Dealing with the dark side
The online world offers kids many opportunities, but also exposes them to a host of threats
Faster internet connections and emerging online technology are a boon for many children who are able to gain new knowledge and can easily interact with others around the globe, but this online exposure can also give rise to child abuse, bullying and exploitation to an alarming degree.
Various parties believe digital literacy, comprehensive legislation and tech creators and service providers taking responsibility as well as collaboration among social, private and public sectors are key to safeguarding children in the cyberworld.
Dr Adisak Plitponkarnpim, director of the Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Research Centre at Ramathibodi Hospital's Faculty of Medicine, said child safety situations change in line with the economic, social and environmental circumstances as well as science and technology.
"The advancement of technologies and science does not guarantee an increase in happiness," said Dr Adisak.
The metaverse, a virtual environment where users can interact online, will foster an immersive experience for users, he said. Although there is no physical contact, the metaverse could affect the minds and bodies of users through the images and sounds revealed in the virtual environment.
He said he wants to see those who design technology or provide tech services take into account the safety of young people's minds and bodies before they launch them.
"When we think, produce or offer online products for usage or provide services, we should consider social issues, not just look at profits or sales and overlook any negative impacts that they may cause," he said.
Tech developers should not pass the burden of responsibility solely to children's families.
"Vulnerable groups, especially those under the age of 13, find it very difficult to control their use of technology products or have any knowledge about negative content or services, especially once the technology has been released and has become widely popular," he added.
SURGING CHILD ABUSE
Pol Col Morakot Saengsakoo, an officer in the Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children (TICAC) Task Force, indicated that cases involving child abuse are surging.
Before the pandemic, some 100,000 cases were discovered by its artificial intelligence (AI) system per year, but in the first three months of the pandemic alone, more than 100,000 cases were recorded.
Through the entire year, the number of the cases surged to 400,000.
"As for the internet and social media, things that used to be 'hidden' or concealed are showing up -- images are more easily conveyed and predators have been able to reach children more easily as well," he said.
Previously, targeted children were those aged 13-14, but now this has moved down to children as young as 5-6, with tactics including intimidation and blackmail, he noted.
Society also gives importance to fame and money, which pushes many children to seek inappropriate and potentially dangerous alternative sources of income linked to the sharing of photos with adult predators.
To lure child victims, predators may operate in various ways, such as using fake identities or changing the form of money transfer made by capitalising on cryptocurrencies and then using "phishing" tactics through game items.
Pol Col Morakot said he wants to see all related parties, especially policymakers, look into the root cause of the problem so as to make deterrence better, such as rolling out necessary laws and employing suitable child-centric approaches.
For example, when encountering a child involved in prostitution, one should look at the "root cause" that led him or her to act in such a way rather than "blaming" the child.
"This is to free children from the vicious circle and return them to society so they can grow up to be good adults," Pol Col Morakot said. "We need to relieve the trauma in their hearts because, from interviews carried out, we find that most offenders have been 'victims' before."
Digital literacy is a vaccine to immunise both children and related people, such as their parents, he said.
Law enforcement authorities, he added, must follow up with new knowledge and technology to fight against violators while citizens can be the 'eyes and ears' for cases of abuse and respect the rights of children. Citizens should not share pornography, even in closed groups.
Chitpong Kittinaradorn, a chatbot developer at social innovation organisation ChangeFusion, said his agency is developing a new kind of chatbot to respond to children's questions, which will be available at chatbotjaidee.com.
The latest version will be launched in April, capitalising on crowd sourcing information drawn from children's experiences from around 10,000 incidents.
The chatbotjaidee platform will be like a database intermediary acting as a "guide" for children and young people.
"In order to develop social innovation technology, the principle is to be user-centric and to focus on how to make a useful impact on wider society and this may need to be customised to specific areas," said Mr Chitpong.
Srida Tanta-atipanit, manager of the Internet Foundation for the Development of Thailand, pointed out that child development also needs digital quotient -- also referred to as digital intelligence -- in eight areas covering digital identity, privacy, time management, cyberbullying management, cyber security management, digital empathy, digital footprint and critical thinking.
There is a need for related parties to work together to provide effective and proactive protection for children, she said.
Consolidated efforts must be made to boost digital literacy among children while the private sector can help monitor and remove inappropriate content.
She said mobile operators can also give a hand to drive the tasks, for example, mobile carrier DTAC rolled out the DTAC Safe Internet programme aimed at promoting safe internet usage among children.
Global digital platforms can usher in child protection directives so as to create a safer internet world, Ms Srida noted.
At the policymaking level, comprehensive legislation needs to be ushered in to fight against forms of child abuse, such as sextortion.
Jaruwan Puangphaga, project manager of DTAC Safe Internet, said the programme has helped create social awareness of cyberbullying while changing children's mindset of being "victims" to "change makers" in the online world.
The main focus for the project this year will be cyber security, ranging from data protection to knowledge about cyber fraud and virtual abuse.
Some violators, she said, lure children into believing that they would become 'influencers' or 'celebrities' but in reality the kids need to share their personal data and information, which could make them vulnerable for extortion.