Why India is failing to protect its children from online sexual abuse

To create safe digital spaces for our children and adolescents, policymakers, law enforcement agencies, civil society organizations, communities, the private sector, and experts need to come together

The past decade has witnessed notable growth in internet usage in not only India but also the world at large. In January 2021, India had 624 million internet users with over 8 percent growth over the previous year.

According to a UNICEF report, one in three internet users globally is a child. And while we don’t know the exact numbers, a significant number of Indian users also include children. Approximately seven  percent of Facebook users are between 13 and 17 years old. A study conducted on internet addiction among Indian adolescents found that 47 percent of adolescents have “moderate” internet addiction while 24 percent have a “high level” of internet addiction.

School closures and the shift towards online education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a surge in young people’s online activities.

The consequences of this include an increase in cybercrime.

Risky online behaviour, lack of parental guidance, the proliferation of cybercrime and inadequate safeguards are laying the ground for an increase in online child sexual exploitation and abuse in India.

Broadly, such abuse and exploitation includes online grooming, making and circulating child sexual abuse material, and live-streaming abuse. Other related activities include cyber-bullying, cyber-harassment, cyber-stalking, and exposure to harmful content. Another prevalent form of abuse is when explicit photos, shared with consent among two people, are circulated in public without consent.

Limited measures have been taken to protect children from such exploitation. A 2018 study published in the website Comparitech reported that 37 percent of Indian parents confirmed that their children had experienced cyberbullying. Yet there is a severe lack of awareness among children, parents, teachers, and the community about the growing and evolving nature of online exploitation and abuse.

Until 2012, National Crime Records Bureau, or NCRB, did not include statistics on online sexual abuse and exploitation of children and the issue received little attention in India. Now, the database records such crimes under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, and the Indian Penal Code, 1860. In 2019, the government created a Cell for online child abuse and exploitation at the Central Bureau of Investigation.

An actual number of incidences of exploitation and abuse is not available given that NCRB only records reported crimes. Several child-rights experts blame the culture of silence in India around sexual- and reproductive-health issues for underreporting of online child abuse. There is a real dearth of sources of reliable information on rights related to sexual and reproductive health.

The growing internet usage in the context of COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation. While the internet provides a vast repository of knowledge, lack of digital socialization and education increase young people’s risks to abuse, harassment, and violence.

To create safe digital spaces for our children and adolescents, policymakers, law enforcement agencies, civil society organizations, communities, the private sector, and experts need to come together. Safer access to the internet is concerned with the freedom and choice of children and overall democratization in learning as recognized in the Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC)—an international agreement signed by countries in 1989.

Experts and agencies have recommended including digital parenting, parental mediation, education and training of children in schools, and robust information-technology laws and regulations. Internet-safety rules and practices should be included in the school curriculum and teachers’-training programmes, and parents should be made aware of them.

The children too need to be reached out to. They need to be provided with resources and platforms to seek support when required. The government needs to introduce comprehensive sexuality education in the school curricula. This will create a safe, positive, non-judgmental space for children, adolescents, and young people to access information in an age-appropriate manner, based on evidence rather than morality.

The Population Foundation of India, where we work, launched SnehAI, a chatbot that seeks to address the lack of availability of accurate information on sexual and reproductive health and raise awareness on consent, and violence. Powered by artificial intelligence, SnehAI provides adolescents a platform where they can get information on a range of issues that affect them. It seeks to equip adolescents with information and resources to identify and report online abuse.

Such initiatives need to be adopted or scaled up by the government for children to access the right information at the right time and be safe from online CSEA.

Poonam Muttreja is executive director at Population Foundation of India. Alok Vajpeyi is joint director/head knowledge management, Population Foundation of India

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