20 April, 2011

Vulnerability - The Internet Connection ...


(Image courtesy : csaawarenessmonth.wordpress.com)

Through the month of April 2011, more than 40 bloggers from around the world have joined hands to write about the various aspects of Child Sexual Abuse, in an effort to raise awareness about this issue, which, unfortunately, is seen rearing its head at a rather alarming rate, all over the world.

Posts have been rolling in steadily, a lot has been said, experts have written in, survivor stories have poured in, there have been trolls over Twitter and other forums who’ve dismissed the whole thing as “an over rated issue which is not so serious”. So far, the focus has been on sexual abuse of the physical kind which leaves not just physical scars behind but also very intense mental and emotional ones.

This post is not about physical sexual abuse of children but about a form of abuse which I believe is increasing by leaps and bounds in the world of today. This is a kind of abuse that totally destroys young minds mentally and emotionally. This kind of abuse is just as dangerous as face to face physical sexual abuse, especially given the fact that it does not leave physical scars behind for parents to see and notice.

Cyber or Internet Sexual Abuse of children.

In this world of today, which is increasingly becoming dependent on the cyber world, this threat / problem is real. It is not non-existent. Quite the contrary. During our childhood days, we did not know what a computer was. Compare that with the children of today. They simply cannot do without one. Right from a very tender age, children are used to electronic gadgets which give them access to this vast world web. They browse, they play games online and apart from all this, the internet is now increasingly being used as a medium of instruction. The internet is being used to “teach” and children are using the internet more frequently for “education related” activities. Projects, research work, online learning, online exams – the internet has manifested itself in almost every sphere of a child’s life. Chat forums, online groups, social networking and much more have virtually become the order of the day.

Yet again, the onus does, to a great extent fall on the parents to be extra vigilant when children go online. What makes it difficult even more so is the fact that one cannot police the children every moment they are on the internet. That does not make sense – from any angle. Children of today need their freedom too. They need space to explore their thoughts, they need to network as networking has proven to be an extremely valuable social tool. At the same time, they need to be protected against cyber sexual abuse. Talk about balancing options and priorities !!!

There were days when parents used to rest assured and bask in the security of the fact that they had installed software on their computers which monitored the sites which the children visited, software which blocked pornographic or graphic content, software which “protected” the children, safe searches turned on so that an innocuous request for an image by a child would not lead to porn pictures being thrown up over the net. I do believe that sense of security is on its way down too. There are porn sites which piggyback onto “educational” sites, there are pop-ups that flash across the screen when least expected. Put these together with the natural curiosity and innocence of children – strain your ears, it won’t be long before you hear the bomb ticking away. More so the case with social networks and chat forums. Those are minefields. Those are ideal places for predators to prey upon young and innocent minds, perfect grounds for predators to gratify their demented urges by finding young quarries and victims.

We, as human beings, are vulnerable. Being vulnerable to assault or abuse of any kind is a possibility that is very real. What makes children more vulnerable is the fact that children have in them a large amount of innocence and this makes them more gullible to deception and abuse.

How then, can we, as parents, be more vigilant in protecting our children against Cyber Sex Abuse ?
The solution, as with any problem, lies in first identifying and recognizing it. According to a study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are signs that parents can look out for, with regard to Sexual Abuse of children over the Internet.

Children spend a lot of time online, especially at night when parental supervision is next to NIL.

During the day, children invariably run the risk of having an adult “catching” them chatting on chat forums but during the night, the rest of the household is invariably asleep. They go online to chat with friends, they browse the web just to kill time, make new friends. And on the other hand, are predators, constantly prowling the very same web for victims.

Finding pornography on your child’s computer

Pornography is often used in sexually victimising children. Sex offenders often send their potention victims or supply them with pornographic content – pictures, film clips, as a means to open sexual discussions or as a means to seduce their young victims. It is also used to drive home the notion that sexual alliances between an adult and a child are “normal”.

Your child turns off the computer or changes the image on the monitor to view another site as soon as you or any other adult in the house walks in

A child looking at porn or sexually explicit images on the screen will definitely not want his/her parents to know about it.

The child becomes withdrawn from the family

Internet sex offenders work at isolating the victim from his/her family. Going by their normal modus operandi, these predators normally befriend their victims first. In the process, they become privy to a lot of inside information – information about what happens at home. Even something as simple as a tiff between the child and the parent can be exploited by these perpretrators – as a tool to drive a wedge between the child and the parents. The perpretrator then poses as the “good person” in an effort to further strengthen the relationship with the victim. In many cases, the child may become withdrawn after incidents of internet sex abuse. Confusion, guilt, shame – all go a long way in contributing to the child becoming more and more withdrawn after they are sexually victimized.

These are some of the obvious signs for parents to look out for in their children.

What can parents do to safeguard children against internet sex abuse ?

Communication

Yet again, this is of prime importance. While it is a fact that the internet is a rich source of information and that children often browse the web for school related activities or social networking, it is important to talk to children about the dangers that lurk in the cyber world as well. Macadamia has to make extensive use of her laptop for her school projects and for the research work that goes towards these projects. Almost all her school work is done on the laptop and the laptop is carried back and forth every day – from school to home and vice versa. We have told her about the dangers associated with internet use. If children are aware that such risks exist, it empowers them to recognize and seek help from an adult if they come across something “uncomfortable” over the internet too.

Spend time with your children on-line. Ask them to take you around their favourite / most visited websites

This is a good way to bond too. There are many instances when either me or Vic sit with Macadamia and Pecan when they are browsing the web. It also gives us time to exchange little snippets of information on various topics. It may be totally unrelated to what they are doing right then, but the flow of communication stays established. It also helps send the message across that we are not averse to them playing games on the computer, as long as it is within the set time limits and as long as we have an idea of what they are playing and where. Now that they know that, they do not rush to close the screen every time we walk into the room. It promotes openness, which is very important.

Tell children never to upload and send out their pictures to people or websites they do not know.

Both Macadamia and Pecan know this. For that matter, uploading or downloading anything here, at home – requires parental consent and parental presence. We have told them the possible risks there are, in uploading or downloading stuff to/from the net. Downloading pictures can also carry the additional risk of pornographic / sexually explicit pictures being piggy backed onto the other material being downloaded.

Tell children to never ever give out their contact details, address, name of their school, telephone numbers

Again, both the siblings are aware of this. Never give out personal information on any internet site, chat forum or social networking sites. If personal information needs to be given, restrict it to the bare minimum. The less you have of yourself (in terms of personal info) on the net, the better.

If your children are members of a social networking site, it would be a good idea for the kids to add the parents to their friends list.

Macadamia recently opened an account on one of the popular social networking sites. We had been stalling the same for quite some time now but there are times when children need to be cut some slack. Rules cannot be too rigid. Peer pressure is something to contend with and no child wants to stick out like a sore thumb. Again, social networking has its benefits, if used properly. One of the conditions for Macadamia to open her account was that both me and Vic would be on her friends’ list. Not that we would be actively engaged in conversing with her online, not that we were going to interfere with her conversations with her friends – but simply that it would make it easier for us to monitor what was happening. We explained this to her, given the fact that privacy does become a big issue between kids and parents.

If your child is a member of a social networking site, tell them to restrict their account to “friends only” and not to set their account to “friends of friends” too.

Restricting access to your account can go a long way in reducing instances of online abuse. This applies not just to children, but to adults too.

Tell children to never ever arrange a face to face meeting with someone whom they’ve “met” over the internet

Normally, sexual predators first establish themselves, get into the good books of kids, get kids to trust them and believe whatever they say – before making a move on the kids. Children have to be educated about the fact that not everything they see or hear on the internet from people is “believable”. Things people say could be true – but there is an equal chance that they are not.

The most important factors in keeping children safe from online abuse are :

- use of appropriate blocking software
- parental control
- having open / honest discussions with your child/children
- regularly monitoring your child’s internet / online activity
- explaining to them as to why you need to regularly monitor their online activity
- keeping channels of communication open

Like with other forms of abuse, the important thing with internet sexual abuse too is the same – children have to be informed and educated about the dangers that lurk on the web too. It is a vast place, with lot of rich knowledge stored and there for the taking but as always, where there is an upside, there is also a downside.
While children should be able to explore and make use of the rich information and knowledge that the internet has to offer, as parents it is our duty to inform, educate and alert them to the hazards that prowl and lie in wait, on the internet too. It is important to teach children to recognize deceptive behavior from people who mean them harm. Also equally important is letting children know, verbally and in absolutely unequivocal terms that if something happens on the internet – something that they are not comfortable with – they can and should always seek parental help.

Sir Francis Bacon once said “Knowledge is power”.

I’m sure he meant that under different circumstances and meant for that quote to be understood in terms of book knowledge. But in this world of today, that quote does take on a totally different connotation and yet, that simple quote sums it all up.

Yes – Knowledge is indeed power.

In this case, knowledge empowers children to say NO !.

(This post contains a few excerpts from the FBI website regarding Internet Abuse of Children)

3 voice(s) said so:

Shobana said...

Gauri! I think this post of yours is as powerful as any other post on the same topic. This is something that many of us overlook since there is no "physical" abuse involved. As u had said, open communication is what is pivotal in keeping our children safe. Sometimes I do tend to think that I may be instilling fear that is unwanted in my child, when addressing this topic, but I guess, the fear is better than the experience. Touch wood.

In some cases, I am guessing the perp doesn't have to be an adult. It could very well be their peers. So educating children in that angle is also important, me thinks.

You are doing an amazing job with both the kids and thank you so much for talking about this potential threat too.

Neera said...

Very very valuable post Gauri! Learnt a lot myself. I had absolutely no idea that pornographic pictures/sites can piggyback themselves on educational sites! When we get to it, I'll ask u abt blocking softwares. Commendable parenting too ..I can see how much time and energy u r investing. Kudos!

Sue said...

Thanks Gauri, this is a very helpful post.

We need to keep in mind that not only can our kids experience for themselves every single thing we have ever found online -- they can go further and get more hurt than we ever imagined. After all, we surf as adults, they don't.