Chills must have run down the spine of many parents last Friday on reading about the 25-year-old Singapore warehouse assistant who was jailed for 8 months after being convicted of engaging in a sexual act with a 13-year-old girl at a staircase of a multi-storey car park. He had met her through Instagram and Facebook.
In an age where computers and mobile phones seem to rule the world, parents should realise that online sexual grooming is one of the Web’s biggest threats. Indeed, they’ll need to know how to protect their children from such dangers.
Shem Yao, senior coach at TOUCH Cyber Wellness, explains the term, “Grooming is the act of building up a trusting and emotional relationship with a minor, usually with the purpose of sexual exploitation, gratification or abuse. Online sexual grooming is the act of grooming through an online platform, such as social media or messaging platforms.”
In recent years, Singapore has an escalation in online grooming offences. In April this year, a 20-year-old was convicted for befriending girls as young as 12 on social media, then committing various sexual offences against more than 10 of them.
In December last year, a 45-year-old man was also jailed for sexually grooming a 14-year-old, whom he kept in contact with via Facebook. The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has also seen a rise in cases of sexual abuse, with a spike in online cases.
This is what you need to know about keeping your children safe from becoming victims of online grooming.
“Grooming is the act of building up a trusting and emotional relationship with a minor, usually with the purpose of sexual exploitation, gratification or abuse.”
How prevalent is online grooming in Singapore?
No exact figures are available as regards the number of children who are targeted, but the DQ Institute reports that 16 per cent of children surveyed in Singapore had been involved with online sexual behaviour, states Abdul Rahman Kamarudin, a case worker at MeToYou Cyber Care. Some 12 per cent had also met online strangers in real life, which is linked to grooming.
He adds, “The Ministry of Social and Family Development reported that child sexual abuse is on the rise, with 181 cases in 2017, an increase from 107 in 2016.”
Another worrying trend is how children as young as age 7 are accessing social media and online gaming sites ― platforms most predators tap. Indeed, the former Media Development Authority reported that 65 per cent of children surveyed in 2015 used social media ― YouTube, Facebook and Instagram are top platforms.
What tactics do predators use to target kids?
Most predators prey on online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and even Internet games.
Abdul Rahman notes, “Upon targeting the child, they attempt to catfish (that is, pretending to be someone else, most often picking up an identity that is close to the child’s age). The predator would pretend to have similar interests, treat the child with gifts and shower him or her with attention.”
He explains that these “positive” experiences result in a sense of trust developing between child and predator. Predators then steer conversations towards sexual topics, tricking their victims into having online sexual activity (such as displaying intimate areas over a webcam and sending obscene images) or arranging face-to-face meetings.
Yao says, “Recent cases highlight that many minors are sexually curious but have no proper understanding about sex. Predators prey on their curiosity, engaging in sexual gratification by providing misinformation about topics like sex and masturbation.”
How can I educate my child about this issue?
“Parents should talk to their children about sex from a young age using age-appropriate content,” Yao advises. “For example, parents can teach young kids (preschool to lower Primary) what a “good” or “bad” touch is, and what they should do when others ask to see their private parts or talk about sex with them.”
Parents also have various roles to play when it comes to raising children in this digital age, Abdul Rahman notes. MeToYou Cyber Care advises parents to play the roles of Protector, Educator and Friend:
PROTECTOR: Monitor your child’s online usage/activities. Try to learn what platforms they engage in and join these platforms to understand what they are used for.
Should you have concerns, ask to view their messages or the interactions they have with online friends. Explain that you have to develop trust between the both of you.
Dad Jerry Jiang says, “I set up a family account to supervise what my son is doing, so I know whom he contacts. I also don’t let him use the Internet, unless there’s a specific purpose.”
“Parents should talk to their children about sex from a young age using age-appropriate content…teach young kids (preschool to lower Primary) what a “good” or “bad” touch is.”
EDUCATOR: Parents can educate children with the SMART model developed by Kidsmart, UK’s internet safety programme website.
S ― Keep safe by not giving out personal information (names, e-mail or home addresses, phone numbers, or school names) to people you don’t know online. Remind your children that individuals they meet online may not be who they say they are.
M ― Meeting someone you have only been in touch with online can be dangerous. Only do so with your parents’ permission and when they can be present.
A ― Accepting e-mails, messages or opening files from people you don’t know can be dangerous ― they may contain viruses or nasty messages.
R ― Someone online may be lying about who they are, and information you find on the internet may not be reliable.
T ― Tell your parent, caregiver or a trusted adult if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried.
Mum Michelle Long says. “Since my daughter was 2 or 3, I’ve read and discussed with her news relating to the dangers of online predators,” she says. “Sharing real cases in the news has reminded her to stay alert and avoid communicating with strangers.”
FRIEND: Spend quality time with your children by planning and doing fun activities together. You’ll grow closer, and your child will know that he or she can confide in you about any concerns.
Jiang adds, “I try to spend time together with my son online. We’ll play developmental games that are both beneficial and fun.”
What are the warning signs of online grooming?
Both Yao and Rahman agree that signs of online grooming are hard to spot, given how children tend to be secretive about the situation. Nevertheless, there are certain behaviours that groomed children tend to exhibit, such as:
- Spending more time online, especially late at night.
- Having difficulty staying away from their handphones/social media platforms.
- Being elusive about their online interaction with others (such as changing screen tabs), or resistant to parents checking their online chats.
- Receiving gifts that are beyond what they can afford. Having new things like clothes or phones they can’t account for, or excessive cash.
- Having much older boyfriends or girlfriends.
- Using sexual language you did not expect them to know.
- Going to unusual places to meet friends.
- Appearing sad, withdrawn, unusually preoccupied, anxious or aggressive.
What do I do if I suspect my child is a target?
“Talk to your child and request to view the conversation thread to understand what has transpired between both parties,” advises Yao. “Your child should not feel condemned ― they should know their parents are there to support them.”
If your child continues to remain withdrawn, share your concern of their well-being as a conversation starter, says Rahman. Show that you love them, and are worried about their change in behaviour. Then, explore with them the reasons behind their behaviour.
Ultimately, your little one needs to know they can approach you with honesty, no matter how much trouble they may have gotten into.
My child has become a victim of sexual grooming. What should I do?
Grooming is an offence under Singapore’s Penal Code section 376E, and so is sexual exploitation of a child or young person (under Chapter 38 of the Children and Young Persons Act).
“If sexual abuse is suspected, parents should make a police report immediately,” Yao advises. “They should also secure the devices (mobile phones, computers or tablets) where most of the online interaction occurred, and take screenshots of the conversations as well. These will provide necessary evidence for the police.”
Parents can also reach out to the following community organisations:
AWARE provides counselling and legal advice for girls who are victims of grooming.
Tel: 6779-0282 (Sexual Assault Care Centre)/6779-7137 (general enquiries)
MeToYou Cyber Care provides case counselling for both youths (12 to 18 years old) and family members regarding overcoming cyber wellness obstacles.
The TOUCHline provides support from counsellors who specialise in youth-related issues.
Tel: 1800 377-2252
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