Now more than ever, online child sexual predators are preying on unwary kids via the internet.
With school calendars, world over, suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, children are depending on online learning and unsupervised screen time to keep up with school work or connect with friends.
UNICEF estimates that 1.5 billion children are grounded by the lockdown worldwide and the majority are relying on attending school virtually.
And, according to a cybercrime analyst, Lerato Mpobane, “children are at risk of online sexual exploitation by cyber predators more than they have ever been.”
South Africa already has an odious history with sexual exploitation of minors on the internet, with several prosecutions. The biggest yet, was the conviction of a Cape Town man on 18 644 child porn charges in 2016. In a more recent case, last month, the police’s serial and electronic FCS investigation resulted in the arrest of five men in connection with child pornography.
Mpobane of The Association of Private Security Owners of South Africa (TAPSOSA) explains that the predators make their way into chat rooms, social media and video game sessions and often pose as minors, “starting seemingly harmless conversations”.
Mpobane says, with the young ones, interactions often escalate into the adults pressuring them to send them sexually explicit photographs or videos.
In some instances, she believes, the perpetrators may use financial bribes while they can also exploit the vulnerabilities around self-esteem.
According to Child Welfare SA, “the extent of sexual exploitation of children has increased drastically”. The organisation says a common feature in the cases is that young children, mostly girls, between the ages of 10 and 14 years old, are targeted.
The most common manifestations in the southern African country are exploitation through pornography, child sex trafficking, online sexual exploitation of children and sex for a favour by adults.
The Film and Publication Board (FPB), mandated to protect children from sexual exploitation in media content, says it is taking the war to the predators with the help of law enforcement. But FPB admits there are still a lot of perpetrators operating undercover in SA.
Renowned mental health professional, Carole Nyakudya says, at times, parents become too busy they miss out on their children’s behavioural changes.
“It starts as affection, it starts off by meeting a need – kids with an emotional, financial, or physical need,” the UK-based Nyakudya explains.
She adds that while a few of these exploited children end up in the emergency room in crisis or suicidal, some end up with lifelong symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Others suffer from chronic difficulties with trust and intimacy,” she adds.
Because of the shame around sex, which predators exploit, Nyakudya says children often keep their interactions with abusers secret until they escalate out of control.
“Kids won’t want to talk to their parents about their sexual images,” she says, adding children often do not realise they are the victims.
Her advice is that parents should have candid talks with their children and take a non-judgmental stance.
“Parents should build friendly relations with their kids –be more approachable – it’s about the trust element. The child should feel safe and know they can trust them.”
Mpobane concurs: “Cyber bullies, just like cyber predator’s creep into your children’s emotions, build a house and stay there. Collecting pictures of children, cyber bullies who are both young and old will use these to embarrass your children which leads to severe social exclusion, depression and in worse cases suicide.”
A political party, the Inkatha Freedom Party has called on authorities to “act now to protect our children in the virtual world”. The party believes all forms of violence against children are unacceptable as they are a direct assault on the inviolable and inherent dignity of every child.