Three years ago, actress and TV host Daphne Iking posted a photograph of her then six-month-old daughter Iman on Facebook. The happy mother didn’t think twice about her post until someone commented on it, urging her to take down the photo lest it attract unwanted attention from perverts who prey online.
“I was horrified at the suggestion. Iman was in her onesie and sleeping with her legs slightly apart as babies do. How on earth could an innocent photo of a small baby attract paedophiles or perverts?” Iking recalls.
Nevertheless, the comment troubled Iking. Later that same night, she watched a documentary on online sexual predators which jolted her into realising just how real a threat they are.
Since then, Iking has been vigilant in protecting her daughters’ privacy online.
“I still post photos of them but I follow a simple rule. I ask myself, “If I post this, could it hurt my child or any of us in any way. We also don’t share private information like where we live or what school they go to. I always switch off the location settings on my mobile phone too. Most personal photos on our social media are only open to those we trust anyway,” says Iking who also has a seven-year-old daughter, Isobel.
Iking says that while she and her family embrace technology, she is careful about what she chooses to share with the world.
“If I am away from them, I don’t mention this on my social media platforms. When we go on family holidays, I don’t post photos up in real time. When I take photos of their friends, I don’t share them either. I don’t ever post naked photos of my children, like those of them in the bathtub playing with foam, no matter how cute or innocent they are to me.
“It may seem harmless but the photos could end up being downloaded by someone for their own ‘viewing pleasure’,” shares the 37-year-old mother.
Her fears are not unfounded. Comedian Harith Iskandar had a rude shock recently when he was notified by Google Alerts that photos of his son had been uploaded on a pornographic website.
The father of two was “disturbed and disgusted” and immediately reported the site to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) who reportedly got the site to remove the photos. MCMC also blocked the site.
Once online always online
As parents in this digital age, Iking has recognised that being online exposes her children to dangers beyond her known circle of family and friends.
Once a photo goes online, it’s hard to know where it may end up.
“The bottom rule is, assume everything you share online is public. You can apply all the (security) lockdowns in the world but if your phone is lost and you are logged in, your data is available to others. For most of us, no one is interested in exploiting us. But there is a small group of us who are unfortunate and we might become targets of exploitation. We need to be aware,” says Dr Sangeet Bhullar, founder and executive director of Wise Kids, a British non-profit company promoting innovative, positive and safe Internet use. She was recently in Kuala Lumpur to train police personnel about online literacy and safety issues.
Although evidence shows that children are far more likely to be sexually exploited in real life by people known to them, it doesn’t mean such incidents don’t happen online, adds Sangeet.
Parents should consider the implications of sharing their children’s photos online and resist the impulse to “overshare”, says MCMC’s outreach and engagement division Eneng Faridah Iskandar.
“Apart from checking their privacy settings on social media, parents should also not regard them as photo albums or storage for their children’s photos. Be aware that some social media sites obtain rights to your images once you upload them. Social media sites often add new features and update their own settings.
“Most importantly, remember that once a photo is uploaded, it is very difficult to remove all traces of it. So, think before you upload the photos,” cautions Eneng.
According to Unicef’s Child Safety Online: Global Challenges and Strategies report 2011, the number of child abuse images (images that sexualise children in any way) online runs into the millions while the number of individual children depicted is in the tens of thousands.
“An important difference between an image online and one offline is that once online, an image can remain in circulation in perpetuity and there is almost no limit on how often or by whom it can be viewed and passed on,” the report observes.
The task of protecting children from predators becomes even more challenging when they begin navigating the Internet on their own.
Children who are the most vulnerable to online predators, Eneng points out, tend to be new to online activity, unfamiliar with online etiquette, isolated or lonely, confused about their sexual identity or seeking attention or affection which they may not feel they are getting in real life.
“Although MCMC has not undertaken research on children who may likely be targeted by sexual predators online, young adolescents are most likely the most vulnerable to online predators.
“They are exploring their sexuality and may be moving away from parental control and looking for new relationships outside the family. Under the guise of anonymity, they are more likely to take risks without fully understanding the possible implications,” says Eneng.
In Malaysia, child sexual crimes both online and in real life are under-reported. But the police recognises the threat of pedophiles and child sexual offenders who prey on children online. Bukit Aman’s Sexual, Women and Child Investigation division (D11) is in the process of setting up a child cyber sex crime unit where officers will be trained in cyber investigations with the co-operation from international police and intelligence outfits.
In an earlier interview with The Star, D11’s assistant principle director Asst Comm Ong Chin Lan says that one of the difficulties they face is that child pornographers and pedophiles operate underground.
“And, with the Internet, their reach is even wider,” she said in the report, adding that ICT has led to instances of unsolicited pornography - where children are not even aware that the photos they shared with friends are being circulated among a network of predators.
Vulnerable to grooming
According to Unicef, abusers often look for children to “groom” in chat rooms, social networking sites and instant messaging applications.
Grooming - the process of befriending, establishing an emotional connection with and seducing the child - can take minutes or months, depending on the abuser’s goals and the reaction of the child, states Unicef in its 2011 report.
Parents have to be alert to whom their children are communicating with online and signs that they could be at risk, says Eneng.
“Some of the common signs could be if the child spends more time online in chat rooms or if he or she receives phone calls from strangers or makes calls to unrecognised numbers, receives packages or mail from unfamiliar people these could all be a signs of potential danger,” she says.
Online predators often try to drive a wedge between children and their friends and family to gain their trust and dependency, she says.
Although children are quick to latch on to and learn about new technology, they aren’t always aware of the consequences of their actions, warns Sangeet.
“Children are often very confident to try new things and experiences but this doesn’t mean they know the social consequences of their interactions,” she says.
It is crucial to teach children about Internet safety. Here are some tips to help parents with this vital task.
Get up to speed
As challenging as it is, parents need to get online and understand the emerging new technologies their children are on – no matter how complicated or time consuming.
“Parents need to get up to speed. Most know about Facebook but not so much about the newer platforms children are on. But they must get involved. Find out what your children are on, learn about trends and talk to your children. Mostly, talk to your children,” says Dr Sangeet Bhullar, an expert on Internet safety.
Involve and engage
With all the dangers lurking online, a common, knee-jerk reaction would be to block or restrict a child’s access to the virtual world.
But families need to strike a balance between freedom and protection. The Internet is a tool for our children to communicate, build their identity and inform themselves, but parents also want to keep them safe.
Sangeet suggests that it would be smarter to teach children how to think critically.
“Don’t scare them or forbid them from going online. Talk to them about real cases and ask them about what they are doing. Involve them in the discussion.
“Children respond positively when you engage them and give them the space to respond.
“Educate your children about what is appropriate and what is not. Teach them to recognise when something feels wrong or if they feel their rights have been transgressed,” says Sangeet.
Know the risks
Make sure your children are aware of the risks of online predators.
“Talk to your children about online predators and the (potential) dangers of the Internet. Understand the features of your child’s phone or tablet so that you can answer their questions and provide the guidance they need.
“Make it a point to know who is connecting with your children online and set rules for social networking, instant messaging, emailing, online gaming an using webcams,” says MCMC’s outreach and engagement division director Eneng Faridah Iskandar.
She also suggests setting up the computer in a common area in the house, instead of the child’s bedroom.
“This way, you will be able to monitor their usage and the time they spend online,” she says.
This Child Safety Awareness campaign is brought to you by RHB Banking Group in collaboration with The Star.