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The Increased Risks of Online Child Sexual Exploitation during COVID-19 and What You Can Do to Prevent It; A Parent’s Guide

Summary

If you are a parent or guardian of a child that that spends time online, especially during COVID-19, this guide is for you! Through this guide you will:

  • Understand what online child sexual exploitation is, who the offenders are and how they approach children online
  • Know where online children are more exposed to risks
  • Explore different protective measures to keep children’s online experience safe
  •  Receive useful tips to overcome challenges to communication with your child during COVID-19

The lives and regular routines of the approximate 6 million children that live in Cambodia have been affected by COVID-19, forcing them to move to online alternatives for both study and socialising. While online alternatives provide safety from the virus, and many benefits for a child’s wellbeing and development, there are also risks that rise with the excess online use of children, one of the most prominent of them being the increased exposure to risk of sexual exploitation online.

Online child sex offenders are taking advantage of the situation where more children spend more time online to reach out to them to sexually exploit them. Lack of awareness on the points of exposure to risks by both children and parents alike, enable offenders to exploit the vulnerabilities of children online and lure them into abusive contact. 

As a parent or guardian of a child, you have the ability to help prevent these risks for children and mitigate their exposure to online risks. This guide will provide you with the main information on online risks, and tools to help you stay involved in children’s online lives, educate them towards smart online choices, and encourage open dialogues and healthy practices with them during this pandemic to keep them safe from online harm.

Let’s start with understanding risks of online child sexual exploitation

As parents, it is scary to think of our children being exposed to danger. We may think that if they are at home within our reach, they are already protected and safe from harm. While they are sitting in the comfort of their room, we may easily overlook the risks involved with their internet access through a computer, smartphone or tablet. However just as children are at risk of sexual exploitation offline, they are exposed to such risks online.

  • Do you know what online child sexual exploitation is?

By definition, it refers to any act of a sexually exploitative nature carried out against a child that have, at some stage, a connection to the online environment.

Online child sexual exploitation can happen to both boys and girls, to both younger and older children, and by offenders who are strangers to a child or someone they already know. It can involve physical contact between the child and the offender where the offender uses online communication to facilitate meeting the child in person to sexually exploit them, or it can also be with no physical contact at all – for instance when an offender requests for, produces and/or distributes pictures and videos of children in sexual situations and positions online.  

  • What we know about offenders and how they approach children online

Online it is very easy for offenders to pretend they are someone they are not. For example, they can use fake names and pictures of younger children to make it easier for other children to trust them and communicate with them. They build relationships by pretending to have similar interests with the child, or by exploiting their emotional or physical necessities. They may offer money or use emotional manipulation and false promises to connect with the child. Once they gain their trust, they will try to sexually exploit them by convincing the child to send sexual material, perform sexually in front of a webcam, or to meet in person for sexual purposes.

A common method used by offenders to make children continue to send them sexual material, involves convincing a child to send one photo and then use it to blackmail or threaten the child to send more material or meet in person.

An example can be seen in a case APLE dealt with where a child was extorted online for sexual purposes. In this case, a 15-year-old girl started communicating on Facebook with someone who looked her age by his picture. They messaged online and exchanged pictures. The offender then used photoshop to make the photo she sent seem as though she was naked and threatened to send it to all her friends if she won’t send him real naked photos of herself. Out of fear, she ended up sending him the pictures he demanded, but the offender didn’t stop there and just asked for more. The girl was frightened and tried to commit suicide, but luckily, she was found in time and rescued. The report ALE received on the online exploitation allowed our hotline analyst to take action towards removing the abusive content from the web, and enabled the girl to receive help.  

It is important to acknowledge that children are never to blame for their abuse, and it is always the offender’s fault. When a child has been sexually exploited online it is normally after they were groomed, tricked, coerced or manipulated into participating in the sexual act by the offender. Even if they actively communicate with their perpetrator and send out sexual material themselves, they do so without fully understanding what they are agreeing to or what the consequences of their actions are.

  • Where on the internet does child sexual exploitation happen?

From our experience and statistics, most of the communication between offenders and children happen on online platforms such as social media, online games, chat rooms and video applications. Examples of popular online platforms include Facebook, TikTok, MobIle Legends Bang Bang, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Instagram.  While, most of these platforms have great benefits for children, as they allow them to stay in contact with friends, learn new things and express their creativity, we should also understand the risks involved.

Each online application has different features that can be used for communication that are taken advantage of by offenders online. Some of the risky behavior children engage in on these applications include sharing private and personal information such as a phone number or home address that can allow offenders to track children. They may upload photos of themselves that can be revealing without understanding that whatever is online is likely to stay online forever, even when erased. And they chat and communicate with people they have never met before online. This risky behavior on these apps increases children’s risk to sexual exploitation online.

 To learn more about different risks on online platforms and how to keep them safe, check here.

  • An important point to remember about the impact of online child sexual exploitation

Whether there was physical contact between the offender and the child or not, online child sexual exploitation is always serious and can have just as devastating effects on a child as when it happens offline. It is essential therefore that any case of online child sexual exploitation will not be ignored and to make sure children will receive help from service providers to ensure that they will be able to restore their wellbeing.

As a parent or guardian of a child, you can ensure your child’s online experience is safe by following protective measures

Even though there are risks for children online, there are many things you can do in order to reduce children’s exposure to these risks and protect them from harm when they are online. Following are a few tips you can apply to promote a safe online experience for your child. 

  • Stay involved in what apps and devices your child uses and how to keep them safe

The internet is constantly changing and advancing and it may not always be easy to keep up with the different applications and their impact on online safety. But staying updated with the changes in online use of children can keep them safe from new risks that may rise.

Ask your child what types of applications they use when they are online. You can ask them to teach you about them if you are less familiar with them and to give you any tips they know on them. This will show interest and involvement in their life and also help you understand what it is they do online.

Once you know what apps they use make sure to set appropriate privacy settings on devices and applications your child uses. It is best when this is done together with them while explaining the importance of doing so.

If you are not familiar with these applications, don’t worry and seek expert’s advice. You may contact APLE to ask for help. 

  • Know who your child is communicating with online and discuss the risks involved

Ask your child who they spend most of their time communicating with online. Is it someone they already know? Do they ever have interactions with people they just met online? What online platforms do they communicate with?

Discuss together how meeting new people online and communicating with friends through social media is fun, but it needs to be done thoughtfully. Help them understand that not everyone who is trying to communicate with them online has good intentions. Explain the dangers of receiving gifts from strangers online, the risks of meeting in person people they just met online, how sending and accepting pictures and files with strangers can be harmful, and how important it is to be critical of anyone sending them a friend request.

If you wish to know more about what questions to ask or how to have an open communication with your child, you can talk to our staff and seek their advice.

  • Encourage your child to make healthy and smart online choices

Talk with your child about the consequences of online actions, and that everything we do online needs to be thought through in advance, just as in the offline world. Being smart online means thinking of what we share with others and making sure it doesn’t include personal information like a phone number, address, or a password to an account. It means not sharing intimate and explicit photos with others, even in private chatrooms. And not opening files from people we don’t know or from unverified sources. It means not accepting friend requests from people we don’t know or agreeing to meet them in person  

If someone ever acts inappropriately with them online, tell them they can block or report the person through the apps they use, but that they should always come and tell you about it if it happens and you will help them.

  • Be alert to change in behavior your child may have as a result of their online activities and be supportive

If you notice your child shows a change in their behavior, for instance becomes more aggressive, sad, anxious or reckless, if they change their eating or sleeping habits, and if they are having troubles at school, these can be signs they may need your assistance and support. See if this increases after the time they spend online and encourage a conversation with them about it.

Even if you see them engaging in an online activity which puts them at risk, be sure not to blame the child for entering the risk and show them that you are there to help them. Once they feel trusted, they are more likely to talk to you about their troubles. Create a safe space for communication and help them feel comfortable coming to you with questions and assure them you are there for them without judgement. This is the first step in ensuring they will ask for help if anything happened.

Remember those signs and stay alert!

  • Know what to do in case of abuse and where to report

If your child wants to share his/her online concern with you or discloses abuse, you should listen attentively without judgment and take what is said seriously. Assure them that they have done nothing wrong. Show empathy and support. Do not interrupt them or ask leading questions. Assure the child that speaking about it and coming to you was the right thing to do. Help them find as much appropriate support as they need or if you wish to file a report, you can call APLE’s 24/7 hotline 092 311 511, or on the internet hotline at www.internethotlinecambodia.org.

Explain to your child that reporting will help remove the abusive images from the web, stop the ongoing abuse and/or enable your child to receive assistance.

If you feel the pandemic is causing extra stress on the relationship with your child, these tips can help strengthen your relationship and encourage healthy practices

Another contributing factor to children’s online safety is setting an environment that encourages healthy practices and open communication. A positive relationship with your child will increase their willingness to share with you their online activities as well as turn to you whenever they are in distress. It will also improve your ability to detect if something is wrong and if they need assistance.

The increased time at home together with your child during this time, may raise challenges and barriers to communication that are new to you that can be difficult to deal with. Following are a few tips to keep the relationship with your child communicative and healthy, especially during the time of the pandemic.

  • Children need structure, and even more so during the time of COVID 19

Without schools or meetings in person with friends, children’s normal routine has been disrupted. The lack of structure is difficult for children and they may not be able to control the balance between time spent online and offline, allowing them to engage most of their time in online activities for entertainment.

It is beneficial to set rules with your child regarding their daily routine – such as a schedule for when they wake up and go to bed, when they study, and of course how much time they spend online, as well as when and where they use the internet. Examples for rules can be allowing an hour online after completion of homework, not going online after dark or not going online while alone in a private room. Providing a structure to their day as well as to their online use helps monitor their time online.

  • Within structure, try to allow children to build their sense of control

In order to make healthy decisions, both online and offline, children need to have a feeling of control over their actions. Allow children to make decisions over what they do whenever the situation allows it, and ask for their opinions regarding what they want. This can include simple choices such as what they want to wear, or who they want to play with. However, be clear upfront that some activities may not be flexible. Once they increase their sense of ownership over life choices, they are more likely to make thoughtful choices online.

  • Encourage activities that keep both mind and body active while spending quality time together

Keeping children occupied with a set of activities other than their online activities, can assist in limiting the time they spend online, and is also beneficial for their general wellbeing.

Something to consider! Give your child simple tasks to help with family chores to enhance their sense of responsibility and involvement in household activities. Do arts and crafts with your child, play games and exercise together regularly to keep the mind and body active and relieve stress. The more children are occupied with physical and mental activities, the less they will feel the need to spend time in front of a screen and consume passive content. It will encourage a healthy lifestyle as well as strengthen the relationship you have with them.

  • Dealing with stress and negative emotions for a constructive relationship

All children misbehave sometimes and especially during these stressful times of uncertainty when anxiety levels are high and more time is spent with children at home, their misbehavior can intensify feelings of frustration and anger towards them. It is important however to stay calm without losing your temper with your child. Children learn better through positive reinforcement rather than by fear of misbehaving.

If you feel you might lose your temper with your child, try to count to 10 before reacting, and think of a calm way of explaining to them appropriate behavior. In order to build a constructive relationship with your child and increase their willingness to be open and honest with you about their online activities, they should feel that you will not overreact to situations and blame them when they are acting inappropriately. They need guidance rather than control. Whenever they act positively, be sure to reinforce their behavior and encourage them they have done well.

We trust you know your child best, so don’t be afraid to try out other measures that allow you to cope with stress and maintain a positive relationship with your child effectively. However, if you need expert’s advice, feel free to reach out to us for help.