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The wolf in sheep’s clothing: Child grooming and digital spaces

a year ago

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BY Harindrini Corea and Sanjana Ravi Have you heard of the term child grooming before? If this is the first time you are hearing about it, you are most likely to have associated it with something related to a child’s appearance. However, many of us are not aware of the manipulative and intimate long-term process of the exploitation of children that is also referred to as child grooming.  What is child grooming? Child grooming, also referred to as sexual grooming, is a predatory process in which a perpetrator initiates a relationship with a child and gradually builds the relationship with the intention of sexually exploiting them. To simplify this further, imagine someone who intentionally befriends a child. Sometimes this can take place with the knowledge of their parents or guardians, but mostly it happens without their knowledge, and this person will carefully choose a child who is more likely to be vulnerable and have less parental intervention in their life.  The key intention here is to build enough trust between the child and themselves, so that the child will open up to this person by sharing personal information that gives this person direct access to the child’s life. Eventually, this person builds a “special relationship” with the child. Sometimes, the perpetrator could be of the opposite sex, pretending to be of the same sex in online interactions, to gain more trust and confidence with the child.  Over time, once they build a comfortable rapport with the child, they may start requesting images of the child or even plan to physically meet the child and engage with them directly. Perpetrators usually demonise the victim’s family and friends, and in doing so, isolate the child as well. This allows the perpetrator to protect themselves from potential allegations of abuse as well.  Child grooming online The Crimes Against Children Research Centre reported that about 90% of children who are sexually abused in the US know their abuser (per D. Finkelhor and A. Shattuck’s “Characteristics of crimes against juveniles”). A similar study in the Jaffna District (M.G. Sathiadas, A. Viswalingam, and K. Vijayaratnam’s “Child abuse and neglect in the Jaffna District – A study on knowledge, attitude, practices, and behaviour of healthcare professionals”) found that 75% of the perpetrators of child abuse were known to the family. This makes acts of grooming easier, as the perpetrator is more likely to have an existing relationship with the child.  However, in today’s world, from an earlier age, children are increasingly exposed to technology due to the shift to online learning. As children spend more time online, whether it is studying, playing games, or engaging on social media, they are also more vulnerable to be exposed to sexual predators online. This leads to children unknowingly becoming targets of predators online; trapped in situations that pose serious dangers to their life and wellbeing.  In recent times, cyber grooming has been recognised as one of the major cyber threats facing children in India. There have been several instances of online grooming which have led to other criminal acts, such as rape or trafficking (D. Agarwal’s “Child grooming: India must take measures to protect children from online sexual abuse”). The growth in the use of technology amongst children in Sri Lanka has already led to an increase in numbers of children being exposed to online violence.  A study published in early 2021 by the Women and Child Development State Ministry of Sri Lanka, Save the Children, and other project partner organisations on online violence against children in Sri Lanka highlighted the increasing number of children who are exposed to violence online. The one-on-one study conducted from 2019 to 2020 revealed that of the 1,911 children interviewed, 28% of them have experienced some kind of online violence of which girls (29%) have faced more online violence than boys (27%) (Save the Children Sri Lanka’s “Online violence against children in Sri Lanka: A national research on the incidence, nature, and scope).  What is important to note here is that, generally, when online sexual abuse of children is reported, it highlights more common, yet pertinent issues, such as sexting, harassment, or bullying. Unlike other forms of child sexual abuse that is reported, grooming is not reported as much, as it is mostly private in nature, but it is rapidly creeping its way into Sri Lanka’s cyberspace. Noting the significant growth in cyber harassment and abuse on popular social media spaces, these platforms have implemented new restrictions to curb such incidents. For example, if a Facebook user shares sexually explicit or nude content, it is more likely to be taken down as it goes against Facebook’s Community Guidelines. Facebook and other major platforms also monitor their applications to ensure that users are able to engage in a safe space to an extent.  While these measures in place may have reduced such incidents taking place in the public domain, the continuous developments in technology with popular social media platforms enabling live communication features such as instant messaging, audio calls, and video calls, has unfortunately also enabled perpetrators to gain easier and direct access to targets privately.  Grooming is something that is intimate, as it revolves around building a relationship with the target, and therefore, most often takes place in private chats or private groups. Moreover, observations related to online grooming reveal a rise in Facebook Messenger groups or group chats on other platforms that are dedicated to sharing content on children, child sexual abuse content, or solicitation. As such groups are private in nature, it is difficult to be able to track them and filter them out, unless reported by a member of the group, which is highly unlikely most of the time.  Case study Data has been captured by Hashtag Generation of possible incidents of grooming online. One such instance was a Facebook group that was dedicated to “young school gay boys”, targeting a group of members within a specific age group and sexual orientation. It was observed that this group contained several posts from anonymous individuals (potential perpetrators) who used fake profiles or profiles specifically created for exploitative purposes. The posts were explicitly seeking information or relationships with individuals of a target age group.  The particular examples referred to above are of posts on this specific group, where the persons concerned were trying to initiate a relationship with children, adolescents, and young adults. It is also most likely that they would befriend someone on the pretense of getting to know them better or simply being “friends”. But, one must be aware that this is a red flag and could potentially be a sign of the initial stages of grooming. Similar incidents also most likely take place within closed groups and unless reported to the platform and taken down, they will continue to be accessible to members within the group or new members who join the group. International and legal framework The Lanzarote Convention, i.e. the Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (Council of Europe), defines grooming as the “preparation of a child for sexual abuse, motivated by a desire to use the child for sexual gratification” and is the first international instrument that calls on states to define and prohibit grooming. The Luxembourg Guidelines provide that the following elements are necessary to constitute grooming: (i) contacting a child; (ii) if online, through information and communications technologies; (iii) with the intent of luring or inciting the child; and (iv) to engage in any sexual activity by any means, whether online or offline.  Section 360E of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka criminalises the solicitation of a child either within or outside Sri Lanka for the purposes of sexual abuse. While this Section does not meet international standards as online solicitation is not explicitly covered, there is a question over whether the law may be interpreted to cover grooming that takes place both online and offline. Prevention rather than cure  As much as there is a focus on the legal measures that are necessary to deal with child grooming online, it is important to explore preventative measures as a first step. Parents and guardians should have conversations with their children on issues around consent as well as navigating online spaces safely.  Parents and children should also have the awareness and tools to be able to detect and deal with online grooming. Some red flags of grooming have included the following signs (S. Nagpal’s “Cyber grooming: Three scary secrets”):
  • When a child wants to spend more time on the internet but is secretive and evades questions on how they have spent their time 
  • When a child begins to use language and sexual terms that they would otherwise not be aware of
  • When a child possesses electronic items without the knowledge of the parent 
  • When a child would suddenly open new tabs or switch off the computer monitor when a parent would walk into the room
In 2018, the Home Affairs Ministry in India released a booklet on cyber safety for teenagers (“A handbook for adolescents and students on cyber safety”), which dealt with the issue of grooming. Some of the important tips (New Delhi Television Ltd.’s “Government to provide handbook on cyber safety to schoolchildren”) for children to be aware of were outlined as:
  • Never accept friend requests from strangers online
  • Never share your personal information online
  • Avoid talking to anyone in a group, chat room, or through gaming who asks you uncomfortable questions
  • Do not turn on your webcam if the person you are chatting with does not have their video turned on 
Conclusion Child grooming is a relatively new but dangerous concept in Sri Lanka that must be kept watch over. As many children now spend an increasing amount of time online, children’s cyber safety and wellbeing have become vital components in their general safety and wellbeing. Many incidents relating to the abuse of children may take place behind screens and end up not being reported. Not only does this put more children at risk, but it also adds an additional layer of protection for the perpetrators. Parents and children must increase their awareness on the risks of engaging in online spaces and also on the availability of additional features provided by digital platforms to navigate them safely.    (Corea is the Legal Officer of Hashtag Generation and Ravi is a Research Fellow at Hashtag Generation) The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.  

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