Asia’s families must be empowered to combat online abuse

May 30, 2023 by Roland Angerer, Regional Director Asia, ChildFund International

Digital technologies have revolutionized the way children learn, socialize and entertain. Their significance was profoundly felt during the COVID-19 pandemic when many children confined at home were still able to continue their education, pursue hobbies and connect with friends.

However, with this enormous opportunity has come enormous risks to children’s safety, as online spaces have been increasingly instrumentalized by predators with sinister intentions.

At any given time, an estimated 750,000 individuals are looking to connect with children online for sexual purposes, according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. A research project completed earlier this year involving Interpol and UNICEF and covering six Southeast Asian countries found that as many as 20% of children had been subjected to some form of online abuse.

The Philippines is a hub of child sexual abuse material production and UNICEF has classified 80% of Filipino children as vulnerable to online sexual abuse. In Cambodia, 11% of internet users between 12 and 17 years of age have been subjected to online sexual exploitation and abuse including sextortion, sharing of sexual images without permission, and coerced sexual activities.

Children are not only spending more time online but are also getting connected a lot younger. Over 200,000 children globally go online for the first time each day. Around 800 million actively use social media.

Teenagers are spending an average of nine hours a day online but are often ill-equipped to tackle online threats and risks. While some of these may be managed easily, others can seriously impact their mental and physical health.

Online child sexual exploitation and abuse come in many forms. Some of the cruelest manifestations include cyberbullying and sextortion. Sometimes sex offenders connect with children online to groom them for the purpose of producing child sexual abuse material, which may then be distributed or used for extortion purposes. Offenders may even live stream sexual abuse through webcams or smartphones.

A recent study by ChildFund International found that half of Indonesia’s high school and college students bully others online while 60% have themselves been bullied online in the last three months. This cyberbullying has included nonconsensual sharing of private information, stalking, defamation, harassment, sexual abuse, threats, and extortion.

Child victims often keep quiet about sexual abuse due to fear and possible stigma. This can get them entangled in a vicious circle.

Their silence mars their physical and mental health which can result in psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, trauma, self-harm, and drug and alcohol abuse. This in turn can lead to offending behavior, missing school or dropping out, issues with intimacy, homelessness, and unemployment.

Parents and caregivers are often unaware of their children’s digital activities due to a lack of exposure to ever-evolving technologies including social apps, gaming arenas, and chatrooms. They struggle to keep pace with new media and this tends to widen the gap between parents and children and deters open discussion about digital risks and how to avoid them.

For example, consider the Philippines, where as many as 95% of children aged 12 to 17 report regular internet use but 28% of caregivers have never been online. Among caregivers over 50, almost half have not been online before.

We need to empower children to identify signs of risks that could expose them to online abuse and exploitation while at the same time establishing communication channels and structures which can make them confident about reaching out to trusted and trained adults who could help to nip incidents in the bud. Parents, caregivers, and teachers must also get familiarized with new media and be able to hold open conversations with children about digital issues.

“The biggest risk online is that your information is accessible to everyone and might be used against you without your knowledge,” says Cyndee, a child advocate in the Philippines for online safety. “I pledge to inform my friends and family about the dangers of the internet and to keep my posts and accounts private.

“I appeal to the policymakers to enhance current regulations and guidelines for online child safety,” she says.

Educating children about online risks can be a game-changer. To enable children and young people to safely navigate online spaces, ChildFund in Australia developed a training program that takes an ecological approach to online safety, ensuring that children, caregivers, the community, and the government are equipped to support children and young people to make the most of the online world.

It is also important to strengthen laws and policies to protect children from online exploitation and abuse. ChildFund has launched an online child safety campaign to raise awareness and directly influence the Asia-Pacific region’s legal environment and political framework. The project also aims to deepen conversation among stakeholders including children, parents, caregivers, community leaders, and governments.

The campaign also can help to engage technology companies, media, and civil society to discuss, share best practices, and find solutions to fill the voids that give child offenders porous ground for abuse and exploitation of children online, often without real risk of punishment.

We cannot afford to deprive our younger generation of the benefits digital technologies have to offer. However, it is also every child’s human right to be able to navigate online spaces safely and equitably.

We need to act together strategically and quickly to ensure that children are protected from all forms of violence online. Inaction is not an option.

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