By Hiruni Jayaratne –
“Millions of children around the world are at increased risk of online sexual exploitation, violence, and cyberbullying as they spend more time on virtual platforms due to the closing of schools amid COVID-19 lockdown.” – United Nations,(UNICEF)
Covid-19 is an ongoing so-called global health crisis and one of the major threats globally. This subsequently identified as the pathogen named Corona Virus and currently breeds in different variants in around the world. Sri Lanka is also facing this ongoing crisis and She rapidly mobilizing its minimum resources to control the ongoing pandemic with the support of efficient state-funded health services and defense professionals. Children who contract COVID-19 appear to have less severe symptoms and lower mortality rates than other age groups (HRW). But in other ways, COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on Children with potentially negative and positive impacts. Especially More than 1.5 billion students are out of school, and widespread job and income loss and economic insecurity are likely to increase rates of Child labor, Sexual Exploitation, Teenage Pregnancy, and Child Marriage. Stresses on families, particularly those living under quarantines, lockdowns, and other restrictions on freedom of movement, may increase the incidence of violence in the home. As the global death toll from COVID-19 increases, large numbers of children will be orphaned and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. (HRW, 2020). This article focuses on how children become more vulnerable and how they expose to inappropriate content and online predators during this crisis and what are tips or measures should take to mitigate this devastating effect.
Covid-19 and Distance Learning for Children
According to Malala Yousafzai,“ Education is the best weapon through which we can fight poverty, ignorance, and freedom” and “one child, one teacher, and one pen can change the world” A lack of access to education is one of the primary limits on human development. One of the Millennium Development Goals is to provide universal primary education (MDG-2). Education is one of the basic human rights, and no one should be deprived of this right. But today this process of concept has changed since the coronavirus puts every child at home without giving any chance to attend school. More than 1.5 billion students in 188 countries were out of school due to COVID-19 on April 8, representing over 91 percent of the world’s student population. (UNESCO) As a result of this health crisis education process has changed drastically with the distinctive rise of e-learning, whereby teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms. This new way of teaching and learning process has disrupted the entire education process since the many children’s worlds have shrunk to just their screens. These E-learning facilities were only affordable to the children of the selected segment and children of poor families were severely affected due to the lack of internet facilities. In Sri Lanka, there were some cases from rural areas due to the poor connection and poverty alleviation most of the poor families were severely affected. Long-term school closures, economic distress, and poverty are likely to force some children to drop out of schools and liable to fall into child labor or child pornography. There are reported instances where child abuse and all kinds of domestic abuse are dramatically increased throughout the pandemic. Under the shadow of COVID-19 children’s online screen time skyrocketed. Children are spending more time on the internet and it provides valuable opportunities to learn, play and socialize with friends but also it increases the risk of being exposed to online predators that seek to abuse children. Growing digitalization magnifies children’s vulnerability to harm.
How Children got Vulnerable by Online Predators?
As stated in Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, “A child means every human being below the age of 18 years, unless under the national law applicable to the child. The majority is attained earlier.” In Sri Lanka, the age of majority is established as 18. Children are the most vulnerable group in the growing society. Though there are so many child rights available in the present society still children are faced to various kinds of child rights violating acts such as sexual abuse, sexual harassment, abduction, statutory rape, commercial sexual exploitation, incest, neglect, child marriages, trafficking and international adoption trade are some of them. COVID 19 is one of the devastating major challenges to every child around the world since they adapted to a new way of education platform, which everyone benefits with a bunch of knowledge plus easily expose to sexual predators online.
Children’s reliance on online platforms for distance learning has also increased their risk of expose to inappropriate content and online predators. However, the children spending more time on online learning screen time has skyrocketed. There are some ways that children have fallen for online predators unexpectedly. Research indicates that sexual predators often reach children through chat rooms and social media platforms using fake profiles. Such engagement has the potential to lead to sexting, grooming, sextortion, live streaming, and the development of child sexual abuse material. These include cyberbullying and sexual predators, which have long-lasting and serious negative effects on their emotional and psychological well-being. Research indicates that sexual predators often reach children through chat rooms and social media platforms using fake profiles.
Children put themselves at risk by communicating online with individuals they do not know in person. Internet predators intentionally access sites that children usually visit and approach them by establishing a relationship with the child to gain their trust first. Especially Online groomers attempt these kinds of things to gain a child’s trust. They even never reveal his correct name, age, or address to the children. After the child’s trust develops the groomer may use sexually explicit conversations to test boundaries and exploit a child’s natural curiosity about sex. Make threats, and often will use child pornography featuring their victims to blackmail them into silence, Make promises of an exciting, stress-free life, tailored to the youth’s desire, Develop an online relationship that is romantic/ controlling and upon which the child becomes dependent, Develop trust and secrecy: manipulate child by listening to and sympathizing with child’s problems and insecurities, Ease inhibitions by gradually introducing sex into conversations or exposing them to pornography (internet.safety.101) are some of the behaviors of online predators. Apps, learning programs, and video games nowadays provide real-time chats and messaging functions that enable direct communication with strangers. They enable a dialogue as well as an exchange of images and videos. Many parents are not aware of these messaging functions or do not know how to block them.
Here are some ways of Exposing Children to Sexual Predators.
* Social networking
* The use of chat groups in apps
* Phishing attempts via email
* Unsolicited contact in social media
* Through less secure online educational applications
* Online gaming
Child Sexual exploitation or sex trafficking is another offense that children easily fell on these days. The terms “sexual exploitation” or “commercial sexual exploitation” acknowledge that the use of children and youth for sexual acts is abuse and is inherently exploitative. Commercial sexual exploitation takes various trends and patterns. Children trafficked online by sexual predators become another way of child sex trafficking. In Sri Lanka according to NCPA (National Child Protection Authority) reports 32 people have been arrested for sexual abuse of a minor(Age of 15) via social media. The one which posted the sex trafficking advertisement on the website is also included in the arrested cluster. These criminal offenses become more popular during the pandemic. Predators can easily approach children online since now their reliance on the virtual platform has skyrocketed than in earlier days. According to NCPA in Sri Lanka,4000 child Abuse Complaints were reported past six months and 48,000 phone calls have been received by the victims of child abuse during this period. Also, there was a recent case reported to NCPA in Sri Lanka on sexual harassment by an online predator for a schoolgirl who was trapped for this sexual predator’s plan by sending messages to him online and now he is blackmailing her with nudes and other sexting and live streaming pictures. Learning online provides a valuable opportunity to everyone without inequality, everyone can entitle to this new way of learning facility, but parents must ensure that keep the children safe from predators, violence, billings, etc.
Keep your Child Safe from Online Predators-Tips for the Parents
This new way of learning process becomes another challenge to all the parents since they need to keep up with their children’s use, the evolution of devices and to engage them with the daily educational purposes.
They must be more alert as to who their children communicate with within the cyber world and what are the websites that they are referring to. (be aware of the online apps used by your child. -Know the apps, games, and social media sites your child uses, making sure they are age-appropriate, and learn how to limit messaging or online chats and location-sharing functions within apps or games, as these can expose your child to unwanted contact and disclose their physical location.)
They are also encouraged to speak to their children on how and with whom they are communicating online and to set new internet rules. Empower them or teach them how the risky relationship is or teaching them the risks, harms, impacts ways of sexual abuse predators’ strangers in online and all.)
Although parents should make sure that their children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programs.
Maintain a frank open dialogue with children about how and with whom they are communicating online( Co-view and co-play with your child online.) This helps both the parent and the child to build a mutual trust relationship.
Use devices in open areas of the home(This can help you manage and be aware of whom your child interacts with online through phones, tablets, smart TVs, gaming consoles, and other connected devices. Talk about where and when it is OK to use computers and devices)
Work with children to establish rules about how, when, and where the internet can be used
Be vigilant to see if the online activity is causing signs of distress in children and be familiar with school district policies and local reporting mechanisms and have access to easy-to-use helpline and telephone assistance numbers access.
Warn your child about online flirting. Talk to your child about how flirty conversations may seem exciting at first but can quickly escalate and lead to feeling uncomfortable or used. Point out common ways people flirt online. Help your child know what behavior is acceptable online, including blocking messages from certain users and telling a trusted adult about being harassed.
Limit screen time.(Set time limits that balance time spent in front of screens with offline activities — a family technology plan can help you to manage expectations around where and when technology use is allowed.) (UNICEF And World Vision Sri Lanka)
“It’s not about denying your child, internet access, knowing that these dangers exist in cyberspace. It is all about empowering your child by teaching ways to identify online violence and the right set of actions that need to be taken when faced with violence of this nature,” says Kanishka Rathnayake, Technical advisor for Child protection and participation at World Vision Lanka. There is no way to avoid online risk 100% but parents rather than live in fear and depression by the children’s risk of exposure to predators can be more proactive by using these tips. Mitigating the risk of harm by predators is one of the duty of the government and other Child Protection Authorities but we can understand the risks, take action to minimize them, and make every effort to equip our kids to deal with any threats they encounter online.
“Online Predators Put Millions Of Children At Risk During COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown”. 2021. UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061742. 2021. https://internetsafety101.org/internetpredators.“Children Can Be Exposed To Sexual Predators Online, So How Can Parents Teach Them To Be Safe?”. 2021. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/children-can-be-exposed-to-sexual-predators-online-so-how-can-parents-teach-them-to-be-safe-120661.”No Education, No Protection: What School Closures Under COVID-19 Mean For Children And Young People In Crisis-Affected Contexts – World”. 2021. Reliefweb. https://reliefweb.int/report/world/no-education-no-protection-what-school-closures-under-covid-19-mean-children-and-young.10 Things To Remember Before You Let Your Child Go Online”. 2021. Wvi.Org. https://www.wvi.org/newsroom/sri-lanka/10-things-remember-you-let-your-child-go-online
 Human Rights Watch
 Millennium Development Goals
 United Nations Educational ,Scientific and Cultural Organization