When his father passed away suddenly during the pandemic, 14-year-old Ethan* (not his real name) was very sad and depressed. Being really close to his father, Ethan missed him greatly.
His mother, who had to support the family, buried herself in her work to overcome her sadness, and didn’t spend much time with him.
As a result, the only child turned to social media to seek comfort. He started spending more and more time in the virtual world. Even after his online studies, he would be on social media, making new friends and chit-chatting with them, especially with one particular “new friend”.
“I felt sad and depressed, and Ben* helped me get through the hard time. He always made me feel comfortable and happy,” says Ethan, revealing that Ben was older than him, at 24.
After several months of chatting, playing games online, and exchanging photos, they decided to meet up.
“We met up several times during the movement control order to lepak (hang out),” he adds.
It was always “harmless fun” until one day when Ben invited Ethan back to his place.
“He said he wanted to lepak somewhere more comfortable, play some games and watch movies together,” reveals Ethan.
But it wasn’t just games and movies. Ben engaged in some “physical activities” with Ethan, which the former filmed and posted online, unknown to Ethan.
It only came to light when some of Ethan’s schoolmates saw the images and raised the alarm.
Young and vulnerable
According to the “Disrupting Harm in Malaysia” report by Unicef (2022), at least 4% of Internet-using children aged between 12 and 17 in Malaysia are subject to online child sexual exploitation and abuse, which include being blackmailed to engage in sexual activities, having their sexual images shared without their permission, and being coerced to engage in sexual activities through promises of money or gifts.
Scaled to the population, this represents an estimated 100,000 children who may have been subjected to any of these abuse within the span of a year. The report also states that the number is likely to be underreported due to the common discomfort of discussing or disclosing sexual abuse.
There are many types of abuse that children are in danger of online, including online grooming, sexting, cyberbullying and trolling, says social worker Yeap Yen Ping, who is also project officer at Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) Penang.
Children and teenagers are especially vulnerable to online groomers and can be easily taken advantage of, she adds.
“Predators might befriend a child online, using tactics to gain their trust such as praising them, giving them gifts, and playing online games with them.
“They might have conversations on topics that the child is interested in such as Blackpink (K-pop group) or PUBG (online game),” says Yeap.
“Predators might learn the child’s language, and lead them on so that they’ll believe the predator is also a child,” she adds.
According to Yeap, this can happen on different online platforms such as WhatsApp or Telegram groups, social media such as Instagram or Facebook, applications such as MiChat, and even through activities such as “promoting numbers” where a child’s phone number is forwarded by his/her friends to others, in the hope of enlarging their circle of friends. In certain apps, there’s also a location function where one can search for “friends” close by to chat with.
“Children are vulnerable because they can easily trust someone. They think they’re just getting to know more friends, especially during the pandemic when they’re at home and can’t go out. But, even after the pandemic, many children have continued their online activities because they find it fun.
“They may think they’re increasing their circle of friends, but they don’t realise that a minute detail like giving out their phone number might get them into trouble,” she says.
Yeap highlights that for most child assault, molest or rape cases, the perpetrator is known to the victim.
“The principle of online grooming is they’re not really strangers. Often, it’s someone they go out with after chatting online and getting to know them,” she explains.
Yeap says that it’s not uncommon for an online predator to initially meet up with the child at a public place but later proceed to a private location where the abuse occurs. And, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t impact just girls, but boys too.
Education is key
Another type of online child sexual exploitation and abuse is sexting, a portmanteau of the words “sex” and “texting”. It is defined by Britannica.com as “the sending or receiving of sexual words, pictures, or videos via technology, typically a mobile phone”, or via social media platforms.
An international study by Jama Paediatrics entitled “Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behaviour Among Youth” (2018) revealed that about 15% of teenagers have shared a sexually explicit image or video of themselves over the Internet or via phone messaging, and 27% have received a sext. And about 12%-13% of youth have forwarded a sext – whether an explicit photo or video – to another person without the consent of the sender.
“When I conduct body safety programmes in primary schools, sometimes, children will tell me that people have sent them explicit photos or videos, and ask me what they should do,” she says.
“And, as children progress to their teenage years, it’s only natural that they’re curious about their bodies and might start exposing themselves and sharing their intimate photos and videos to compare themselves with their peers,” she adds. “Some teens are also sharing such intimate stuff to their boyfriend or girlfriend.”
However, they haven’t grasped the consequences of sexting, says Yeap.
“They don’t realise that the intimate pictures or videos they share could end up in the wrong hands, resulting in blackmail or cyberbullying and a ruined reputation and future.
“Once such images or videos have been sent out, you can’t control how they’re used, who they’re forwarded to, or whose hands they fall into,” she says.
“This is why sex education is so important so they can learn to safeguard themselves. We have to educate the young ones that sharing or forwarding such intimate materials might firstly, put them at high risk of exploitation, and secondly, that it’s wrong under Malaysian law. If caught, they could be fined or jailed, or both,” she concludes.