NCRC warned of growing child online harassment cases

The National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) has warned that government functionaries, judiciary and civil society have to be strengthened to counter and prevent growing cases of online harassment of children.

In a report, `Situational analysis of child online protection in Pakistan’, the NCRC said while many children had access to mobile phone, video games and internet, which offered tremendous benefits for learning, they also faced a number of risks.

‘Children may be exposed to inappropriate content for their age or inappropriate contacts, which makes them highly vulnerable to violence including sexual abuse and exploitation a risk that is growing exponentially with the rapidly increasing use of technology, the report added. The internet’s new audio and video facilities also provided online predators with a various ways to target, reach out to, exploit and abuse children. The recent incidents of technology-facilitated violence against children have highlighted the need for efforts to protect children from cyber crime.

However, knowledge and understanding of the issue is limited partly due to the ever evolving nature of technology.

‘It is also important to analyse the issue not only through the legal framework but also through technological means.’ The report added.

Mentioning that Pakistan was the eighth largest population of internet users in the world, the report said it was important that parents limited and controlled the time their children spent on screens.

The more time children spend on screens, the unhealthier it is and the more prone they are to OCSEA. Parents also need to set ground rules for online behaviour, set expectations and discuss different forms of online child sexual exploitation and abuse (OCSEA) with children.

The report highlighted the definitions of terms, including `cyber bullying` that is when someone, usually a stranger, deliberately and repeatedly harasses another person online by sending them hurtful messages or images or posting negative things about them on websites.

This is common on social media platforms such as Facebook, X and Instagram.

The other is `Sexting` which is sending and receiving sexual messages via technology such as a phone, app, email or webcam. Sexting can include words, photos or videos such as a sexually explicit message or post, nude or seminude photos/videos, photos/ videos of sexual acts, live webcam chats with someone involving sexual acts, photos/ videos taken with a webcam, etc.

`Sextortion or sexual extortion` is blackmailing of an adult or child using (self-made) images of that person to extort sexual favours, money or other benefits from them under the threat of sharing the material without the consent of the person depicted, including posting images on social media or sending them to family members.

`Livestreaming` of child sexual abuse and exploitation means that children committing or viewing sexual acts or indecent images of children with other perpetrators are broadcast live over the internet (via webcam) to viewers.

`This happens in online chat rooms, on social media platforms and in communication apps with video chat functions,’ the report added.

Livestreaming child sexual abuse viewers can be paid or it could involve forcing a child to produce and broadcast sexual content in real time.Another dangerous trend is the `Grooming`of a child for sexual purposes that is soliciting children for sexual purposes and refers to the process of establishing a relationship with a child in person or through the internet or other digital technologies.

Both girls and boys can fall into more than one category, and this overlap of risk factors puts them at greater risk of sexual abuse and exploitation The NCRC recommended that FIA and police be strengthened with additional human, budgetary, technical and financial support to detect, evaluate and analyse child sexual abuse material.

`Currently, the FIA does not have sufficient staff, experts and tools to collect and examine digital evidence at sufficient speed,’ the report said.

It has been suggested that the government needs to strengthen the `1991 helpline` established by FIA, and the helpline should be widely publicised, including in schools and other public places accessed by children, hospitals, transport hubs, markets, etc.

`The overall response to children in need of protection must focus on child protection agencies and authorities rather than law enforcement alone,’ the report stated, adding that direct contact with children and families should be led by trained professionals as law enforcement agencies were not experts in children’s rights and child protection.

While private companies and civil society organisations can play an important role in developing technical solutions to combat OCSEA, and there is a need to conduct training for justice professionals, including prosecutors, judges and lawyers in case management and child and gender sensitive justice.

‘It is recommended that provincial governments notify and implement child protection policies which will help structure and organise appropriate prevention and response to OCSE A through coordination between stakeholders’, the report said.

Acknowledgement: Published in Daily Dawn News on 12th March 2024.

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