Protecting children against dark net dangers

With children incrementally accessing the internet and venturing into the Dark Net, educating, enabling and guiding children — especially tweens and teens — to use the internet beneficially and safely has become an important parental obligation, writes Poornima Dilip, Cynthia John & Mini P.

The all-pervasive internet is a blessing which can transform into a curse if not used safely and sensibly. While the worldwide web has made a vast ocean of information, real-time communication and a plethora of services unimaginable in the 20th century accessible, it has a dangerous dark underside.
Over the past decade in particular the dark net has parallelly transformed into a hyperactive criminal cyberspace in which a frenzy of financial frauds, identity theft, online sexual abuse, child pornography, among other heinous crimes have become commonplace. According to the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), at least one cybercrime is reported every 10 minutes countrywide. And within the exponentially growing number of internet users countrywide — 658 million currently — children, especially adolescents, most vulnerable to cybercrimes.
With teenage children being permitted easier access to the internet by parents, especially after the Covid pandemic prompted a shift to online learning, they are increasingly becoming easy targets of online bullies, sexual predators, scamsters and sundry perverts in online chat rooms, digital games zones and social media platforms. A recent survey by the popular US-based anti-virus software company McAfee, found that Indian children have the highest exposure to ‘online risks’ among 12,000 children surveyed from ten countries including the US, UK, and Mexico. The study titled Life Behind the Screens of Parents, Tweens and Teens, also noted that 90 percent of adolescents aged 15-16 years own/or have easy access to a smartphone or mobile device. It also revealed that 59 percent of tweens/teens hide their online activity from parents.
With children incrementally accessing the internet and venturing into the Dark Net, it’s unsurprising that there’s a 400 percent increase in recorded cybercrimes committed against children — 842 in 2020 cf. 164 in 2019. Most of them relate to publishing and/or transmitting online materials depicting children in perverse sexual activity. According to the National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB), the Top 5 states reporting cybercrimes against children in 2020-21: Uttar Pradesh (170), Karnataka (144), Maharashtra (137), Kerala (107) and Odisha (71).
Cybercrimes apart, the huge spurt in access to internet and social media is playing havoc with children’s mental health. Cases of children suffering digital addiction, anxiety and depression are rising exponentially. Recently, a local government in Seattle (USA) filed a novel lawsuit against hi-tech transnational ICT giants Meta, Google and others which own social media platforms TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, faulting them for damaging children’s mental health and well-being.
Therefore in these troubled times, educating, enabling and guiding children — especially tweens and teens — to use the internet safely and wisely has become an important parental obligation. In the pages following, we provide specially curated information about common online dangers, their damaging impact and ways and means to protect children from them.

Online pornography
In the UK, 53 percent of children aged 11-16 years have watched online pornography at least once, while in the US, 20-30 percent of children aged 10-12 years have reported exposure to pornography. Though exact figures are unavailable for India, it’s estimated that 30 percent of children have viewed online pornography.
“Before the pandemic, I kept my daughter’s digital devices and internet use under control. But after the pandemic lockdown of schools when education went online, I was forced to provide her a laptop. Just eight months after online school started, when checking her browsing history, I was shocked to find she had been viewing pornographic sites every day. When I confronted her, she revealed that some of her classmates had shared these links with her. Considering my daughter was only 10 years old, I was devastated. I took her to a psychologist who counselled her. Now I have installed parental control software and closely monitor her internet browsing record. But the harm done won’t be easily undone,” laments Pooja Gupta, a Hyderabad-based software engineer whose daughter is now in class VI.
Childcare experts and counsellors are unanimous that premature exposure to sexual and pornographic online content is harmful to teens. It provokes aggression, intimacy disorders, substance abuse and sexual experimentation. India’s third National Family Health Survey report (2005-2006) reveals that 13 percent of girls have had sexual intercourse before age 15, and 43 percent before they turn 18. Another survey found that one in every five adolescents smokes 13-15 cigarettes per day.
“My 15-year-old son is very active on social media chats. Initially I didn’t pay much attention to it as I thought he was chatting with school friends. But soon I suspected something was wrong and to my horror, I found that he was chatting with strangers and arranging drinking parties. Recently I discovered that some of his friends are indulging in abusive substances. I am very worried about him and have solicitated professional help,” says Rinki Dasgupta, a Gurugram-based entrepreneur.

In internet parlance, young children are ‘groomed’ by online predators through frequent interaction to win their trust for purposes of sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking. It’s becoming increasingly common for predators with fake identities to win the confidence of vulnerable children by using fake profile pictures, pretending to have similar interests, offering gifts and flattering and seducing children. Once they win a child’s trust, the groomer steers the conversation towards sexual experiences, persuading them to send nude photographs or videos of themselves and later blackmails them.

Cyber bullying
This new form of child abuse has become very easy with millions of people including young children interacting through social media, text messages, chat, and websites. Though most people tend to dismiss online bullying as harmless because it doesn’t involve physical contact with the victim, it can emotionally wreck children and in many cases, lead to physical abuse. Worse, the advantage of being anonymous and/or impersonating others emboldens perpetrators to often indulge in criminal activity.

Warning signs
Most teenage children won’t admit to online abuse or bullying or that they are victims of online financial fraud. Child psychologists advise parents to watch out for these tell-tale signs:
• Your child has suddenly lost interest in academics and scores poorly in tests/exams.
• Academic disinterest is often accompanied by decreased participation in extracurricular activities such as sports.
• New social circle. She may acquire a completely new set of friends.
• Change in eating habits, mostly reduced appetite.
• Secretive. She is constantly online and resents you going through her possessions or checking her online history.
• Abused children prefer to be alone, locked in their rooms and avoid family gatherings.
• Exhibits incremental agitation, irritability and anxiety.
• Look for reduced energy and sleep problems. She may be sleeping too much or too little, exhausted with low energy levels.
• She lies and/or steals money.

If your teen is in cyber trouble…
• Discuss the issue with her in a non-confrontational manner. Ask ‘open-ended’ questions rather than making judgmental statements. Inquire about stressors at school or elsewhere.
• Reassure her of your complete support and cooperation.
• Reiterate that you are willing to forgive temporary addictions such as viewing pornography if she promises to make amends.
• Educate her about the dangers of online pornography and sexually explicit content.
• Consult a professional counsellor if a situation is overwhelming.
• Alert the police if a stranger has asked for contact information or has exhibited knowledge of the child’s whereabouts.
• If you know the perpetrator, confront him/her, which could be through parents or the school, if it’s a classmate.
• Give your child the options to confide in a teacher, counsellor or aunt if she isn’t comfortable communicating with you.

Focus on children’s mental well-being
Dr. Saumya Goyal, a Hyderabad-based counselor, psychologist and national president of the WICCI Mental Health Council, believes that parents should go above and beyond monitoring children’s digital usage and educate them about cybercrimes. She provides five advisories for parents to safeguard children against online predators.
Be a parent not ‘friend’. While it’s important for parents to be friendly and reassuring, they should not abdicate responsibility and dump important decisions on teenage children. Adolescents are emotionally immature and need guidance and advice.
Discuss vices and values. Stress the importance of virtues such as truthfulness, patience, punctuality, discipline, and discuss moral rights and wrongs. Adolescence is the right time to discuss the dangers of premature sexual indulgence and substance abuse. It’s important for teens to get information and guidance from parents rather than casual and/or jokey advice from peers and online pundits.
Practice what you preach. If parents weekend entertainment frequently involves smoking, drinking and partying, your teens will emulate your example. If you want your children to behave responsibly, set a good example.
Love children most when they deserve it least. There will be times when you feel alienated and disconnected from your teen. The times they fall are when they need you most. Be there for them — emotionally and physically — without judgement and criticism.
Monitor digital devices usage. Parents should monitor children’s digital usage: the websites they visit, who they chat with online and social media platforms they frequent. Also invest time in keeping up-to-date about trendy new websites/social media fads.

Cyber safety guide for parents

Cybercrimes investigator and security consultant, V4Web Cyber Security, Mumbai, Ritesh Bhatia believes that teenage children are very vulnerable to online identity theft, cyberbullying, sexual abuse and blackmail. Also founder of the anti-cyberbullying organisation — Cyber B.A.A.P. i.e, Cyber Bullying Awareness, Action and Prevention — Bhatia offers important online safety measures that parents are advised to heed.
• Ensure children’s laptop camera is switched off when not in use. Spyware software can turn it on to capture photos and videos which can then be used for sextortion, blackmail and extortion. Instruct children to keep their laptops shut when not in use, or cover the camera lens with a tape, removing it only when they need to use it.
• Prohibit children from sharing personal details like Aadhar card number, date of birth, address, school name and location. Social media networks are a deep mine for sexual predators and cyberbullies searching for personal information.
• Don’t allow yourself/children to be tagged in photos.
• Instruct children to never click links and games that offer big prize money. Most of them are scams and compromise online safety.
• Don’t share your credit card number, password etc with children. Always pay for their purchases personally.
• Install parental control apps freely available on the Internet (see box p.14)

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