“Hello Papa. How was your day? Can we play?” asks Alex, an eight-year-old kid on his father’s return from office. “Oh Alex, I have just arrived. I am tired. It is already nine. There is hardly any time to play,” answers John.
Alex takes a U-turn and goes back to his study room. He was about to say that no one has time for him when John intervenes. “Ok...you can play on this phone… your favourite video game”.
That brought a huge smile on Alex’s face. And he gets transported to a different world of cars, monsters or the heroic characters like Spiderman or the black widow within a few minutes.
This must be a normal scene at almost everyone’s home. We hardly allow children to play outdoors. They no longer have the kind of besties we all had.
Ask any parent why a child is mostly kept indoors. “Oh! It is not safe outside. I don’t want my child to land in trouble, while I am out for work. We can’t trust people... you know. Every day we read reports on child sexual abuse.” This is the kind of reply one would usually get.
Once the phone is given, your child certainly sits glued to it, unless he/she loses energy or points, in case the game he/she plays works with that feature. Else, the child would be forced to buy points. Of course, a responsible parent would not allow that.
Is a child safe inside your home, especially when you give that smart phone to him?
Do you realise that the child’s use of the mobile phone goes unmonitored to a large extent? If recent reports are to be believed, the answer is NO. You may wonder, perhaps, that this writer is trying to warn you of the side effects the harmful rays a cell phone emits on your child’s brain or eyes. That is a scientific fact everyone knows.
A report published last week in the New York Times must act as an eye-opener to all parents and, of course, for the tech companies or gaming companies. As a parent, we do keep an eye on the kind of games our children play. But how often have we played the game or checked the kind of features it has?
Imagine, when your child loses energy or points, someone comes online and helps him/her in getting a recharge. Your child would certainly feel elated. Every time, he/she needs points, someone helps him with money, keeping the fun alive. Would he/she be helping your child without any favours? Absolutely not. What kind of favours can it be?
The investigation done by the New York Times shows the sudden shock a mother gets when she one day stumbles across a chatting software in her phone. Her child was being abused online as the chatter had been able to blackmail him to an extent that the child had shared certain objectionable images. Her child was in tears when she confronted him.
Considering the kind of fear generally a child is instilled into, especially in a country like India, do you think he/she would ever share this to you? The answer seems to be in the negative. Now, why is this question being asked?
The investigation done by the New York Times reveals that certain games have an inbuilt chatting option. Anyone can chat with your child and your child would certainly feel happy as this was something he/she always wanted to have — a network of people in remote, who have similar interests — video games.
These people gain the confidence of children by sharing their false stories of struggle, pretending sometimes as children. Your child, without understanding the trick, is likely to fall for it. After all, he/she had been playing against a dummy computer so far.
Now, he can not only interact but also get the much-needed energy points to keep playing. And when those energy points may turn into abuse, you would not even know.
A few excerpts from the report look like, “Show full body. Not just half. Retake pic.” You’re so pretty! How old are you?” I’m about to post your pics, if you don’t chat with me for 10 minutes”. “Take your pants off. Just pull them down”.
Sometimes, the criminals take the child into confidence and start chatting on private platforms like Skype, Facebook Messenger etc. One can imagine the kind of risk your child may have in this case. You never know what kind of information your child may share just in a matter of a few minutes thinking a friend wants to meet him/her. Or, here is someone, with whom he/she can be just the way he/she is. Or, this online chat friend is so caring. That care suddenly turns into abuse.
And in case, your child refuses to follow their instructions, the first threat that normally these people give is “If you don’t do it, I’m going to post on social media, and by the way, I’ve got the list of your family members and I’m going to send it to all of them”.
Somehow if the child does not send another picture, they usually say, “Here’s your address – I know where you live. I’m going to come and kill your family.” This could be traumatic for children. A study reveals that more than a quarter of such cases lead to suicide.
For one thing, video games are addictive. If your child is glued to the phone, he/she tends not to notice anything that happens even in the near vicinity. It is really difficult for a parent to get that device back.
The worst part is that these online gaming platforms or, for that matter, any chat platform, can identify an image of pornography, child abuse, if it is present previously on the platform. Any image that is shared in real-time can hardly be identified. Sometimes the chat messages are encrypted, which makes it even more difficult to exercise control.
If someone reports such kind of abuse, the first stand that normally a chat platform or online gaming platform takes is to reiterate its commitment towards child safety by repeatedly saying that “they have zero-tolerance for child sexual abuse”, just like WhatsApp or TikTok did a few months ago. The fact is that it is really difficult to control what is being shared online.
Reports suggest that a record 45 million images/videos of children being sexually exploited were deleted last year from online platforms. Another UK-based non-profit organisation “Internet Watch Foundation” has revealed that nearly half of the child sexual abuse content is shared on micro-blogging site Twitter followed by Amazon and then Google. You all might be wondering: Is it relevant for India?
Another research has put India at the top of the list of countries from where maximum number of reports of child sexual abuse imagery (CSAI) originated – a whopping 38.8 Lakh! Of the over 2.3 crore reports available with US-based National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, India, Indonesia and Thailand alone have accounted for 37 per cent of total CSAI reports.
Now since the tech companies do not have a fool-proof mechanism of controlling online child abuse, what is the way forward? It lies with none other than you and me as a parent. Sensitise your child about the online world, child sexual abuse, what is it and how it affects them. Ensure that you create an environment of sharing at home.
Your child should not feel left out, because you don’t have the time to share or listen to him/her. Keep a check on the kind of platforms your child is hooked to. Even if your kid likes to play video games, ensure that he/she sits close to you while doing that.
Play those games in your free time to be doubly sure that your child is not exposed to online abuse. Teach them about blocking options. Last but not the least, please trust your child. Don’t blame your child, if abuse arises.
The tech industry is not about promoting child safety but about making money. You as a parent should take charge as your child’s online protector – just like that anti-virus software which helps you in keeping viruses off your computer.
(The writer, a company secretary, is executive director of Delhi-based NGO, Deepalaya, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Published on 16th December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 51)