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Unsafe contact and 'grooming'

Meeting people, making new friends and staying in touch with others you already know is common on apps, sites and games. Whoever you connect with, it’s important to know how to get help if they make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

In short:

  • Online friends and contacts should respect your boundaries – meaning they shouldn’t send you messages or share content that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
  • Scammers and sexual abusers use online spaces like social media, games and other apps to find young people so they can harm them.
  • eSafety can help you prevent and deal with unsafe contact from strangers and people you know.

 

Content warning

This page discusses sexual abuse, which may be distressing for some people.

What is unsafe contact?

Unsafe contact is when someone who connects with you online wants to harm you. Often that’s hard to work out at first, so this page gives you some clues to think about.

There’s a chance you’ve felt uneasy online at least once or twice. According to our Digital lives of Aussie teens report, 30% of young people have been contacted by a stranger online. The trouble is, on the internet people don’t come with a ‘good person’ or ‘shady person’ badge, which means it can be hard to know who to trust.

Some people who contact you may genuinely just want to be friends or to chat. It can be great when your conversations flow easily, there’s a sense of respect and the other person doesn’t ‘cross your boundaries’ with words or content that make you feel uncomfortable. But people like scammers and sexual abusers can be very clever at tricking others online, so trusting your ‘gut instinct’ may not always help you feel when something is wrong.

To make matters more complex, unsafe contact doesn’t always come from a stranger – it could be someone you know, like a classmate, someone you work with or play sport against, a relative of one of your friends or even a family member.

Also, someone who you think is a friend may start off from a place of respect, but they can shift the boundaries quickly. 

They might go from chatting about your favourite bands one day to asking for nudes the next, then make you feel really pressured and worn down by repeated requests.

Remember, it's always OK to say no to sending nudes or getting sexual online.

Being aware of the warning signs that online contact might make you unsafe can help you avoid some of the risks.

What are the warning signs of unsafe contact?

Here are some questions to think about:

  • Are you being ‘love bombed’ with lots of flattery, compliments or affectionate messages?
  • Does a new friend or connection seem too good to be true?
  • Do you think their stories about their location, age and friends seem inconsistent or don’t quite ‘add up’?
  • Do you get the sense that the words and style they use online doesn’t really match who they say they are?
  • Do they seem overly interested in the details of your life, or reluctant to share details about their own?
  • Do they find you across all your online accounts and platforms, even ones you didn’t tell them about?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, be even more cautious than usual about trusting the other person.

Here are some ways they may try to harm you.

They ‘groom’ you

Grooming is when a sexual abuser tricks someone who’s under 18 into thinking they’re in a close relationship, so the young person feels OK about sending nudes or getting sexual online.

Usually they start by trying to be your friend so you feel safe sharing secrets or talking about feelings or personal topics like if you’ve had your first kiss or sexual contact. They may flatter you by telling you how good looking you are, or send you gifts or make promises to you. Over time they may find ways to make themselves your main support person, so you don’t go to anyone else when you need help.

When they think you trust them, they start to ask you for ‘favours’ like sending nudes or ‘sexy’ videos. Then they may threaten to make the images or videos public, or hurt you or someone you care about, unless you send more nudes or get sexual with them over a video call.

This person might be a stranger or someone you know. They could also be a fake friend, pretending to be your own age when they are really much older, or pretending to be someone who knows your family.

A person who grooms or sexually abuses a child or young person under 18 is sometimes called a ‘paedophile’. Often they plan to sell or share the nude or sexual content they get from you. If they post it online, it can be very damaging now and later in your life.

Finding out you’ve been tricked by a sexual abuser can be very upsetting. It’s not your fault. You don’t have to cope on your own.

It’s important that you don’t keep it a secret. Maybe you’re scared of what the person will do if you tell someone else, or that they’ll get into trouble. You may also be worried that you’ll get into trouble. Or you may not want to give up feeling special. These are all understandable reactions. But it’s important to tell a trusted adult, like a family member or teacher, so they can make sure you’re safe and help prevent your images or videos being shared online – you could show your support person this webpage so they understand more about what’s been happening and what to do next.

The best way to get help is to report anything that you think might be grooming or sexual abuse to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE).

They hook you with a fake profile or ‘catfish’ you

This is when a person pretends to be someone they’re not, so they can scam you. If it’s a dating or romance scam they may keep you talking for weeks or months before you realise they have tricked you.. But it can also happen really quickly – often they send a direct message with a ‘sexy pic’ they claim is of them. (But how would you really know? Have you ever seen them live on camera or face to face?) Then they ask you to send a naked selfie, or record you getting sexual online.

Next thing, they threaten to share the image or video with your family, friends, school or co-workers if you don’t pay them. Usually they ask you to transfer money, or send them cryptocurrency, gift cards or online game credits. This is a very common type of blackmail called ‘sextortion’ or ‘sexual extortion’.

If this happens to you:

  • Do stop all contact with the person blackmailing you.
  • Do not pay the blackmailer or give them more money or intimate content.
  • Do report what’s happening.
  • Remember, it’s not your fault, even if you shared the intimate content with them in the first place – anyone can experience sextortion. 

If you're under 18, the best way to get help is to report it to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) at accce.gov.au.

If you’re 18 or older, report it to all the platforms or services where the blackmailer contacted you. If your intimate image or video is shared, or if the platform doesn't help, you can report it to eSafety at eSafety.gov.au/report/forms.  

Read our special advice on How to deal with blackmail for more information.

They send you unwanted nudes

If someone sends you a random nude, that’s commonly called ‘cyberflashing’. Receiving unwanted nudes can be creepy and upsetting because it makes the contact between the sender and you sexual without your consent, which is sexual harassment.

Unwanted nudes can show a body of any gender or sexual expression, or part of a body (like a ‘dick pic’). People may send nudes because they think it’s a turn on or they’re hoping to receive a nude in return. But they can also be trying to trick you into sending a nude back so they can blackmail you.

See our advice on how to deal with Receiving unwanted nudes.

You can also read more about how to prevent unwanted contact on this page.

They stalk you online

If a person keeps track of you online or by phone in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, worried or threatened, this is a form of harassment known as cyberstalking.

Cyberstalking may just seem like enthusiastic interest in you at first, or it may worry you right from the start. For example, someone might make repeated unwanted contact with you via social media, games or other apps, or by messages, emails or phone calls. They may try to get your attention by posting things about you or they may use your location settings to constantly check where you are and what you’re doing, even when you have made it clear you’re not interested in them. They may also find you on all your accounts, showing they know things about you that you didn’t tell them and making you feel as if you can’t hide from them.

A cyberstalker often wants to scare, embarrass or control the person they target, or harm their reputation. It can happen from a person known or unknown to you,

You can report cyberstalking to the platforms and services that the person used to contact you. If they don’t help and the content that the person who is cyberstalking you sent, shared or posted is seriously harmful, eSafety can help have it removed. This can include harassment and threats that are part of cyberbullying (if you are under 18) or adult cyber abuse (if you are 18 or older).

If a stalker turns up in person, you could be in physical danger – call the police on Triple Zero (000).

If a stalker is someone you are (or were) in a relationship with, you can also contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) for advice and support.

They hack you

If someone online asks questions like where you live, who you live with, the names of family members, your date of birth, where you go and what you do, be suspicious. They may be trying to piece together the answers to work out your passcodes or other personally identifiable information.

If they hack one of your accounts, they can take over your feed to embarrass you or steal from you, or to harm or scam other people.

Find out more about protecting your personally identifiable information, including what to do is it’s stolen or misused.

Audio

Hi, my name is Chanel Contos and I'm the founder of the Teach Us Consent campaign.

This campaign asked for Australian school students to be taught consent education earlier, holistically and in every single school, and thanks to tens of thousands of Australians across the country who signed this petition that has now happened.

Ever gotten a DM from someone that's a little bit weird or felt that twinge in your gut, that's told you something's not quite right?

When you live part of your life on the internet, it's very probable that something like this has happened to you before. 

There are lots of strange people on the internet, but obviously not all of them are bad.

So the question is how do you know when someone means you harm?

Number one: If the person's stories aren't adding up. 

Let's be real: Everyone makes things up. But if someone you're speaking to has inconsistencies in basic details and personal interests, it could be that they're not being honest about who they really are and they may be making this information up to play a role in order to get closer to you.

Two: If the person's behaviour is becoming overly familiar.

Online conversations and friendships can develop fast, but they should have limits.

If a person starts asking for information you're not completely ready to share, like around where you live or your sexual experiences, it could be a sign that they have different expectations of the relationship. 

Some internet predators may try to isolate you from your friends. They may claim they're the only one who understands you or supports your dreams. 

While at first it sounds romantic and feels great to meet someone online who just gets you, just be careful. Sometimes this behaviour is intended to make you vulnerable or manipulate you for the benefit of them down the track. Trust your gut.

And finally, number three: They are not respecting your boundaries.

A no is a no, and if someone on the internet is pushing you to do something you don't want to do, like sending nudes, revealing information around yourself or cutting off friends, it is a sign they do not respect your boundaries.

The report and block function on online platforms can keep dodgy people like this out of your life.

The rule of thumb is if your gut feeling is telling you something is off, it's probably right.

Your online connections should bring you joy and help you grow, not leave you feeling uneasy.

If you do find yourself in a tricky situation, eSafety might be able to help. 

They can also help you get mental health support that you need to find your feet again. 

So reach out and know that you're never alone.

Chanel Contos: Consent and staying safe online

How can I prevent contact I don't want?

There are some things you can do to manage how much contact you get when you’re online.

Make your accounts private

If you don’t want to be contacted by strangers, consider putting all your accounts on ‘private’. You should be able to do this by going into your account settings and updating them so you choose who can contact you or see what you are doing online.

Check The eSafety Guide for more information about updating your privacy settings for different apps, games, sites or other online platforms.

Clean up your contacts list

How well do you know everyone on your friends list? If the answer is ‘not well’, it’s worth checking every so often to ensure you’re comfortable with who’s following you. If there are accounts you’ve never interacted with before, or friend requests from people you don’t recognise, it’s a good idea to delete them.

Check your location sharing settings

Many apps and devices let you ‘check-in’ from a certain location, or share where you are. Your settings usually allow you to choose whether you want to share your location or not, who to share it with and when to share it. It's important to only share your location information with people you know and trust. It’s also important to be aware of posting your location in real-time – others may track your movement between locations, so it might be better to post later on, when you’re no longer in the area.

Set and state your boundaries

It can help to be clear about what your boundaries are early on when you make new friends online. It will help them understand what you expect when you’re talking to each other, which may also help you feel more comfortable online.

Examples of boundary-setting could include making it clear you don’t want to discuss your sexuality or sexual experience, or letting people know the times when they can and can’t contact you.

What should I do if someone keeps contacting me and I don’t want them to?

Ask them to stop

If you feel uncomfortable with the way someone is communicating with you, you can ask them to stop if that feels safe. It might not always work, but sometimes letting them know they’re upsetting you will make them rethink their actions.

Tell someone you trust

You don’t have to cope with pressure and unwanted contact on your own. You may feel like you should be able to handle it yourself but if the other person is not getting the message or you’re feeling a little out of your depth, talking it through with someone else may help. An adult you trust, like a family member or teacher, can give you a fresh point of view, as well as helping you decide what to do and how to deal with any impacts. Try to stay connected with your support person while you handle the situation – you could show them this webpage so they understand more about it and can give you ongoing help.

Stop further contact

It’s always OK to stop communicating with someone if you no longer feel comfortable. You can use in-app functions or the settings on your device to mute, unfollow or block the other person and change your privacy settings. See more information about how to prevent unwanted contact.

Collect evidence, report and block on the platform

It’s important to collect evidence like screenshots of where and how the person contacted you and what they said to make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, so you have proof. Then you can report their accounts to the platforms and services where they contacted you, and block them. Reporting them helps make online spaces safer for other people too.  

Learn more about how to report to eSafety and what to expect.

Get support

Unwanted contact can be distressing. Remember, it’s not your fault and there’s help available. You can always speak to someone at the free Kids Helpline (for 5 to 25 year-olds), or find another counselling and support service that’s right for you.

Are you being harassed because of your involvement in a sport? If so, you can also contact your sports organisation for support. They may be able to take action depending on their policies, or help you report it to eSafety. Explore eSafety's Sports Hub to learn more about online safety in your sport.

Audio

My favourite thing about the internet is the connection it brings.

I can talk to anyone from anywhere. I can share anything I want.

It can be hard to open up to the adults in your life when things go wrong online, especially if you think they're not going to understand or that they're gonna blame you. 

But the adults in your life can help with certain things like gathering evidence for an eSafety complaint or filing a police report. 

They can also act as your advocate so that when you're feeling unsure, you have somebody who'll speak up for you and remind you of the respect that you deserve.

If you don't know how to reach out that's understandable. 

It can be tough, even though staying silent can make your problem worse. 

It's important to figure out which adult you trust enough to talk to. 

Your trusted adult could be one of your parents, but it could also be an English teacher or one of the adults at your job.

Then you have to figure out what you want to ask them or tell them.

Writing down what you want to see can be super helpful. 

You might ask for help making a report, you might ask for advice for what to do or you might just need somebody to listen.

Last of all, you need to figure out where you want to hold this conversation. 

You might want to chat over the phone or via text, so it's not as overwhelming as in person. 

Or you could chat after school in a place that's going to be comfortable for you and there'll be no distractions.

Once you've figured out which adult you want to talk to and you're prepared for the conversation, try sending them a text to let them know you want to chat.

You could say something like, 'Hey, there's been a problem online and I need your help.' 

And remember, the adult in your life were once our age too. 

They may have been in similar situations and may have advice to share from what they've learned. 

They'll be able to help you carry the load. 

It shouldn't be up to you to do this alone.

Keep in mind that eSafety also has a pretty big directory of free and confidential support services you can access at any time.

Thalia: The hows and whys of opening up

Something has happened

Ask them to stop. If you feel comfortable doing so, let them know they’ve upset you and ask them to stop. This will make them think about their actions.

Collect evidence, report and prevent further contact. If asking them to stop doesn’t help, it may be  time to take action. Take screenshots or recordings of the unwanted contact and the account profile it came from, and note all the times it’s happened. Check The eSafety Guide for information about how to report the account to different online platforms. You can then use in-app functions to mute, unfollow or block the other person, and change your privacy settings.

Get more support. Talking to a trusted adult can make it easier to decide what to do and how to deal with the impact. You can also seek help from confidential counselling and support services.

Ask yourself some questions. Did the other person give you lots of compliments? Did they want to chat about your secrets and other very personal things soon after you met online? Did they ask if you were alone? Did they promise you something if you did them a private ‘favour’? Have they ever asked you to talk about sex, send nudes or get sexual online? Have they asked you to keep your relationship a secret?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, the other person may be a sexual abuser who ‘grooms’ (tricks) young people into trusting them. If you’re under 18, this is a type of sexual abuse and it’s very unsafe. Often the person sells or shares your images or videos online, which can be very damaging for you now and later in life.

Don’t keep it a secret. It’s important to tell a trusted adult, like a family member or teacher, so they can make sure you’re safe and help prevent your images or videos being shared online.

Report what’s happened. The best way to get help is to report anything you think is grooming or sexual abuse to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE).

Get more support. Finding out someone has tricked you online can be upsetting. It’s not your fault and you don’t have to cope on your own. If you don’t feel there’s an adult in your life who can help you, you can always speak to someone at the free Kids Helpline (for 5 to 25 year-olds) or find another counselling and support service that’s right for you. 

Get support from confidential counselling and support services

Kids Helpline

5 to 25 year olds. All issues. Confidential phone counselling available all day, every day. Online chat available 24/7, 365 days a year.

Headspace

12 to 25 year olds. All issues. Phone counselling and online chat available 9am to 1am AEST, every day.

More support services

Last updated: 03/06/2024