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Harrowing reality of online exploitation among children

Harrowing reality of online exploitation among children

In a disturbing trend that sheds light on the vulnerability of adolescents in the digital age, a 15-year-old girl from the Pepsicola area in Kathmandu found herself trapped in a distressing web of online exploitation. The episode unfolded as she developed a connection with a young man from Udayapur district through Facebook.

What began as an innocent online interaction quickly morphed into a nightmarish ordeal when the man coerced her into sending explicit images under the threat of terminating their virtual relationship. This sinister manipulation escalated as he relentlessly pressured her to engage in physical relations against her will. To further deepen the young girl’s trauma, the man disseminated the compromising photos to her brother.

In a separate incident that starkly illustrates the extent of the issue, a seventh grader from a Gongabu-based school inadvertently fell victim to a similar exploitative scheme. She was talked into sending her private image to an eighth grader boy, with whom she was infatuated with, only to see it circulated widely on a Messenger group. Swift intervention ensued, involving close collaboration between Nepal Police’s Cyber Bureau and the school authorities, to contain the fallout of the breach of privacy.

These unsettling instances provide a grim snapshot of the escalating phenomenon of children ensnared by the clutches of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). Children as young as 12 or 13 are increasingly embroiled in such harrowing activities. The Cyber Bureau of the Nepal Police has alarmingly recorded 645 cases of children falling prey to online sexual violence between the fiscal years of 2018/19 and 2022/23. Young girls emerged as the predominant victims, suffering from harassment by counterparts of the opposite gender, exposure to explicit content and manipulation through fabricated social media profiles.

In a disheartening parallel, 145 young boys also bore the brunt of such insidious online practices. Within these troubling statistics, a staggering 142 children, a significant majority being girls, were found to be grappling with pornography addiction. Furthermore, 120 children, with a similar gender disparity, found themselves subjected to the scourge of sexual harassment.

“The surge in incidents involving youngsters in explicit behaviors is an alarming phenomenon. While it is natural for adolescents undergoing the tumultuous phase of puberty to exhibit curiosity towards sexual matters, the lack of proper guidance and parental supervision is rendering them increasingly susceptible to the lures of depravity,” says Deputy Superintendent of Police Dipesh Joshi of the Cyber Bureau.

Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Navindra Aryal of the Cyber Bureau underlined the diverse spectrum of CSAM manifestations, encompassing not just the act of sexual engagement, but also consumption of explicit content, propagation of obscene conduct on digital platforms, grooming, engagement in virtual romance, surreptitious device usage, and the repugnant realms of blackmail and harassment.

“Sharing content that not only chronicles crimes against children but also disseminates crimes committed by them is an offense of grave magnitude,” says SSP Aryal.

The pervasive nature of this crisis also underlines a critical lack of parental oversight. Telltale signs of a child caught in the dark corridors of CSAM addiction include overt defiance of familial norms, attempts at premature independence, unexplained fits of rage, academic disengagement, and even overt resistance to attending school.

The law enforcement agencies are mobilizing resources to ascertain details of individuals consuming such egregious content, tracking their access patterns, identifying their internet service providers and initiating targeted interventions. A cyber tipline has been instituted as a proactive measure to thwart the propagation of such malevolent activities.

Cybersecurity expert Rajiv Subba says that CSAM addiction might disproportionately afflict children deeply immersed in the digital realm. “Social networks have become a veritable playground for children,” he says. “Tragically, we observe that some of them are resorting to explicit behavior as a means to garner likes and views on their social media exploits.”

Evidently, a moral crisis looms large over our society, with individuals readily compromising their principles for fleeting popularity in the virtual realm.

Subba emphasized the dire need for a more robust legal framework to tackle this insidious challenge. “Stricter regulation of social networks is an imperative. Particularly vulnerable are children hailing from fractured family structures, as they remain susceptible to the allurements propagated across digital channels.”

Psychologist Karuna Kunwar underlines the innate curiosity that typifies children, propelling them toward uncharted digital territories. She suggests open dialogues within educational institutions and families, encouraging a candid exploration of the physical and emotional changes intrinsic to adolescence. “Avoiding discussions on matters of sexuality while raising children is counterproductive. We must impart the understanding that these are natural facets of life,” she says.

In a pledge that resonates on the legislative front, the government is actively crafting a comprehensive cybercrime legislation. Netra Prasad Subedi, joint secretary of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, says the ministry is erecting strong legal barricades against digital transgressions. 

“Enhancing cybersecurity measures and guaranteeing secure digital environments remain at the heart of our agenda,” he says.

But Subedi emphasizes the need for shared responsibility of parents and teachers to vigilantly monitor children's digital engagements, as well as fortify digital devices against breaches.

Minister for Communication and Information Technology Rekha Sharma agrees.

“A dual approach involving regulatory measures and individual self-regulation is imperative, given the escalating victimization of women and children,” she says.

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, it is evident that parental vigilance and societal collaboration are vital bulwarks against the digital exploitation of the most vulnerable members of our community.

Children at risk of online sexual abuse, study finds

Children are increasingly at risk of online sexual abuse, a study has shown. The findings, unveiled during a program hosted by Bal Awaj, an organization headquartered in Lalitpur, revealed that children under the age of 18 are increasingly falling victim to online sexual abuse. The study, conducted among 514 children in the Koshi and Bagmati provinces, showed that both known individuals and strangers solicited obscene images from children online, later manipulating these images to tarnish their reputation.

Asking for obscene photos from children and sending insensitive messages among others by abusing the internet are acts of sexual misbehavior and abuse against children.
According to Attorney General Dinmani Pokharel, online crimes possess the potential to impact children not only socially but also psychologically. He said earlier cases of sexual abuse against children were reported at physical level, but these days more children are prone to online sexual abuse. 

Pokharel called for raising awareness about the laws to protect children from abuses in all forms and noted that the findings of the study would be a ‘milestone’ for formulation of law regarding protection of children from cyber crimes. 

Chief District Officer of Lalitpur Rudra Prasad Pandit pointed out the distressing trend of an increasing number of children falling victim to sexual abuse facilitated by the internet. He urged for a mandatory provision, integrated into all mobile phones, that restricts access to websites featuring sexual content involving minors.

Senior Superintendent of Police Siddhi Bikram Shah lamented the challenges in taking swift action against culprits of online child sexual abuse due to limited resources. 

Gopal Krishna Ghimire, president of Nepal Bar Association, stressed the necessity of minimizing children’s exposure to laptops, mobile devices, and iPads, underscoring the importance of maintaining a safe digital environment for children.