Online sexual exploitation and abuse of children (OSEAC) is on the rise. While digital technologies offer us great opportunities, they are also being taken advantage of by predators who are looking to exploit children in the most reprehensible ways. No country is immune to the faceless and borderless nature of online crimes. While some countries have stronger safety nets in place to safeguard children online, others are still in the early stages of grasping the complexities of online crimes against children.
In terms of active internet users, India ranks second in the world. India's internet penetration increased from 4% in 2007 to 48.7% in 2022. During the spread of COVID-19, digital technologies proved to be a great boon. For children and youth, digital technologies were often the only hope to continue their education, connect with friends and entertain themselves. However, the sudden transition to online spaces during the pandemic for education, socialization and entertainment provided little opportunity to raise awareness and teach children about the dangers of the internet and how to avoid them. This provided an easy route for predators to exploit and abuse innocent children in digital spaces.
In 2021, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a 95% increase in internet searches for child sexual abuse material in India. It also reported a 106% surge in child sexual exploitation cases reported during the pandemic. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, child cybercrimes surged over 400% in 2020 compared to 2019. Interpol data says that more than 100,000 searches are made every day related to child pornography. Meanwhile, around 22% of children in India have experienced cyberbullying at some time, according to McAfee Corp 2022.
In light of these crimes’ astounding rise, ChildFund India, in collaboration with the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR), launched the online child safety campaign #WebSafeAndWise, and a stakeholder consultation was held on July 18, 2023 in Bengaluru, Karnataka state, India. The campaign aims to make the internet a safer place for children and safeguard them from the growing dangers posed by the increased use of digital technology and internet connectivity. The goal of the stakeholder consultation was to examine critical areas of need for protecting children from online abuse, fill data gaps and explore the role of diverse stakeholders in making online spaces safer for children.
The event was attended by the Hon. Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, Government of Karnataka, Mr. Madhu Bangarappa, and the Hon. Minister of Women and Child Development, Disabled and Senior Citizens Empowerment, Mrs. Lakshmi R. Hebbalkar.
At left: Hon. Minister Hebbalkar. At right: Hon. Minister Bangarappa.
In his address, Hon. Minister Bangarappa said, “The Karnataka government extends its full support to the campaign and the scoping study on prevention of OSEAC. OSEAC is a severe crime that requires our attention and strong measures. This project will provide security for children, which is of utmost concern. I appreciate the efforts of KSCPCR, the Women and Child Development Ministry, and ChildFund India for this convergence project. I assure to take up the issue at the school and policy level.”
Hon. Minister Hebbalkar said, “I appreciate the collaborative project by KSCPCR and ChildFund India. The project will benefit children enormously. We are all responsible to protect our younger generation from all forms of violence. All the departments under Women and Child Development along with other twelve-line departments would support the prevention of OSEAC in the state.”
Finally, Hon. Chairperson of KSCPCR said, “Online spaces are a double-edged sword. While it offers great benefits, its detriments can’t be ignored. While we effectively managed the COVID crisis in Karnataka, it's time we gear up to address the menace of OSEAC. We have to collectively think about the need for age-appropriate content for children online, control mechanisms and set accountabilities.”
Read on to learn our top three takeaways from this important meeting.
We cannot work in siloes to address the complex issue of OSEAC. A comprehensive strategy should include collaboration with diverse stakeholders – government, law enforcement personnel, technology companies, philanthropic organizations, media, academia, civil society, local bodies, children, parents and caregivers. Furthermore, efforts should be made to fill in the data gaps through capacity building, awareness campaigns and educating children about the dangers of the internet.
"We firmly believe that by joining forces, the KSCPRC and ChildFund India have taken a giant step towards securing the innocence and well-being of our children in the digital age," said Mr. Rajesh R. Singh, country director of ChildFund India. “We are committed to developing a comprehensive program that not only prevents child exploitation and abuse online but also offers a safer virtual landscape for their exploration and growth."
Since the issue of OSEAC concerns children and youth most, they should play a pivotal role in determining how we plan, develop and implement the program activities that affect their well-being and safety. We spoke with two youth representatives during the event to learn about their risk perception in the age of digital technology and what policymakers can do to make online places safer for children.
"The biggest risk online is that our images can be misused and fake accounts can be created to exploit children," said Karthikeya, a youth representative. “Such incidents have an impact on our education and our mental health. Another issue is that because children use their parents' phones for education and social networking, they are regularly exposed to adult content. I urge lawmakers to ensure that children are exposed to age-appropriate content online, to implement quality online safety curriculum in schools, to establish community channels for child-safe disclosure, and to invest in digital literacy initiatives."
"Social media is not safe for children," said Yogeshwari, another youth representative. “Children are frequently subjected to cyberbullying, picture morphing, blackmail and other forms of harassment. I urge the government to raise awareness among children and other stakeholders about the prevention of online sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as to take decisive action against the perpetrators."
Yogeshwari, a youth representative at the Karnataka meeting, shows her support for the ChildFund campaign.
Child abuse both online and offline is preventable. We can ensure that children are well-equipped to mitigate threats online through education programs and awareness campaigns. Predators attempting to exploit children online must be dealt with immediately and decisively. We must strengthen the redressal systems so that children and parents can seek assistance. We should also consider the psychological well-being of child abuse victims, which is frequently overlooked.
"Online child sexual exploitation and abuse can be quite traumatic," a spokesperson from India’s National Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences said. “It has long-term consequences for the child's mental health, such as depression and suicidal thoughts. Teachers and legal practitioners should take appropriate steps to connect victims with counsellors and psychologists. Preventing such incidents must be a priority at all costs."
KSCPCR and ChildFund India will conduct a state-level scoping study to collect OSEAC data from both rural and urban areas as the next step toward a safer internet for children in Karnataka. The data will be used to create a roadmap for the prevention of OSEAC using a multi-stakeholder approach.
Gurpreet K. Bhatia is the Senior Advisor of Regional Communication, Asia at ChildFund International.
With nearly 12 years of professional experience in the development sector, Gurpreet has worked in a cross-cultural global environment leading strategic marketing, communications and advocacy. She has led advocacy events, used the power of the media to drive social change, promoted thought leadership, launched regional campaigns and appeals and guided digital transformation. Gurpreet holds a double master’s in Journalism and Mass Communication and Social Work.