Online child sexual abuse and exploitation

By Ifeanyi Mbaegbu
The increasing transition of children from the physical space to the cyber space has been a frontline issue across the globe in recent years. Over the last three months, the spread and usage of internet and other related Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) among children and young people have increased significantly in Nigeria and in all parts of the world. This development has been a positive development since it facilitates access to information and communication and bridges the gaps between young people as they remained at home during the lockdown. ICT as an integral part of modern life plays an important role in the educational and social development of children. Availability of internet has gone a long way in reducing boredom and keeping children away from domestic vices as they go through the lockdown. These advantages notwithstanding, it also poses new risks for children’s safety, personal development, and well-being. The use of internet by children has worrisome consequences and implications. Major among them is Online child sexual abuse and exploitation.
Online child sexual abuse and exploitation is the use of information and communication technology as a means of sexual abuse and exploitation of children. For sexual abuse to take place online, the abused and the abuser do not require face-to-face contact. However, online abuse can result in physical sexual harassment or assault when prolonged. As technology constantly develops, new forms of sexual exploitation of children online also emerge. There are indications to suggest that online activities during this lockdown has increased the risks for sexual abuse and exploitation of children in both online and offline settings.
Many parents are losing their children this period to online predators without knowing it. Are you sure that your child is not a victim? It may surprise you to discover that the child you gave a good night peck by 10pm is online from 1am to 4am, participating in a variety of social media platforms and communication apps that perpetrators can utilize to gain access not only to the child’s accounts but more so to his/her brain and to your family.
The information children and young people receive online go an awfully long way in shaping their thinking and life values more than the sermons preached in some of our churches today. There is huge amount of information on the net accessible by children who cannot tell their left from their right when it comes to making the right choice on what to consume and what not to consume online. The information we take in today will determine who we shall be tomorrow.
Young people easily trust their abusers who have very tactful and deceitful ways of winning their victims’ confidence. Once abuse sets in, exploitation and blackmail follow. Abused children feel trapped and no way to escape from the abuser and often blame themselves for the abuse. They can also feel powerless, humiliated, and ashamed of their situation and try to hide it from their parents and tend to resolve it on their own, only to end up prolonging the vicious cycle of abuse, exploitation and blackmail.
In Nigeria, online child sexual abuse is recognized as a form of child abuse and an offence against morality as contained in Chapter 21 of Criminal Code Act, “Offences Against Morality”. Child pornography, grooming and sexual abuse is criminalized under section 23 in Article 27 of The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, 1990. Nigeria made a giant stride in the fight against online child abuse by signing into law the Cybercrimes Prohibition, Prevention Act of 2015. All these laws and prohibitions notwithstanding, the incidences are spreading like wildfire, especially during this lockdown and these unfortunately have not been comprehensively and systematically studied. It remains among the least-reported form of bullying because of its virtual, distanced, and anonymous nature. It is a hidden crime, where the vast majority of both victims and offenders remain unidentified, including abused children who are living under the same roof with their parents. Detection and deterrence from online sexual abuse are difficult because of the anonymous nature of the internet; however, detecting that a child is abused online remains the primary task of the parents.

Effects of Online Sexual Abuse on Children
Online sexual abuse can have devastating psychological, emotional and physical effects on victims for life because unlike other forms of abuse, the child can potentially be re-victimized millions of times every time an obscene image is watched, sent or received and has a very high potential of making the child an abuser while still being abused.
Victims of online sexual abuse often feel guilty and negative about themselves. They have low self-esteem and excessive fear for their own safety. Children who are sexually abused either online or offline have poor mental and psychological health and sometimes their physical wellbeing is affected too. They are often low performers academically. In most cases victims will require counselling and therapy for rehabilitation.
Keep Your Children Safe Online
It is not enough to provide your child with devices and data to go online. Parents have it as a duty to monitor what their children do online. They may need to take a second look at the private life of their children anytime some of the signs mentioned above begin to manifest. Kids need information and education on how to surf the net and what to consume online. Children who use the Internet without supervision are potential victims of online sexual abuse.
Bring your children close and instill confidence in them to discuss any inappropriate activity such as unwanted online sexual solicitation from anybody including family members.
Creation of awareness on online child sexual exploitation and building skills for more efficient advocacy by all stake holders, government, schools, parents, religious leaders and agencies who are into child advocacy are paramount to curbing this menace.
Children’s Internet Protection Act should be established by the Federal Government to give legal protection to children who use the internet.
There is need to tackle the sexual exploitation of children online more effectively by promoting the deployment of technical tools to find and remove images and videos of child sexual abuse online and at the same time build partnerships with government, law enforcement agencies, the technology and internet industry, NGOs and United Nations agencies.
Finally, in addition to what schools will do to receive their students, there is need to develop a mechanism of identification of behavioral changes in students who were victims of sexual abuse during the lockdown and give them support for capacity-building and rehabilitation.

Reverend Brother Mbaegbu is the Principal of Marist College, Yangoji, Abuja.