Threats and Dangers for Children in Digital World

Numerous studies have shown that excessive use of technology is bad for our physical, social and mental well-being. One of the biggest risks is the misuse of the internet and information technologies, and children are vulnerable to Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (OCSEA). OCSEA refers to a variety of sexually exploitative and harmful behaviours that take place or are facilitated online and through the use of information technologies.

The risks to which children are exposed when using ICT are many and varied. Children who use ICT excessively and are not supervised are at high risk of being exposed to sexual content that is easily accessible online. Exposure to such explicit content increases children and young people’s vulnerability to sexual abuse and exploitation. This can also lead to children developing various ‘sexual illiteracies’ and viewing such behaviour as normal and acceptable due to the lack of communication and discussion on the topic. This makes children an easy target for predators who lure children to produce child sexual abuse material. Since many children are not aware of the biological aspects of their bodies, the sexual arousal of viewing pornography can trigger feelings of guilt and anxiety in the child. Unfortunately, pornography, sexual abuse of children and cyber crimes against children are issues that are rarely discussed in Pakistan due to the shame and stigma associated with them. If a child is exposed to sexual content at a very young age, he or she may become de-sensitised to sex and be tempted to engage in sexual behaviour at a young age.

Moreover, ICT provide a platform where children can easily meet strangers. According to one survey, more than 40 per cent of children chat online with strangers on social media and gaming platforms that they would never meet in real life (Cybersafe Kids 2019). Children are particularly vulnerable to being manipulated by adults they meet online. Once an online relationship is established, the groomer often steers the conversation towards sex. The child may be pressured into taking explicit photos or videos of themselves and sending them to the groomer. Many think this is fun and safe at first, partly because they trust the person and do not meet the person in person. After the criminals have one or more videos or images, they threaten to publish this content online, or they threaten violence to get the victim to produce more images. The shame, fear and confusion children feel when caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse.

Stages of Online Grooming

Grooming, unlike most other forms of child sexual abuse (CSA), is often an insidious process. Although grooming is case-specific and looks different for each victim, the following stages can be observed in most cases.

  1. Targeting: Perpetrators seek out children by creating false profiles on the internet, often by pretending to be a child in the same age group and contacting them online. Often the perpetrators target children in their close circle of friends or family.
  2. Gaining access: The perpetrator builds trust with the child by making them feel special, sometimes through gifts or excessive compliments and attention.
  3. Trust Development: The perpetrator becomes a constant presence in the child’s life and gives the appearance of a friendly or even romantic relationship.
  4. Desensitisation to sexual content and touch: Once a certain level of trust has been established, the groomer begins to desensitise the child to touch and sexual content, for example by establishing physical proximity or exposing the child to sexual content, in order to create an environment for child sexual abuse (CSA) and child sexual exploitation.
  5. Maintaining control: Perpetrators often use secrecy and feelings of shame to maintain control over the child. In some cases, perpetrators use self-created intimate content to blackmail children into prolonging the abusive relationship.

Source: INHOPE

It is important to recognise that OCSEA is also related to offline sexual exploitation and abuse of children, as some individuals may use the internet or other technologies to facilitate their offline abuse, for example by grooming children through online platforms or using the internet to find and contact children to exploit them.

A 15-year-old boy, Grade 8 student, narrated in a witness statement that he was introduced to the offender by his friend, who later started taking pictures on his mobile phone and over time he lured the victim and took nude pictures of him, after which the offender started blackmailing him to satisfy his unnatural lust. The victim also narrated details of how he was taken to different places where the abuser blackmailed him, committed unnatural offences and made nude films.

While some child sexual abuse material depicts children in great distress and the sexual abuse is obvious, other images or videos show children who appear complacent. However, just because a child appears unconcerned does not mean that sexual abuse has not taken place. Often, perpetrators “groom” their victims, i.e. they build a relationship with a child and gradually sexualise contact with them50. Most often, the abuse is an ongoing victimisation that goes on for months or years, rather than a single incident. In order to desensitise a child or weaken their resistance to sexual abuse, a false sense of trust and authority is built up towards the child. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that the abuse may have started earlier than the image was created, even if the child seems comfortable in it.

The production of child sexual abuse material (videos, images, etc.) creates a permanent record of a child’s sexual abuse. Victims of online child sexual exploitation and abuse suffer not only from the sexual abuse inflicted on them to produce child sexual abuse content, but also from the knowledge that their images and videos can be traded and viewed by others worldwide. Once the material is published on the internet, it is irretrievable and can continue to circulate without any control.

Victims are often re-victimised for the rest of their lives, knowing that the images and videos will be available on the internet forever. The children who are exploited in these images have to live with the permanence, longevity and spread of such a record of their sexual abuse. This often leads to long-term psychological damage to the children, including disruption of sexual development, self-image and the development of trusting relationships with others in the future. Many victims of OCSEA suffer feelings of helplessness, fear, humiliation, and lack of control as their images are forever visible to others.

OCSEA affects children of all ages, backgrounds, socio-economic status, gender and vulnerability. The perpetrators can come from all countries, regardless of age and gender. It is important that parents, educators, and caregivers educate children about these risks and help them use technology safely and responsibly. This includes setting appropriate limits on screen time, monitoring online activity, using parental control tools to filter content and restrict access to certain websites and apps, and ensure dialogue with children about such issues, and a parental awareness on how to react and what to do – and not to do- if the child discloses any threat or abuse experienced online.

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