Abuse linked to Net fixation

Addiction to surfing for explicit content and loss of privacy are big concerns when it comes to children, say counsellors

About 15 children are rescued every day in Bengaluru by an organisation working in tandem with the police.

Some children in distress are rescued after they call Makkala Sahayavani, a child helpline attached to the police commissioner’s office.

Counsellors attribute the high numbers to many causes. Addiction to the Internet may be adding to the problem, they say.

Fr Mathew Thomas, executive director of BOSCO, categorises distress calls received at the helpline under three heads: child marriage, sexual and physical abuse, and child labour.

“When we deal with cases of child abuse, we need to be extremely sensitive and not blame them,” he says.

Rescued children show physical injuries, low self-esteem, and suffer from learning disorders.

“In a day, we rescue at least 15 children who are victims of various abuses,” he says. Thomas is associated with the helpline in a supervisory capacity.

Studies show how social media and the Internet can alter the behaviour of children and make them vulnerable to all kinds of abuse.

Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, professor of clinical psychology at Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT Clinic) at Nimhans, says the loss of privacy is one of the biggest concerns.

“On the Internet, users can easily make contact with unsuspecting children through anonymous and unprotected social media profiles. Game forums can put children at risk for bullying or abuse,” he says.  

Dr Sharma calls for more measures to protect children,  “Disadvantaged children may not understand online risks, including those of loss of privacy,” he says.

It is common for children to seek the opinion of their peer group when they experience risks and harm online.

“This makes it difficult for parents to intervene. There is a need to enhance communication between the child and parent so they can identify signs of distress among the children and help them,” advises Sharma.

Easy access to sexually explicit videos may be one of the reasons for increased sexual abuse of children, say counsellors at Makkala Sahayavani, the child helpline attached to the police commissioner’s office. Preethi Baliga, a senior counsellor, says early exposure to the Internet is leading to addiction, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children. “How do we save our children from this?” she wonders.

The helpline receives 15 calls a day, five of them calling for immediate intervention.

Recent cases at helpline

A 16-year-old girl was sexually abused by her father for years. Her mother was aware but did nothing. Finally, unable to bear the torture, the girl gathered courage to report it to the police. An FIR was filed and the father was arrested. She was sent to a shelter for rescued children.

A 15-year-old girl was orphaned after her parents went their individual ways. Neither parent wanted to take her in. She was sent to a hostel where she became a victim of drug abuse and multiple sexual encounters. She slipped into depression. She received treatment after her case came to the notice of the child helpline.

A 16-year-old girl befriends a boy of the same age on Social media and they begin chatting. They get close and soon chatting makes way for exchange of intimate pictures and physical intimacy. After a while, the boy begins to avoid the girl. Repeated attempts to contact him goes in vain. The girl realises that she has been sexually abused and exploited.

(Source: Parihar Makkala Sahayavani and SHUT Clinic)

Counsellor’s concerns

Things that ought to be educative are glamorised, according to a counsellor. “Even a condom ad is glamorous. The message that it must be used against contracting sexually transmitted diseases and preventing pregnancy is not highlighted,” says Preethi Baliga, who works at Makkala Sahayavani. She adds, “Teenagers gain access to pubs by showing fake identity cards. “Children with such tendencies have zero emotions and don’t come around to counselling.”

The Internet can be seen as an abettor

Aayush Rathi, Policy Officer with the Center for Internet and Society in Bengaluru, warns that one should be wary of claims that the Internet causes child maltreatment such as emotional and sexual abuse. “Rather, the Internet can be seen as an abettor - a new medium through which child maltreatment may be pursued. An increase in the number of cases of such maltreatment needn’t necessarily only be because of wider Internet usage, but may also be because awareness initiatives may be working,” he tells Metrolife.

How to help abused children

- Communicate in a non-judgemental way.

- Engage in offline activities with them.

- Recognise, appreciate positive behaviour.

- Become a role model: don’t overuse tech.

(Dr Manoj Sharma of SHUT Clinic)

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