In these uncertain times, children may feel isolated or anxious, and might see family members disturbed by the COVID-19 impact Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri

Kolkata: The global impact of COVID-19 means children will be spending more time at home and more time online. There are lots of great ways children can use connected devices to learn and play, but there are also risks. Rates of crime against children could be on the rise due to the global crisis. Several global agencies are anticipating that children are at increasing risk of falling prey to crimes perpetrated through online and social platforms.

A report released by Europol titled ā€˜Pandemic Profiteeringā€™, stated that there is an increase of online activity by those who are seeking child abuse material. The report found a correlation between this increased activity being consistent with online postings in forums by offenders.

Another data released by the National Crime Agency (NCA) data believes there are at least 300,000 individuals in the UK posing a sexual threat to children, either through physical contact abuse or online.

The most recent incidents of online sex-trafficking in India were brought forward by the Telangana Police. They busted an international racket which was selling minors through an online classified website network. Some worrying factors are the surge viewership of popular porn sites in the last few days. Emerging technology like Deepfake app further increases child abuse. The app can easily superimpose a childā€™s image onto someone elseā€™s body using artificial intelligence.

Ananya Chakraborty, chairperson of West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights (WBCPCR), said that globally, child abuse and trafficking increases in times of calamity, whether it is floods or earthquakes, or war, and this (COVID-19 outbreak) is a calamity. ā€œIn this situation, all your anxieties become profound. There is huge job loss, and thereā€™s every likelihood that people can easily trapped by traffickers,ā€ she said, adding: ā€œWe have alerted all districts administration and police to take necessary action during and after lockdown.ā€

In these uncertain times, children may feel isolated or anxious, and might see family members disturbed by the COVID-19 impacts. Away from school, children have less access to their usual support systems including friends, teachers and counsellors. ā€œRecent statistics indicate that children are spending time online more than ever. This has developed a lot of room for online child exploitation. We have observed that there has been an increase on online grooming cases globally,ā€ said Guillermo Galarza, director of law enforcement training & technology, International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC).

As per a report by International Labour Organisation, cyber-trafficking, grooming, sextortion, sexting, live streaming of child sexual abuse are some of the new norms of crime against children and vulnerable communities. ā€œWhile there havenā€™t been any cases reported yet in India, it is highly possible that seasoned human trafficking criminals will exploit the current situation. Sex-traffickers were found to use social media applications to engage customers in 90% of cases that IJM supported the Police to rescue children in the last two years,ā€ said Saji Philip, director of operations, International Justice Mission, Kolkata.

Australian governmentā€™s special advice for parents says, ā€œEven if you are at home together, it is not possible to monitor your childā€™s online activities every second of the day. It is important to talk with them about online safety issues to help develop their critical thinking and ability to make good choices.ā€

Parents are also advised to do joint activities with children and engage them in a meaningful way. Parents should be vigilant and track the internet usage of children. They should also take advantage of parental controls in computer, mobile devices and make their social media accounts private.

While the government machinery is focused on thwarting the spread of the coronavirus, criminals and predators anywhere in the world can exploit the closure of schools and increased usage of internet by children. In case of West Bengal, the commission already has a guideline on how to stay safe online. ā€œWeā€™ll share it again in our social media handles to aware parents as well as vulnerable groups,ā€ said the WBCPCR chairperson.

(Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent journalist. He can be reached @tanmoy_pj)

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