KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 30 — Would you know if your child is in danger or has already become a victim of online sexual abuse? What are the warning signs to watch for to protect your children?

Bukit Aman’s Sexual, Women and Child Investigation Division’s (D11) principal assistant director Assistant Commissioner of Police Siti Kamsiah Hassan said some obvious red flags would be if parents find their children behaving differently or changing their daily routine.

“Among others, generally, which parents can see, they may be able to see changes in the child, maybe the child starts to look depressed, or isolates themselves, or doesn’t talk much, it feels like they don’t want to share.

“Or normally they like to go out, suddenly they don’t want to go out. Whether it’s physical changes or emotional changes, these are the basic things that the parents have to see,” she told Malay Mail in a recent interview.

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Sometimes, however, such signs may no longer just be “red flags” but indication that the child has already encountered harm or sexual abuse, she said.

Siti Kamsiah said parents should not wait for any agencies or authorities to issue a list of “red flags” for them to use, and to proactively observe their children — such as if they start to display sexualised behaviour.

For example, parents should stop their children if they start to behave inappropriately and abnormally, such as speaking lewdly and dressing more revealingly, and make sure they know the necessary manners and etiquette, she said.

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Teaching boundaries

She said parents must be alert about the online risks and dangers to their children, keep up with the latest trends, and be technically proficient enough to use parental controls in devices that offer them.

However, Siti Kamsiah said the key to protecting children from online harm is still to teach them to have “self-control” and how to behave online when chatting with others, as parents would not be able to always monitor their children’s online activities and as children may find ways to bypass parental control tools.

“They have to educate their child — we can talk to anyone, but if while talking to someone, for example a conversation with more sexual elements appears, they have to teach their child that is a trigger point and that the child cannot carry on talking to that person.

“So, they have to educate their child, there must be limits to socialising, you can chat with anyone but when it already goes against manners, we can’t simply talk about sexual things, lewd things.

“They have to teach the child, educate the child so that they know the boundaries of chatting. How can we simply ask people to take off their clothing, send photos? And when we teach our child where the boundary is, they can’t touch others, they can’t do this, they can’t simply open others’ clothing, so from there, the child already has self-control,” she said.

Parents should also teach their children not to share any material of their private parts to others, what is an “unsafe touch”, and sex education instead of letting children discover these on their own, while schools should also teach school children that they cannot simply touch others or remove their clothing, she said.

In schools, teachers or counsellors can also check in on students to see if they are facing problems, she said.

Watch out for these vulnerable ages

Based on the number of cases reported to the police, Siti Kamsiah said the most vulnerable age group for children who become victims of sexual crimes are those in the age group of 13 to 15 years old, followed by the age group of 16 to 18 years old, and the third most vulnerable would be those aged under the age of 12.

She explained that this is because teenagers between 13 and 15 are in the age group where they are in a transition phase to become adolescents and experience biological changes and may start to have sexual desire, and can leave the house on their own as compared to primary school children who are also less mature, and will also have a wider social network and may start dating.

Teens of this will also start to have access to devices such as mobile phones, which means they have higher risks of falling victims to online sexual crimes — such as sexual communication or the sending of sexually explicit messages or photos to them — without even leaving home, she said.

They could be victims of either non-physical sexual assault or physical sexual assault, she said.

As for teenagers aged 16 to 18, cases where they are reported to be victims typically involve physical contact such as rape cases and physical sexual assault, she said.

This is because for this age group, cases would typically be reported to the police when parents are able to detect such sexual crimes against their children, which is also usually when physical harm has occurred.

But this does not mean that teenagers aged 16 to 18 do not experience online sexual abuse, as they may have experienced it at the 13 to 15-year-old phase but it was not detected by parents or others and did not become a reported case or statistic then, she said.

As for those aged 12 and below, such children would typically be victims in cases such as non-physical sexual assault, rape as well as incest.

In fact, based on D11’s statistics provided to Malay Mail, out of a total of 18,326 child victims of nine different types of sexual crimes in Malaysia reported to police in 2018 to November 30, 2023, half of those victims or 9,203 victims were aged 13 to 15, while nearly a quarter or 4,354 victims were aged 16 to 18.

Based on D11’s statistics, during the same period from 2018 to November 2023, the top three types of sexual crimes which children in Malaysia were victims of were rape at 8,411 victims (nearly 46 per cent), physical sexual assault on a child at 6,357 (nearly 35 per cent), and incest at 1,679 (nine per cent).

In other words, for the 18,326 child victims recorded for these nine types of offences, 89.75 or nearly 90 per cent of them were victims of either rape, physical sexual assault or incest. Note that these figures are based on cases that were reported to the police, which means it would be dependent on whether reports were made.

During the same period of nearly six years, the three types of offences of rape, physical sexual assault and incest were also the main crimes recorded involving children in their teenage years (10-12; 13-15; 16-18); while the top three for child victims aged six to nine were physical sexual assault, sodomy and incest; and for those aged six and below, the top three reported were physical sexual assault, sodomy and outrage of modesty.

Here are more tips on what parents can do

CyberSecurity Malaysia’s CyberSafe website features tips for youths to stay safe online, including choosing a name that does not give away their real name, being aware that other users could be pretending to be who they are, and to be wary of others who ask to have private chats.

CyberSafe’s tips also include not posting too much information on their profiles as perpetrators would use such information to search for victims, and not to share school names or school teams or photos revealing school names or locations, and to remember that texts and images that have been posted cannot be taken back.

UK charity National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has online tips on setting up parental controls — which can help filter or block inappropriate content — on different devices, apps, online services, search engines, home broadband and wifi.

But the NSPCC also notes that there are limits to parental controls as these would not be in place such as when public wifi is being used or when children connect to a different internet network while away from home, and said parents should talk with their children to explain that the parental controls are to keep them safe and should be able to talk to them if they had viewed inappropriate content.

NSPCC also has tips on supporting children who have seen explicit or harmful content online or who have been sending, sharing or receiving nude images, and how to help them use chat apps and social media safely and navigating risks when livestreaming.

NSPCC also notes that disappearing message functions — where messages disappear after some time or after it has been viewed — on chat apps may give children a false sense of security to send risky content, but cautioned that the recipient can still screenshot or record the content before it disappears without the sender knowing or agreeing.

Non-profit organisation Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) Penang’s website and non-profit organisation Protect and Save the Children Association of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur’s (P.S. The Children) website list down signs indicating that a child may have been sexually abused, including refusing to go to or performing poorly at school, insomnia or trouble sleeping or nightmares, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal tendencies.

NSPCC notes a child who is experiencing online abuse — which can include grooming or sexting — may spend a lot more or a lot less time than usual online, or be secretive about who they talk to and what they do online or on their mobile phones, or have a lot of new phone numbers, texts or email address on their mobile phone, laptop or tablet.

What do you do if your child has already experienced harm from sexual crimes, or your child tells you or you find out about it?

US-based non-profit organisation National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) online resources said children who have been exploited could be too afraid or too ashamed to inform others about the sexual abuse that they have experienced, and may also think no one would believe them, and that means families would need to be proactive and recognise signs of such abuse.

NCMEC’s resources also said children who were sexually exploited should be told that it is not their fault, and that parents should be calm while asking what happened and should also reassure and comfort the child if they show distress, worry or fear. Parents should also reassure the child that they are safe.

UK’s NSPCC advises parents not to tackle such difficult conversations when they are highly emotional and to not be too forceful with their children in such conversations.

“Keep listening, try not to interrupt even if there is a period of silence. They may be thinking how they word something,” NSPCC recommends, also saying that parents can ask their children about any worries they have and let them know they can approach the parents or another adult they trust about their concerns.

WCC Penang’s online resources said children rarely tell lies about sexual abuse and should be told that you believe in them and that language that they can understand should be used, and that one should not try to confront the abuser themselves.

WCC Penang also advises for the sexually abused child to be given immediate medical attention at government hospitals, and for the case to be reported to the Social Welfare Department or to the police as well as to protect the child from further abuse. The child should also continue their daily routine while continuing to receive support and reassurance.

Reducing the damage

What happens if sexually explicit photos or videos of your child have already been shared to the perpetrator or have been posted online or are circulating on the internet? Is it possible to get those photos removed or to limit their spread?

NCMEC lists three possible options, including reporting to its CyberTipline, where it can then help notify the relevant law enforcement agency in Malaysia and it can report directly to companies providing online services to ask for the removal of those photos and videos and also monitor such removals. This option is open to anyone in the world (not just in the US where NCMEC is based).

Alternatively, NCMEC also lists detailed steps for how to report directly to the relevant companies to request for removal of those photos and videos, including for the platforms Discord, Facebook, Google, Instagram, imgur, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, Tumblr, X, and YouTube.

The third option is using NCMEC’s free service called Take It Down, where you can try to remove or stop the online sharing of nude, partially nude or sexually explicit photos and videos of children.

This Take It Down service is available to anyone in the world and you do not have to share your personal information like your name to use it, and is specifically for those who still have the photos or images in the device (such as mobile phone) that it was originally taken. (Do not download such content if you do not have access to the device but make a CyberTipline report instead.)

When using the Take It Down service, a unique digital fingerprint or unique numerical value — known as a “hash value” — will be generated for each photo or video in the device without anyone viewing it and without the content ever leaving the device or being submitted or uploaded to NCMEC.

Technology companies for Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat are part of a list of online platforms that have agreed to use NCMEC’s database of hash values to scan and detect such content on unencrypted platforms and act to remove them or limit their spread.

But most importantly, report any sexual crimes or sexual abuse against your child immediately to the Malaysian police yourself and seek help and advice.

Read here for Part I of the story.