Time for society to act and make internet safe for children in Thailand
Making the Internet safer for children is a complex task that requires many parts of society to coalesce with their respective expertise and care, but above all the mindset of society needs to change to ensure real improvement.
Approximately 400,000 children aged 12-17 in Thailand fell victim to online sexual exploitation and abuse in 2021, equivalent to 9 per cent of children, according to the report "Disrupting Harm in Thailand" by UNICEF, ECPAT, and INTERPOL.
The report reveals distressing situations where children were either coerced by strangers or individuals mostly known to them into sharing explicit photos. Some were subjected to blackmail or coerced into sexual acts through promises of money or gifts.
Many of the children who decided to tell someone didn’t get the kind of help they needed or didn't even get an acknowledgement from the adults that there were problems. Some of them ended their lives to get away from it, while the survivors are scarred for life.
“Online risk and harm is an extremely challenging issue as it can happen to any child, anywhere, at any time,” said Kyungsun Kim, UNICEF Representative for Thailand. “We need to work as one and be ahead of the game. That means strengthening our efforts to raise awareness among children and young people, robust legislation and enforcement, and comprehensive child protection and support services to combat these horrific harms online against children.”
Kim emphasised the need to equip children and their caregivers with essential tools, such as digital literacy, critical thinking, and open communication channels to enhance their knowledge and awareness.
“Globally, it is a problem. It is not only in Thailand or Southeast Asia. It is everywhere. When you look at academic research, it tells you that online sexual violence is not necessarily always reported. So all the governments are always struggling,” Muhammad Rafiq Khan, Chief Child Protection of UNICEF Thailand, told The Nation.
Issues of great concern
Rafiq said the study showed three issues were of great concern and they were related to privacy and protection-related. “In very simple terms, they are sextortion, grooming, and self-generated child sexual abuse material.”
Grooming is a type of abuse in which a grown-up pretends to have a connection with a child and wins over their trust and then slowly and gradually, after building that trust, abuses them.
That abuse could turn into sextortion because the person could be recording the abuse and then they would ask the child to give them money or additional sexual favours.
Then there is self-generated Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). “What does that mean? If you are a 16- or 17-year-old child in Thailand, you have a smartphone….you are probably going to send a picture of yourself to a person that you are attracted to. That conversation is happening between two people. So, you may send a picture that you in normal times will not share with anybody else in the public domain. But if there is a breakup, if things don't go well for the 17-year-old, your picture is already with the other person. The digital trail is there,” Rafiq explained.
He said CSAM is a big global issue at the moment, not only in Thailand. More and more teenagers around the world find themselves in a situation where the images of them topless or in other compromising positions, though no one forced them to pose, are being circulated online.
Rafiq said the best strategy is always to place or have interventions in place that could actually prevent that violence from happening. The idea resonates among experts in the field.
As a part of law enforcement, Yosson Ruangsunngamsiri, deputy director of the Bureau of Technology and Cyber Crime at the Department of Special Investigation, said that although his job involved prosecution, what needed to be done seriously was to prevent these incidents from happening.
Children have to learn the online risks, of being hacked, attacked, or abused. They also have to know from whom they can get help. “And the important part is the person being told has to know what they should do about this,” said Yosson
The deputy also has two sons. He learned that schools generally don’t educate children about internet danger and that schools do not teach children how to seek help.
Sombat Tapanya believes the most difficult part is how to teach children to be internet literate.
Sombat is the founder of Peace Culture Foundation, and also a trained clinical psychologist. He has been working on this issue for many years. He said adults like to say children are just addicted to screens. “That's because adults let them do that since they were very young,” he said. The mindset needs to be adjusted. “Parents need to care more,” said Sombat.
Not just parents, officials need to be aware too. Yosson said there were cases ignored just because some officials didn’t see this as anything serious.
One of the reasons sexual abuse goes unreported is because the subject is considered taboo in Thai society. Even if there was evidence that a child was lured to take graphic photos, there was a good chance the parents would just deny it was their children, out of embarrassment.
“We have to talk [about it] more. Everyone feels embarrassed talking about this subject.” Sombat said if the subject of sexually abused children was discussed regularly, more people would become aware, including children. He even suggested putting up signage at common space for children, such as schools.
A bigger issue than the legal amendment is how we can produce efficient officers. How can we take good care of our children?” asks Wanchai Roujanavong, from the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) on Children’s Rights.
He says it is not difficult. But we need to be faster to catch up with evolving technology and the tactics that criminals employ.
We need to make sure children learn the risks of online interactions, how to protect themselves, and where they can seek help, he says. The part dealing with children, Wanchai believes, needs big involvement from the Ministry of Education. Otherwise, he said, it would be hopeless.
The school can be the focal point. “They need to be included within what our children are learning in school. That is the best way we can prevent or at least let children know what are the risks. Whether those risks turn into harms, that's a different story,” said Rafiq.
On the other hand, parents need to know how to notice if anything changes, even slightly, as most of the children will not tell their parents directly.
Police officers also need to be informed and readjust their perspective on this issue. They have to know what can be identified as exploitation, abuse, crimes, etc.
Yosson said that laws have been proposed to criminalise online child exploitation. As of now, they are at the Office of Justice Affairs, and then they will be sent to Parliament for consideration.
He said everyone seemed to realise how important and urgent these issues were, and therefore the laws should be able to get approval soon.
However, Sombat said that whatever we do, does not keep pace. He was just observing a court case that happened four years ago. A child was sexually abused, and the case is still under judicial process. He said some of these cases could drag on for a decade. The defendants can appeal if found guilty.