NewsMobile Special: Sexual Predators On The Prowl As Children Spend Hours Online In Times Of COVID-19

12-year-old Shalini was alone at home for nearly 10 days. Virtually locked up in the house, cut off from everyone else. Her parents and brother had all tested positive for COVID-19 ad had to be rushed to a hospital cringing for oxygen.

Scared, alone and at a loss to comprehend what was happening around her, she found a friend in her laptop. Chatting with friends, getting on to video calls and playing online antakshari helped to take her mind away. Even if for sometime.

But what took her aback was a message on a social networking site from someone she didn’t even know, trying to get familiar with her. And before she realised, her chat box was filled with lewd suggestive messages and obscene images.

She remembered what her ma’am had told her in school and what her mother had repeatedly told her – never entertain strangers, don’t make friends online.

And Shalini is not alone. Spending hours on mobile and computer owing to online classes and assignments, 14-year-old Rahul too suddenly found that he had been added to a closed group. He had no idea how it happened since he hardly knew other members of the group. Two other boys from his class who had been added too also were paranoid. Objectionable pictures were been shared in the group. Sensing danger, Rahul immediately informed his parents.

These are not isolated cases. This is the dark reality of the times we are in. Online child sexual abuse is real. And prolonged online exposure has only made the predators hunt for vulnerable children on the web.

According to a study – COVID-19 and adolescent mental health in India – by Suravi Patra and Binod Kumar Patro, published in the esteemed Lancet journal in December 2020, the reasons why adolescents and young adults are spending more time online is clear. “Adolescents are experiencing acute and chronic stress because of parental anxiety, disruption of daily routines, increased family violence, and home confinement with little or no access to peers, teachers, or physical activity,” researchers say.

With schools now shifting online and parental supervision taking a backseat, the stress factor is only increasing as is the risk of online child sexual abuse.

According to a Scientific American report, when children are at home, they go online, and online child predators take advantage of that situation. Scores of law enforcement agencies across the world including the Europol and FBI have red flagged increased digital activity of those aiming to sexually exploit children online.

“Predators are posting on Web forums that they expect young people to be more vulnerable because of social isolation, less supervision and more time on their computers,” the Scientific American report states.

The Kerala Police which has se up a Counter Child Sexual Exploitation Centre (CCSE) says child pornography is pornography that exploits children for sexual stimulation.

“It may be produced with the direct involvement or sexual assault of a child also known as child sexual abuse images or it may be simulated child pornography. Abuse of the child occurs during the sexual acts or lascivious exhibitions of genitals or pubic areas which are recorded in the production of child pornography. Child pornography uses a variety of media, including social media like Telegram, FaceBook, Whatsapp etc, writings, magazines, photos, sculpture, drawing, cartoon, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video, and video games,” Kerala Police says.

The expansion of the Internet and advanced digital technology lies parallel to the explosion of the child pornography market. “Child pornography images are readily available through virtually every Internet technology, including social networking websites, file-sharing sites, photo-sharing sites, gaming devices, and even mobile apps. Child pornography offenders can also connect on Internet forums and networks to share their interests, desires, and experiences abusing children, in addition to selling, sharing, and trading images,” explains Kerala Police.

“As per our analysis, child pornography is being circulated over the internet mainly through the Darknet, Social media platforms, VPNs, file sharing/cloud applications like Mega, DropBox, Omegle Chat, CHATZY etc. Using social engineering techniques, leads were gathered from telegram groups/channels, whatsapp groups/channels and from International databases. Using various techniques, we were able to precisely corner down to the suspect and could even trace out the devices they were using,” Kerala Police CCSE team explains.

While the reality is dark, there is always a silver lining. Counsellors say if teachers and parents sensitize children regularly, if parents are more vigilant, monitor their child’s online behaviour and most importantly treat their children as their friends to ensure that channels of communication are open at all times, online sexual abuse can be  tackled proactively.

(Names of all children have been changed in the report to protect their identity)

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