Do you know who your kids are talking to?
29 Apr 2012, The Star
Check out your child's cyber buddy; he or she may be in danger even if their chance of ever meeting offline is slim.
FOR a while all you hear from your eight-year-old daughter is about her new Internet friend Ben. Every day, it's “Ben this”, “Ben that”.
But all of a sudden, the Ben-talk stops. In fact, all talk from your child stops. Once bubbly and chatty, your daughter is now quiet and morose.
Be very worried if this happens to your child, warns Datuk Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi, Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) chairman.
This could be a sign that he or she is under threat online, especially from cyber predators.
As he highlighted at the roundtable discussion on Child Online Protection hosted by The Star in partnership with Digi last week, Interpol statistics show that one in five children online become the target of cyber predators or paedophiles each year. Sexual harassment of minors online is also growing with some 30% of teenaged girls claiming to have been sexually harassed in a chat room.
Although these incidents are not yet as rampant in Malaysia as other parts of the world, we are at the threshold, says Mohamed Sharil.
And with 63% household broadband penetration and 35% of Malaysian mobile subscribers below the age of 18, he notes, parents here have cause to worry.
A minor paradise
The Internet has long been a playground for sexual predators, Dr Raymond Choo, Fulbright scholar and senior lecturer at the University of South Australia concedes.
He highlights a study he quoted in a report he wrote on child internet safety for the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), “Sexual Abuse” (by Gee DG, Devilly GJ & Ward T, 2004): two in three men admit they fantasise about young girls.The report he wrote for AIC in 2009 also revealed that one in five university students are sexually attracted to children at some point.
While the statistics are not new, Dr Choo argues that the explosion of social media networks and mobile technology in the last few years has made the Internet a fantastic wonderland for them.
These new developments in information and communication technology are enabling offenders who are motivated by personal sexual gratification to target children and young people individually or collectively, he says. “Technological advances have lowered the bar for individuals with criminal intentions to reach out to children and young people in Malaysia and overseas and explore their deviant sexual fantasies.”
And while the survey was not conducted here, Dr Choo opines, it is applicable to Malaysia due to the borderless nature of the current world.
The risk to Malaysian children from online predators is growing as most young Malaysians, like their global peers, now have social networking profiles on sites such as Facebook and MySpace, which are prime targets for sexual predators, particularly sexual deviants, he points out. An increasing number now also own smartphones or other mobile devices, and are regular users of location-based app Foursquare.
Mohamed Sharil agrees that these developments have created more opportunities for potential predators since most parents are not IT-savvy enough to monitor them, citing the Norton Online Family Report 2010. “It was reported in 2010 that Malaysian kids are spending an average of 19 hours online per week (while their parents think they only spend 11 hours) and no one's quite sure what they do online.”
As the report stated, only four in 10 parents said that they always know what their child looked at online.
While time is an issue for this parental oblivion, another reason, says the roundtable discussion co-panellist, The Star's executive editor Datuk Wong Sai Wan, parents are lost when it comes to online safety for children because of the rapid technological changes.
“The rules have changed, parents today don't know what the parameters are anymore. What is the proper approach? I worry all the time about who these potential monsters my daughter is talking to online are,” he grouses.
Who are the monsters'?
In the defence of an international paedophile ring based in the UK last year, their lawyers attempted to get a lighter sentence by painting the suspects as emotionally disturbed and suffering from a low IQ. The reality is, however, criminologists worldwide cannot effectively profile paedophiles. And like in real life where the danger lurking may look like your familiar accountant uncle instead of the bearded guy in the bush, the identity of cyber predator is also hard to pin.
There is no typical paedophile, Universiti Sains Malaysia criminologist associate professor Dr P. Sundramoorthy tells Sunday Star.
The only common overt aspect of paedophilia is an intense interest in children, says Dr Sundramoorthy.
“Those who are attracted to children can be anybody, and not all are psychologically disturbed. Many are ordinary adults but have sexual affections and orientation for very young children,” he explains, adding that while human beings in general have diverse sexual needs, attraction to children or paedophilia is considered abnormal or a sexual deviance.
Mental health professionals defined paedophilia as a mental disorder in which the sufferer can only achieve sexual gratification or excitement through a fantasy or actual act of engaging in sexual activity with pre-pubertal children (12 and below). The law in almost all countries see it as a criminal act, and many courts interpret it to mean children under the age of consent (16 in Malaysia) or adulthood (18 years old).
Deviant sexual fantasies and acts here include exhibiting, peeping, non-consenting sexual touching and rape, among others.
Although there may be those who will never act on their impulses, many will act if the situation is right and the opportunity is presented to them, says Dr Sundramoorthy, especially in the absence of capable guardians and other deterrents to crime.
The Internet has created an ideal criminogenic environment: there are abundant opportunities, highly motivated offenders, and not a great deal of coordinated and effective regulation, argues Dr Choo.
“Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to exploitation via ICT and the new media channels because these mediums are attractive to them.
“Children and young people often use these mediums unsupervised and increasingly have access to portable devices with the capacity for data storage, digital photography and communications such as third generation mobile phones,” he adds.
According to the AIC report, the types of offences that are relevant to online child exploitation include accessing, sending or uploading child exploitation material (such as sexting); grooming and procuring of children and young people over the Internet; possession and publication of child abuse materials; and sexual assault of children and young people.
What these predators do is to “groom” their victim by befriending them online and fostering a relationship with exchanges of online gifts such as games, ringtones, photos and music to lower their defences before slowly sharing pornographic materials.
Children most at risk include those who have low self-esteem, emotional insecurity and lack of confidence.
The bonding between the child and paedophile is based on mutual trust, Dr Sundramoorthy says.
“Most children cannot tell between right and wrong, so they will protect their relationship' as precious intimate secrets they will not even tell their friends, much less their parents or teachers. The bonds are usually very strong,” he adds, pointing out that many children now know how to use proxy sites and various other tricks to hide their online history from parents.
And it is not only Western males with exotic fetishes that parents need to be wary of stalking their children online. While many agree that paedophiles are mostly men, there are records of female paedophiles.
Unicef Innocenti Research Centre in their Child Safety Online report last year highlights another disturbing trend: it is now a myth that paedophiles lie about their age and identity to entrap innocent children.
“Grooming now tends to be a process of seducing and flattering children into what they may perceive as a voluntary sexual online friendship. Although some offenders lie about their age or gender, the activity generally tends to fit a model of statutory rape,” the report states.
Another dangerous development is the network between paedophiles on the Internet.
The new media such as social networking sites, IRC rooms and virtual worlds in online games, says Dr Choo, has greatly facilitated communicating with other like-minded individuals, and the sharing of information and strategies for grooming children online.
“In so doing, this may reinforce individuals (who might never have acted on their deviant sexual fantasies) that their adult-child sex philosophies are not wrong,” he notes.
A new ballgame
While personal information specifically the child's contact details is the main thing sought by cyber predators, many are now eschewing the face-to-face meeting for cyber “dates”.
“It used to be that the paedophiles would even fly thousands of miles to meet their victims. Now they just use webcams, smartphone videos and others,” says Dr Sundramoorthy, adding that the “cyber meeting”, if it involves sexual acts, will then be circulated online and shared among fellow paedophiles.
Some of these clips can be online for more than 30 years, compounding victims' trauma further, Unicef researchers and online child porn watchdog Internet Watch Foundation reported.
Dr Choo concedes that given the constantly evolving phenomenon of online child exploitation (including online grooming for sexual exploitation), we have to be alert to the dangers in the unchartered waters we surf.
“It is difficult to obtain long-term trend data on reported convictions. However, statistics demonstrate clearly there has been a large increase in use of the Internet and new media channels, such as social networking sites, creating greater opportunity for sexual offenders,” he notes.
According to Unicef, research with abusers show that some have up to 200 young people on their online “friends” list who are at different stages of the grooming process at any given time. “Grooming may take minutes, hours, days or months, depending on the goals and needs of the abuser and reactions of the young person.”
Hence, the findings of European Online Grooming Project revealed earlier this month might just send shivers up parents' spine.
The three-year study funded by the European Commission which examined the methods and behaviours of online predators warned parents that online paedophiles are abandoning the traditional, time-consuming grooming process and moving to highly sexualised chats with children within two minutes.
According to the research by Kingston University and NatCen Social Research, paedophiles, through gaming platforms and social media networks, get into sexualised conversation with their targeted minor victim as soon as they “meet”.
“If the child does not respond, the offender will simply move on to the next child. During our interviews, offenders said they didn't need to bother with a grooming process when they could immediately ask children for sex or to meet so they could abuse them,” criminologist Professor Julia Davidson of London's Kingston University, one of the study's authors, was quoted.
Evolving criminal “techniques” such as this makes parental protection the best frontline measure, says Mohamed Sharil.
Of course, they need some help and guidance from the government and experts, he says, but this is also what MCMC have seen in their work with Interpol in tackling these scourges.
“The computer is in your house. So, the first thing to do is to monitor your child. If you notice any drastic personality change, talk to them,” he says, adding that many children who find themselves in these dangerous situations usually do not fully comprehend what is happening.
Many find it difficult to reach out as they are fearful of being scolded or losing their online privileges, so parents need to be sensitive to the changes in their mood, he notes, “Don't let them go into a cocoon.”
While raising awareness on the dangers online is a measure that need to be considered, Mohamed Sharil believes that the best protection online for children is to go back to the basics in parenting and equip them with the basic values.
“When you give a smartphone to your child, you need to know what it entails. But at the same time, just like what our parents taught us we should not go to certain places, we should not talk to strangers or take sweets from them and we should not be rude to friends and other people. These rules apply on the Internet too,” he says.