Friday, October 29, 2021

Webs of deceit woven to entrap children

Teens are tech savvy but not mature enough to spot and deal with online sexual predators hunting them.

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In a poll carried out by the UN children’s protection arm Unicef, 87% of Malaysian 18-year-olds admit to having friends that engage in “risky online behaviours”.

Nearly 90% of the nation’s girls and 75% of boys reported receiving unwanted sexual comments and requests while exploring the web.

Young people are generally more tech-savvy than their parents about finding their way around the internet, but their developing experience of the adult world may not yet be enough for them to be able to detect when predators are lurking in the web behind their screens.

Teens today use social media for everything, across all their connected devices, but keeping in touch with loved ones as well as making new friends and building relationships comes first for many youngsters.

During the pandemic, forced to isolate at home with their family, the internet has often been the only way they can maintain and expand their social circle and build friendships.

Nearly 90% of the nation’s girls and 75% of boys reported receiving unwanted sexual comments and requests while exploring the web.

Predatory adults are aware of that. They make it their business to know their way around the web enough to find vulnerable teens and stalk, groom and sexually exploit them.

The Unicef report says that online groomers can be strangers or people known to the intended victim.

Once an intended victim has been identified, groomers hide their true intentions with attention, flattery and, when they can get close enough – gifts.

When their trap has been set and the bait taken, groomers set up meetings where they can try to achieve their real aim: to sexually exploit their victims.

Sometimes they are successful.

One survivor who wanted to be known only as Andrea recently shared her trauma online on social media and agreed to speak with MalaysiaNow.

“You’re not only groomed for sex, but you’re also groomed to keep quiet,” she said.

“My parents were working most of the time, so apart from holidays and festivals there wasn’t much family time. After school, I spent most of my time on the internet.”

Andrea was approached on Facebook by a man who said he was five years older than her.

“I was alone at home and felt kind of safe to have someone other than my family to count on.”

Predators are patient and it took a while but eventually Andrea and her unseen groomer developed a friendly rapport which eventually turned into an intimate relationship.

After meeting up a couple of times, she was pressured into sexual activities with him.

“I didn’t know what I was doing. He took me to a hotel for a date and insisted that I kept it a secret from my friends and family. He had sex with me even though I was resisting.”

After the incident, the man gave Andrea a ride home.

She never spoke to him again as she ignored his texts and didn’t answer his calls.

“You’re not only groomed for sex, but you’re also groomed to keep quiet.”

She kept her guilty secret for years but eventually told her parents about it and received treatment for the post-traumatic stress and depression the incident had caused.

“When I finished the treatment, I decided to share my experiences on Twitter to try and get some closure and to let young people know about this threat. Children and parents need to know there are people like that on social media.”

A Malaysian child-sex offenders register was launched in 2019 which contains the names of at least 3,000 paedophiles.

Ecpat International is a global network of organisations that works to end the sexual exploitation of children. It released a report which lists Malaysia as a sex tourism destination and an “exporter” of sex predators to neighbouring countries.

Child welfare organisations want to tighten laws such as the Children’s Act 2001 to limit the likelihood of predators successfully preying upon the underaged.

But as Andrea can attest, deterring persistent online predators is not so easily done.

The internet is everywhere and connecting with just about anyone you desire is only a click away.

The Big Bad Wolf appears in several cautionary tales for children and has become a generic archetypical menacing predator.

For some, he can become all too real.

Andrea is a survivor now and is becoming a guide and teacher.

She shudders as she describes her experiences to MalaysiaNow.

“They’re always out there, and all we can do now is teach kids about them.”

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