Covid-19 lockdowns lead to increase in online child sexual exploitation and abuse
Lockdowns have forced children to move online to learn and play, exposing them to risks including sexual exploitation and abuse. Unsurprisingly, predators have taken full advantage of the unprecedented health crisis to target children who, in Thailand as in much of the rest of the world, have not received adequate online supervision from parents and caregivers. .
Cases of online child sexual exploitation and abuse are on the rise. But incident reporting and disclosure is very low.
Figures from the Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children (TICAC) task force show that more than 160,000 cases were recorded in the first four months of the pandemic (between January and April 2020). Last year, the number of children between the ages of 12 and 17 who were victims of online child sexual exploitation and abuse jumped to around 400,000.
Cases remain significantly underreported
The recently released Disrupting Harm report reveals that only 1-3% of children have disclosed their experiences to the police. Between 10 and 31% of them did not tell anyone about the most recent incident. And just 17% of caregivers surveyed said they would report it to the police if their child experienced online sexual harassment, abuse or exploitation.
The research study was conducted by Ecpat, Interpol and the Unicef Research Office – Innocenti.
“The age of the targeted children has gone down to those who are only 5 or 6 years old,” says Dr Varoth Chotpitayasunondh, psychiatrist and spokesperson for the Department of Mental Health of the Ministry of Public Health.
He adds that predators use different tactics to lure child victims. They can blackmail them into engaging in sexual activity or share their sexual images without permission. Some may even coerce them into engaging in sexual activities by promising them money or gifts. They often contact child victims through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.
“Predators use ‘grooming’ tactics to gain children’s trust. They develop a relationship with them in order to reach the children more easily. Adult predators can do something like give money to targeted children to share their sexual photos with them or ask them to engage in sexual activity in person,” says Dr. Varoth.
Those responsible for the abuse are often someone the children know such as a family member, boyfriend, friend, neighbor, coach and teacher, he added.
The psychiatrist explains that online child sexual exploitation and abuse can occur entirely online and often involves online and in-person interactions between predators and child victims. According to the report, 10% of children said they had met someone in person they first met online.
Why born the victims to say?
Dr. Varoth notes that stigma is one of the biggest barriers for victims and survivors in reporting and disclosing online threats, saying that social norms about what is appropriate and acceptable have shaped their thoughts, their feelings and behaviors in the face of incidents.
“Most child victims think they did something wrong or they didn’t do something right. They often blame themselves for what they were wearing or for trusting the wrong person. They fear not being believed or being blamed for what happened. Will they be supported? Will friends ridicule them? said the psychiatrist.
According to the report, some child victims who report incidents say they feel held responsible for online sexual exploitation and abuse and rarely see themselves as victims. They believe that law enforcement officials and society have the same view.
In addition, the investigative techniques used by the police when questioning them are not favorable to child victims and survivors. One survivor said the interview about her experience of online sexual abuse took place at the police station in reception. “There were about 10 people there, including two male police officers and five of my friends,” the survivor said of her experience reporting to the police.
Dr Varoth says some children don’t know where to go or who to tell if they or a friend is being sexually assaulted or harassed.
According to the report, 47% of children surveyed said they would not know where to get help in these situations.
“Some children don’t know they can report the incident to the police,” he says.
When victims and survivors open up about abuse, Dr Varothad advises parents and caregivers to avoid asking them for details and asking ‘why’ questions, stressing that affected children need support rather than being pressured.
“We must react actively but cautiously. People should not repeatedly ask the same question of the child about the abuse. He continues to abuse them. Please do not talk about it in front of others. It shames them. It hurts their feelings,” he says, adding that children who are sexually abused and exploited suffer various consequences of negative impacts on their emotional and physical well-being.
Be patient, listen to them, believe them and support them in order to help them through the agony and move forward in their lives, he stresses.
He also advises parents to seek help from professionals who can guide them towards emotional and physical healing if needed. And face the problem honestly and place the blame squarely on the person who committed the abuse.
Protect children online
The Internet is a double-edged sword. It offers children many opportunities for learning, communication, creativity and entertainment, but also exposes them to risks.
The fight against online sexual exploitation and abuse, according to Dr. Varoth, should start with parents and guardians teaching their children to protect themselves from those who might harm them and helping them to become digital citizens.
“You need to make sure your child has the right digital skills and literacy to stay safe online. Also set reasonable limits on screen time and content they can use,” he says.
He added that parents should also hone themselves for the digital world and keep abreast of technology so they are ready to help children if something goes wrong.
Many parents who aren’t tech-savvy don’t give kids the right advice to deal with online threats. Some children find it difficult to talk with them about the abuse, he notes.
“Parents don’t understand when a child tries to tell them about an online sexual abuse situation and may not even understand that it’s wrong. So be a smart parent to support your child’s learning and well-being. They will trust you to ask for help,” he says.
Various government agencies, namely the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education, Department of Mental Health of the Ministry Public health as well as law enforcement and non-governmental organizations are working to address issues related to online child sexual exploitation and abuse, but they need to do much more.
To better tackle the problems, Dr Varoth says there is a need to appoint a government body to centralize and lead the response and prevention. It is also important to improve the data collection process to enable more efficient work. It is equally important to keep all children and guardians informed of the risks and their rights and to help them navigate the legal process.
Parents and teachers need to be more aware of reporting mechanisms and support services. The public needs more education about online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
“More needs to be done, and more collective efforts from all sectors of society need to be made to better protect children’s online safety,” he says.