Online child abuse spikes amid pandemic

By Phan Duong   October 29, 2021 | 05:28 am PT
Vietnamese children face greater risks of sexual abuse with prolonged school closures and online classes exposing them to exploitation via social networks.

A month before graduating, Khanh Ngoc, a high school student in Hanoi, received a message from a strange Facebook account. Opening it, she encountered rude and vulgar language, prompting her to immediately press delete. Even though she did not respond, the account continued to harass her a few more times.

About a week later, while chatting with friends in an online group, Ngoc discovered she was not the only victim since dozens of her friends at school had received similar harassing messages.

The culprit pretended to be a member of the school's photography group taking photos for the yearbook. The person messaged students to ask them for their photos, using the excuse of "losing the original image files."

After obtaining the photos, the offender would set up fake accounts using these images to post harassing messaged online. Some of the photos even circulated on Twitter and were posted on dark webs along with victims’ phone numbers.

"We reported to the police, but the person used a lot of fake accounts, so it was difficult to track down who it was," Ngoc said.

A sixth-grader in Hanoi studies online using a laptop. Illustration photo by Phan Duong

A sixth-grader in Hanoi studies online using a laptop. Illustration photo by Phan Duong

Global Threat Assessment published in mid-October by WeProtect, comprising over 200 governments, private sector companies and civil society organizations combatting online child abuse and exploitation, stated: "Covid-19 created a 'perfect storm' fueling a rise in the sexual exploitation and abuse of children across the globe" during the past two years.

Accordingly, online sexual abuse and exploitation of children have reached its highest level in many countries. For example, in the U.S., the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children processes 60,000 reports of the sexual abuse of children online each day.

In Vietnam, experts said there have never been as many online child abuse cases as now.

Nguyen Thi Thu Huong, deputy director of Vietnam Women's Academy, said during the social distancing period, children are at a higher risk of being abused and exploited online when exposed to social networks .

According to a report by the National Hotline on Child Protection 111, from May to August 2021, about 600 cases of abuse and violence were received each month on average, an increase of nearly 1.5 times compared to the first three months of this year.

In 2020, the number of calls for intensive consultation on abusive and violent content accounted for more than 47 percent, an increase of 7.2 percent compared to 2019.

Operator Nguyen Viet Dung, recalled he received a call from an 8th-grade girl from northern Ha Nam Province in September. Because she was sad about family problems and studying pressure, she often shared negative emotions on her personal page. He said a person actively connected with her, got acquainted, gave her gifts and slowly gained her trust.

Then the suspect lured her to send photos or videos of sensitive body parts, saying these videos were her "proofs of love" and promising to "keep them private."

Gradually, this person forced her to send videos every day. When she didn't want to continue, the person threatened to publish her old videos.

Experts have advised the girl that the danger behind this behavior is defamation, blackmail, even abuse in real life.

"Once the images are spread, it will be very difficult to control. When the children call our hotline, we will also assist them in taking down the images and videos as much as possible," Dung added.

Nguyen Viet Dung operates the National Hotline 111 on Child Protection during his shift on Oct. 21. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong

Nguyen Viet Dung operates National Hotline 111 on Child Protection during his shift, Oct. 21, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong

Due to the pandemic and social distancing regulations, Vietnamese students aged six and older have had to study online and use social networks to communicate with their teachers, and friends.

Nguyen Phuong Linh, director of Management and Sustainable Development Institute (MSD), said they can face risks of being exploited and are vulnerable to abuse, especially sexual abuse in the online environment.

"With the anonymity of the Internet, a child abuser can be anyone," Linh warned.

Abusive behavior on the Internet manifests in a variety of ways, such as stealing personal information, sexual abuse by threatening to post sensitive images, forced sending pornographic images and videos, harassment via texting, cyber-bullying, sending verbal attacks and threats and many others.

Abusers often approach children through forums, social networks, or chat rooms, or online games. Then they build trust by praising, caring, giving gifts and money. The abuser often creates sympathy for the child's emotions. When children are off guard, they ask for photos, videos, and sensitivity footage.

If children refuse, they threaten to tell their parents, friends or spread the pictures and videos they already have. This stage is often beyond the ability of children to handle.

According to Nguyen Thi Nga, deputy director of the Department of Child Affairs, there is currently a legal framework against online child abuse in Vietnam, with fines of up to several tens of millions of dong (VND10 million = $438).

There are many ways to prevent children from being abused online, but there is no better way than for parents to build companionship with their children, let them trust and seek support when needed.

"Being friends with your child is not easy. Parents shouldn't play the role of questioning 'police', or judging 'court' regarding their child's behavior," Linh advised.

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