Months of lockdown forced on us due to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused families to connect more and thrive, but it also has created more risk to children staying at home. With school opening still nowhere in sight for several more months, and until a tested vaccine becomes available, children may unknowingly face greater risks at home. I am talking about the risk of online sexual predators. Parents may be busier working from home or watching K dramas or movies while children can get drawn to spending more time online.
The Department of Justice Office of Cybercrime (DOJ-OCC) had 279,166 cases of child exploitation reported from March 1 to May 24, compared to 76,561 cases reported during the same months last year. Most of the cases included child sexual molestation, online enticement of children for sexual acts, manufacture and distribution of child pornography, and child sex trafficking. That means a 264% increase in online sexual exploitation of children in the country during the lockdown period! DOJ-OCC, the NBI and a few other entities already made a joint advisory regarding several Facebook pages like “Mahilig sa Bata”, “Masarap na Bata Spotted”, and “Samahan ng mga Mahihilig sa Bata” that are used to foster and promote the sexual exploitation of children online that parents and children have to be wary of. Sexual predators have become very aggressive in taking advantage of this pandemic and have even come up with a COVID-19 predator handbook that lists ways children could be targeted, manipulated, and exploited during lockdown, according to Australia’s e-safety commissioner (The Guardian).
One of the terms parents need to be aware of is grooming. This is when the predator befriends a child with the intention of abusing for sexual purposes. Chat rooms featuring subjects that interest children and teenagers such as music, sports, fashion, art are prime targets. Predators visit these sites to look for a child they will take fancy on. They assess the target by using the latter’s online presence to deceive him/her by pretending to have the same interests, family background and others to gain friendship and trust. They also assess their risk of being exposed and check if parents or others monitor the child’s use of gadgets and what they do online. Once they gain the child’s friendship, they try to get into an exclusive relationship maintained in secrecy to isolate the child.
Together with the online sexual predators, there is also the risk from desperate (or despicable?) parents. The danger for children in homes increases with families not being reached with or not getting enough government help in this difficult time. It also increases with rising unemployment as about 2000 companies have declared permanent closure, redundancy or retrenchment according to DOLE. In Davao region alone, around 200,000 are about to lose their jobs because of such closure and retrenchment. With increasing poverty and the desperation to live any which way, parents or relatives themselves may yield to the temptation to earn money opening the door for these online predators. The country already has topped the list for online sexual exploitation of children, and the 7-year study of the International Justice Mission in the country showed that parents and relatives are the ones facilitating this online exploitation of children.
So what safeguards could we set up or what actions could be taken to protect vulnerable children in our homes? The following are some practical ideas.
For concerned parents or relatives: Talk about online safety and responsible use of gadgets, such as not filling, sending out or revealing personal information about themselves and family. Make sure your child follows age restrictions set by social networking sites. Discuss grooming and tactics used by predators and warning them that what people they just get to know online may not tell the truth about themselves. Supervise and limit the children’s use of gadgets and engage them in productive things to do. Monitor children’s online use and sites they visit. Install parental control software (ex. Puresight) on the gadgets they use to identify and block or alert parents on harmful content in chats and other forums. Alert them of the danger of going into public chat rooms where predators look for opportunities to meet unsuspecting children to victimize.
For teachers and others: Reach out and check on your students and their families. Ask about their psychological wellbeing and how they are coping. Outgoing children may be having difficulty adjusting to the new normal, so they need interested listening ears to talk with aside from the family they are with 24/7. Be observant of any signs of depression or demotivation. Advise children on responsible and safe usage of their time online.
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