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There is a need to step up the monitoring of children’s activities on the Internet, where groomers lurk anonymously. (Inset) Richard Huckle, dubbed ‘Britain’s worst-ever paedophile’.
Eneng Faridah Iskandar

DANGEROUS LIAISONS: With paedophiles on the prowl online, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s ‘Klik Dengan Bijak’ advocacy and outreach division senior director, Eneng Faridah Iskandar, tells June Moh how groomers operate

Q: What is grooming?

A: It is when predators build an emotional connection with children to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation. This can happen both offline and online, and involve people who the children know as well as strangers.

Many children and youth who had been groomed do not comprehend what had happened to them and that it counts as abuse. Confessions from victims have shown that they were not aware about what it (grooming) was until they were older.

Q: What is the groomers’ modus operandi?

A: They use social media websites, instant messaging apps, including dating apps, and gaming platforms to connect with children. They spend time learning about children’s interests from their online profiles and use this knowledge to build relationships with their victims. It is easy for groomers to hide their identities online. They might pretend to be children, and chat and become friends with their targets.

They search for photos of children posted by unsuspecting social media users. They constantly search for such photos. It is their interest.

The first thing that groomers do is identify the places where their victims regularly go.

It is also about children’s degree of exposure on the Internet. It is better to not expose your children to social media until they can decide whether they want an online presence. Sometimes, parents inadvertently make available information about their children online, which open them up to exploitation.

Q: Is a particular age group targeted by groomers?

A: Some groomers pick children who are undergoing puberty. This is when children are beginning to be self-aware and self-conscious about their appearance. At this stage, they tend to want somebody to reassure them of their self-worth.

To gain their trust, groomers pretend to be people that the children can lean on for support. They give the children gifts, and shower them with praise and attention.

Once they have gained their victims’ trust, they start controlling them. They intimidate their victims and isolate them from friends and family, making the children feel dependent on them.

Children can be controlled easily, so groomers use scare tactics and threats to pressure their victims to give in. Groomers blackmail, shame and make children feel guilty until they feel like they are left with no choice, but to completely trust these predators.

Once children are groomed,  sexual abuse can happen, even without them being physically touched. When children send sexual images of themselves to groomers, it is a form of sexual abuse, regardless of whether the victims had been forced or persuaded, or otherwise. Some cases involve children taking part in sexual activities via webcams or mobile phones, and engaging in sexual conversations with groomers.

Q: How do you detect grooming activities?

A: They are difficult to detect, and can happen both online and offline. Groomers can be either strangers or people the children know personally.

The risks of cybergrooming are high because wider “reach” and sexual abuse can happen online. There is no specific profile when it comes to groomers. They can be men or women of any age.

Q: What are the signs that children have been victimised?

A: There are changes in the children’s emotional state and they display behavioural problems, such as being withdrawn from family and friends, and isolating themselves from social activities.

They may be extremely secretive about their online activities and meet people you have not heard of in unusual places.

Q: How big a role does social media play in these cases? Can you provide statistics relating to Internet use?

A: By 12, most children own mobile phones. The majority of children use their mobile phones to access the Internet.

A 2014 survey by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) showed that 59 per cent of the 20.1 million Internet users in Malaysia were under 30. Among them, 15.5 per cent were below 19.

Broadband penetration increased from 31.7 per cent in 2009 to 72.2 per cent last year. Wherever there is rapid broadband penetration and an increase in social media use, we often see a corresponding increase in abuse cases.

Q: How do we prevent children from falling prey to groomers?

A: Parents are responsible for their children’s online safety. They can install safety applications to keep tabs on their children’s mobile phone activities to protect them from potential harm.

The MCMC survey showed that 73.2 per cent of parents admitted to checking the content of their children’s mobile phones. Most parents set rules on their children’s mobile phone use.

For example, 58.8 per cent of parents limit the number of calls their children make, 46.8 per cent set limits on the duration of conversations and 55.2 per cent use “phone grounding”.

Parents should be involved in their children’s online life. You have to know their movements because they are not going to volunteer the information you need.

I do not encourage “phone grounding” as a form of punishment because it is counter-productive, as mobile phones are a tool for children to obtain information.

There are other ways to monitor their online activities, such as installing software and applications like Net Nanny, WebWatcher and McAfee Safe Eyes. These software and applications have extensive features to monitor and extract information from mobile phones and tablets, and allow for remote management when it comes to chatting history, emails, websites visited, usernames and passwords.

The key message to parents is to use the applications that are available. Many things can help you monitor your children’s movements online. The applications send reports to you about the websites your children visit and the people they chat with. You cannot remain ignorant.

Teach kids SMART rules to avoid falling prey online

SAFETY: Keep safe by not giving out personal information, such as name, email address, phone number, home address and school, to strangers.

MEET: Meeting someone you have only recently met online can be dangerous. Do so only with the permission of parents or carers, and ensure that they are present.

ACCEPT: Accepting emails, messages and files from people you do not know or trust can be dangerous, as the documents may contain viruses or nasty content.

RELIABILITY: People you know online may be lying about who they are, and the information you find on the Internet may not always be credible.

TELL: Inform parents, carers or trusted adults if there are people or things that make you feel uncomfortable or worried.

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