment of young or vulnerable people for trafficking and exploitation purposes.

Help and advice: Organisations like the UK safer internet centre, the NSPCC and Childline provide resources and advice for parents and young people about how to stay safe online.




Links used for research:

Record high number of recorded grooming crimes lead to calls for stronger online safety legislation | NSPCC

Love and Trafficking: How Traffickers Groom & Control Their Victims – Polaris (

Human Trafficking and Social Media – Polaris (

Online grooming and trafficking: what’s the link? » STOP THE TRAFFIK