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Raising children in a digital age and online grooming

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By Sumithra V. Ananthan

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

We, adults, did not grow up in the era of social media but that does not excuse us from being aware of the various social media sites that exist now such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, MySpace, Twitter, Pinterest –  the list goes on and on.

 

Coming of age and the pervasiveness of social media

We have a tedious job trying to keep abreast of the sites our children are accessing on a regular basis so that we can be aware of the relationships they are cultivating online and to protect them from falling prey to the online predators that lurk beyond the computer screens. In this age of technology where there is an app for just about anything, one does wonder “Where is the app for “Successful parenting in the era of social media”?

 Teenagers are not fully capable of protecting themselves or understanding the consequences of their actions.

 Tweens and teens, although at times taller than their parents, lack the emotional maturity required to stay safe and not fall prey to online grooming. Research has shown that the human brain does not completely develop until our 20’s to maybe even our 30’s.

The frontal lobe, the part of the brain that manages impulse control, judgement, insight and emotional control is still working to make the “connections” which help us understand the consequences of our actions – for ourselves and others.

Teenagers are not fully capable of protecting themselves or understanding the consequences of their actions. I am sure we can all recall some of the daft, crazy or even risky things we had done as teenagers. The only difference is that there were no social media sites to forever preserve our “so called” idiotic moment in posterity.

 

What is online grooming?

Wikipedia defines online child grooming as befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, and sometimes the family, to lower the child’s inhibitions for child sexual abuse. Www.inhope.org describes online grooming by paedophiles as “actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, in order to lower the children’s inhibitions in preparation for sexual activity with the child”. “To groom a child, a paedophile must have a way of communicating with a child effectively in private and to do this, they are exploiting the popularity with children of chat rooms and social networking sites.”

Child sex offenders grooming children on the Internet for the sole purpose of online sexual abuse is an alarming new trend, highlighted by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre in United Kingdom. Offenders may target hundreds of children at a time to satisfy their sexual fantasies, and once initial contact is made, it often rapidly escalates into threats and intimidation.

 

It is easy for “groomers” to find their victims online.

According to UNICEF, research of abusers show that some offenders 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.

It is easy for “groomers” to find their victims online. They generally use chatrooms and social media sites that can be accessed anywhere in the world. This, combined with, for example, Skype or Viber, which allows voice, video and text based communications, allows for the potential of full unrestricted communication access to children. These offenders often pretend to be younger and may even change their gender. They may give a false physical description of themselves which bear no resemblance to their real appearance and may send pictures of other people pretending that it is them.

In many circumstances, grooming online is faster and anonymous and results in a child trusting an “online’ friend faster than someone they had just met. People who groom children in the cyber world may not be restricted by time or accessibility to a child as they would be in the ‘real” world.

 

What can we do?

Everywhere you look, you see a child who has not just a handphone but a smartphone, with access to the internet with just a click or a swipe of a finger.

It does not matter whether they have data or not as they can access free Wifi just about anywhere or tap into the hotspot of a friend who has data. Granted, in this day and age, the child requires a phone to keep in touch with his or her parents etc.

However, that places a higher burden on us, as adults, to monitor their online activity and have random spot checks on their mobile gadgets. However, even before we get to that stage, we need to cultivate healthy discussions with them periodically and open the lines of communication so that children feel comfortable to approach us with a problem instead of “Google” or their peers.

Talk to them about online safety and online grooming practices.  Caution them about providing personal information online and to think twice about the type of pictures they post online even if it is to a friend as it can fall into the wrong hands. They should be reminded to never ever arrange to meet an online friend alone for the first time.

Always ensure that children use the computers and other devices in public areas of the home and not in the bedroom so that you can supervise its use. We need to know what they are doing online. Use your children’s expertise and learn from them.

 

What are the signs of online grooming?

Online grooming facts show that children who are interacting with a predator will show other signs in their daily lives. Knowing what these signs are will help you take preventive measures.

Some of the signs include:-

  • being secretive about their online activities;
  • wanting to spend too much of time either online or alone;
  • receiving presents from an unknown source;
  • a drastic change in behaviour can be an indicator of a problem.

Recently, the case of the Mara scholar and Maths whiz youth, Nur Fitri Azmeer Nordin charged in United Kingdom for possessing child pornography shocked and outraged the nation.

Detective Constable Sara Keane of the Metropolitan Police’s Serious Crime Unit, was quoted as saying, “ Nordin was involved in the making and sharing of some of the most extreme images that have ever been seen by officers that work in that field”. Involved in the making and sharing those vile images of babies and young children being abused. It is important that we let that sink in for a moment.

What about the case of the 31 year old Malaysian, Yap Weng Wah, who was charged in Singapore early this year for sexually grooming and assaulting 31 boys over a 3 year period in Singapore?

Why did none of their friends, teachers, relatives etc discover what these pedophiles were doing? Imagine all the babies and young kids that they managed to get their abusive hands on? Doesn’t it make you feel nauseous?

 

How can we help?

Well, I find it difficult to believe that not one person ever had a nagging suspicion or inkling about these offenders but chose to shut one or both eyes, thinking that it is either not their problem or that that they could be wrong.

If you suspect anything amiss, please do something and report it to 15999 Childline Malaysia, a  national 24 hour phone emergency outreach service or the police. For cyber harassment, you can contact Cyber 999 – they even have apps for smartphones.

As 2020 looms nearer, let’s all practice zero tolerance to child sexual abuse imagery. To the digital citizens out there, if you come across any child sexual abuse image or video, do the right thing and report it.

One person can make a difference in a child’s life by either preventing an abuse from happening or to end the abuse, be it a parent, teacher, friend or relative.

It is only when the demand for this cyber child pornography ends that the supply will too.

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Sumithra V. Ananthan is currently the Executive Director of Voice of the Children.

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