Predators on the loose With online sexual abuse rising amid a pandemic, parents and society have a role to play in improving internet literacy in young children who are most at-risk

Going online to connect with over 1,000 Facebook friends through posts of daily activities was the lifeline Nan* craved after each school lesson.

In the hopes of raking in likes and views, her life had become an open book. Everything from her deep-seated insecurities and vulnerabilities to her privileged upbringing made her the perfect victim for child grooming.

It started with a friend request from a young man with handsome model-like features, who quickly gained her trust. After hours on the phone, they began face-timing and that is when their relationship began to take a flirtatious turn. Nan was smitten by his good looks and gallantry and his weeks of efforts paid off as he cajoled her into stripping in front of a webcam.

This went on for weeks and his demand that she perform sexual acts in front of the camera become more bizarre. He threatened to release video clips he had recorded of her online when she wanted to end their relationship. This was when she was forced to tell her unsuspecting parents who then reached out to law enforcement for help.

Online sexual abuse of underage boys and girls has drastically risen during the pandemic, said Peabprom Mekhiyanont, deputy superintendent of Thailand’s internet crimes against children police bureau. Cases such as Nan are common and keep happening.

“Since the start of the pandemic, online child sex abuse cases have risen from 120,000 to 160,000 within a year. A rise of 40,000 cases is disturbing,” she said.

“Sexual abuse take on various forms and the demand for younger victims continues to grow. We have seen that the lure of easy money appeals to both rich and poor alike. What they don’t realise is how they end up having to pay back what they have earned. Blackmailing is a weapon used to keep victims in this situation. Online clips of this kind spread like wildfire and such offences are often repeated because of the number of hands these videos go through. People in possession of such material also intend to sell it, so it is a never-ending cycle.”

By investigating such crimes, Peabprom suggests a concentrated drive to improve internet literacy among Thai children as they tend to lay bare their life online. From posts describing their breakups to checking into every place they visit offers ammunition that child groomers can use against them.

Moreover, she said that in an effort to increase the number of Facebook friends, they add everyone that sends them a friend request “which in itself is a perilous move as they could be paedophiles in disguise”.

A disturbing pattern Peabprom has observed in certain cases is how some parents, mothers, in particular, are reluctant to report crimes to law enforcement because they desire to emotionally protect their children from reliving the experience during an investigation.

“This for police investigators can be unnerving because they will come to us for help, however, they do not want to see the case receive media attention because they feel a sense of fear and shame. They are ashamed of what society will think of the child and afraid that the perpetrator will hunt them down if a criminal charge is filed.

“While we need to reform our police protection system to assure victims they can file charges against an offence, we also need to collectively encourage parents to support us in bringing down the dark forces behind online child sex abuse.”

The police officer said one of the most vulnerable groups of children are kids under the age of 10. Offenders view them as easy prey for obvious reasons, she noted, so they often suffer long durations of sexual abuse which is often taped and uploaded online for audiences.

“It is not just strangers but sometimes people you know and respect that molest your child and put the taped act online. To protect their privacy, they blur their faces. This is exactly what happened to a middle-class military family who ran a restaurant business. The wife shared with me how she never allowed their five-year-old daughter out of her sight while she cooked for patrons. However, one afternoon, her husband’s boss came to order food. He was a man their family highly respected so she let down her guard momentarily and focused on preparing his order. He excused himself to use the toilet.”

“It was at this moment that he molested the girl, recorded the act, blurred his face and posted it on a popular app. After several weeks, her eldest daughter happened to come across this particular clip online and was able to identify the child by her dress. She quickly brought this to the attention of her parents. Luckily, the father of the victim did not bow under pressure and notified the police.”

Peabprom said the environment today has become dangerous and thus it has become necessary to teach young children to know the importance of not allowing anyone to touch their genitals and that if it ever happens to notify their parents.

“What we see today is highly disturbing. It is a call to protect this generation of children from paedophiles, who mind you can sometimes come in the garb of ‘powerful’ men who use their money and authority to lure children. These are also men that believe they are above the law, so they use intimidation to silence victims’ families.”

Peabprom encourages families and society as a whole to come together in protecting children today.

“Children need to feel that someone has their back no matter what. They need love and acceptance and a feeling of belonging. We as adults have to find time in our busy schedule to build their character because if we don’t, someone else will, which could very well lead them down the road of a destructive lifestyle.”

*Not her real name.

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