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KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 — A lack of understanding or awareness over data privacy is a contributing factor to the online grooming of children and minors in Malaysia, said Prof Datuk Noor Aziah Mohd Awal.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia’s (Suhakam) commissioner for child affairs said this is applicable to both children and their parents or guardians.
“Many may not even be aware of what constitutes grooming. For example, if an adult follows a child or minor on Facebook or Instagram, later becoming the child’s friend in an attempt to become closer which could result in something serious, that is grooming,” she said.
Speaking during the virtual seminar on child online protection in the country jointly organised by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and Unicef Malaysia, Noor Aziah said it is a matter of privacy risk and exploitation.
“For example, based on data from Bukit Aman’s D11 Sexual/Domestic Violence/Child Abuse Investigation Division, 7,358 cases of crime involving children were recorded from January to August 2019.
“Similarly during the course of several focus groups involving children and teens, more than half of the participants said they had met someone in real-life, whom they first got to know online. Both boys and girls reported receiving sexual messages and images on social media,” she said.
Noor Aziah added that one promising finding from these focus groups is that the vast majority of those who were asked for sexually explicit videos or images of themselves reportedly declined to share such intimate information.
“Psychologists and social workers have noted the contradictory tension between the use of social media platforms which isolate children in the online world, but which also provide a platform for support, particularly for marginalised groups who do not have as many opportunities for self-expression in the offline world.
“Children have a right to receive and impart information. However because they are children, they are vulnerable and at risk of being exploited and misinformed,” she said.
Noor Aziah specifically highlighted the Sugarbook app, which has courted controversy for its compensated dating nature, which she said also had the unwanted effect of attracting minors to join the platform and use the app.
Sugarbook itself ended being blocked by MCMC last month on grounds of violating the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, although it is reportedly still available on the Google Play store.
“There is a concern that some of the users are those aged under 18 years of age. This is why I urged the government last month to take action against Sugarbook and its activities before they spiral out of control, as I have received information that children are also involved.
“Further research by Suhakam has revealed that children or minors have also admitted to viewing pornography online, which further puts them at risk of becoming victims to online child sexual exploitation, particularly during the lockdown period,” she said.
When asked by seminar participants on what would be the recommended methods to tackle the issue, the commissioner said it should begin with the government establishing a national data system on Internet usage by children.
“This system can monitor the category and age of children using the Internet, as well as the percentage of risks and harms of them using it, which the government can then find ways to overcome these risks and harms.
“Additionally the government needs to prioritise children, collaborate and generate collective actions among the relevant ministries to prevent and address all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation of children online,” she said.
Raising awareness among children/minors and their parents/guardians is also vital, as Noor Aziah said there is a need for special classes or lectures to be implemented highlighting the danger or risks of exploitation.
“Ideally this should be implemented when the children are already in primary school, including for the Parent-Teacher Association. But I would also recommend this be implemented for parents of newborns or parents-to-be, given that nowadays children as young as two years old are provided devices to watch cartoons on YouTube.
“This also means that elements of child online protection should also be included in pre-marriage courses or parenting courses, so as to better prepare future parents of what to expect for their future offspring,” she said.