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Saving your child from online predators

By Shara Ashraf Prayag,

Here's what you can do to protect your child from sexual abuse on the internet.

The digital safety of our children is no less important than teaching them how to safely cross the road.

The Internet can be a precarious place for children to hang out unattended. The growing incidents of child sexual abuse that often begin online are giving sleepless nights to law enforcement officials across the world. There are predators out there often looking for targets online. And there are unfortunate parents who are most often clueless about their child’s online activities till the time they realise things are dangerously out of hand.

Child Rescue Coalition (CRC), a global non profit organization based in Florida aims to protect children from sexual exploitation through innovative technology. CRC recently produced awareness videos in Hindi and Bengali to help parents understand how grave the situation can turn and how can they protect their children.

“The digital safety of our children is no less important than teaching them how to safely cross the road. Applications and games are creating secret tunnels into your homes and into your children’s lives with ZERO requirements on the tech companies to think about their safety. Please be sure to enjoy the Internet safely and make sure there’s not a predator making their way through the tunnel,” says Glen Pounder, Chief Operating Officer, CRC.

Pounder highlights many such points in his organisation’s awareness campaign. “We wanted to ensure that these awareness videos reach as wide an audience as possible. I felt they would lose impact with subtitles and so we did native language versions. Even if we are able to help one parent child and protect them from abuse, then it will be worth the effort. Hopefully they will be helpful to many more!,” he says.

According to United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP), “child sexual abuse is understood as contacts or interactions between a child and an older or more knowledgeable child or adult (stranger, sibling or person in a position of authority such as a parent or caretaker) when the child is being used as an object for the older child’s or adult’s sexual needs’. These contacts or interactions happen against the child using force, trickery, bribes, threats or pressure.” Child sexual exploitation involves child sexual abuse and/or other sexualized acts using children that in return of affection, food, drugs, and shelter. Children are tricked into sexual acts without even realising that they are being abused or becoming the victim of a crime.

“Our awareness campaign seeks to highlight that while some offenders groom children online before they are abused, the challenges are far more complex. Over 80% of child abuse offenders takes place by someone the child knows who is already inside the “circle of trust”. This is the aspect of child sexual abuse that is very rarely spoken about, probably because it’s so uncomfortable,” says Pounder, who has worked for the Queen of Britain for 31 years across Customs and Excise, the Serious Organized Crime Agency and more recently, the National Crime Agency which he left to join Child Rescue Coalition.

Ones you won’t ever suspect
Abusers can be ‘fantastic people’. “Child abusers are often smart and on many occasions are in positions of trust. Often they groom the adults FIRST. It is so often the case that when someone is arrested, there is complete shock in the community “he was such a great guy” is often the comment because he was successfully grooming the adults too!,” says Pounder.

His organisation has also developed a forensic tool, Child Protection System, which they provide law enforcement. “This technology allows them to locate and identify criminals with an illegal sexual interest in children. Our technology is in “unregulated” parts of the Internet where there is no central server and no corporate control. This is sometimes referred to as the Dark or Deep Web,” explains Pounder.

Investigators are trained and given access to an online portal which shows them suspects in their jurisdiction. “It is a pro-active investigation capability. To date, CRC Technology has helped arrest over 13,000 child sexual abuse suspects,” shares Pounder.

CRC has also been looking to work along with social media platforms such as Facebook to be able to track offenders. “The number of offenders is too big for law enforcement to manage and so we also offer our data to companies so that they can identify offenders on their platforms and protect children,” says Pounder.

But the technology companies and online platforms haven’t really been proactive in this area. “Until there is some legislation which compels them to do more, they will do what they want but on a voluntary basis. These are for profit companies so there’s not a lot of incentive. We have had some success with companies like Western Union who have shown leadership in this area and that the data can be successful to identify bad actors,” he says.

To give your child a smartphone or not
While most phones are “smart” these days, and they can be security for your child too, it’s not practical for children, at the right age, not to have a phone, believes Pounder. And the right age will depend on the individual child. “In my opinion, it’s all about having open conversations and ensuring that parents understand how their child is using the phone and who they are interacting with. If the child can’t tell the parent the phone number, the name and address of someone they’re talking to online then alarm bells should be ringing because that is a stranger,” he says.

Pounder says that while parents can put certain checks in place such as allowing devices to be used in shared areas of the home, this may not be the ultimate solution. “Depending on the age of the child, this might not always be practical or last forever. Rather than checks and supervision, I advocate for interest and communication. Kids love to tell us what they’re doing when we show an interest. “Wow, what is that game and how does it work?” is likely to have your child showing you how cool their latest game is. That’s the time you can learn to understand it from the expert (your child!) and see whether the game or app in question allows connection to strangers, private chat, the sending of images or videos. All red flags for parents!,” says Pounder.

Child sexual abuse is now a crime without traditional borders, and no country can claim not to have a problem with child sexual abuse or have an easy way to solve it, says the activist. “Offenders in India and many other countries are trading child sexual abuse material in huge groups within encrypted apps. Internet connected devices have simply made the problem worse as offenders can connect in ways which were impossible only 15 or 20 years ago. The problem has moved beyond the Dark Web to the “app space”,” he adds.

“Circle of trust” or “stranger danger”: what’s the bigger challenge?
Both are problematic but require different solutions, says Pounder. Very young children cannot report to police and are being sexually abused; this crime is not the result of grooming by a stranger but someone the child already knows and often trusts, he explains.

“While it is very disturbing that some criminals have many thousands of child sexual abuse files, I also know of cases where law enforcement, using our technology, have arrested an individual with one child abuse file that we knew of. And the offender was found to be abusing his own baby daughter,” says Pounder.

This is why it is so important for law enforcement to conduct proactive investigations and not only respond when a crime is reported, he insists.

Keeping children safe
Women and child rights activist Yogita Bhayana says that staying closely connected to your children also goes a long way in ensuring their safety. “It’s tragic but parents are often totally ignorant about their kid’s life. They must take keen interest in their child’s’ day to day lives, know who are they interacting with, spending time with, whether online or offline. Also, while hiring a housekeeper, a coach or a baby sitter, a thorough check is a must,” says Bhayana.

Human rights activist Ravi Kalra says that children should also have this faith that if they speak up, there will be given a patient hearing and they will be trusted. “Win your child’s faith and let them know that you won’t be upset if they ever confided in you. Also be aware of the warning signs of sexual abuse. There could be emotional and behavioral signs or physical signs. Children should also know how to set limits, and that they should not allow anyone to touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, even if that’s a loved one. Also never blame your child. Never say harsh things to them or hold them accountable for the crime,” says Kalra.

Watch out for these
If you find your child surfing, texting, gaming or using social media obsessively, you have reasons to find out what’s going on in their lives. Also, if the child suddenly seems detached, aloof or irritated after spending time online, you need to know more. “Children facing abuse often try to hide who they are interacting with. Check if they have new phone numbers, social media friends or email addresses on their phone,” says Bhayana. These efforts may seem simple but can go a long way in saving precious lives.