According to a new report by the UN Special Rapporteur, sexual violence and exploitation against children are surging. The report states that the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the pattern of sexual exploitation in which perpetrators were operating to produce, disseminate or consume child sexual abuse materials online. 

Sexual exploitation through the live streaming of abuse, grooming, and “sexting” has increased. There has been an increase in the production, distribution and possession of “self-generated” content by children. Child rights activists have pointed out that cybersex traffickers are likely to exploit the pandemic to target more children across Southeast Asia for online sexual abuse.

The reality today

The Internet makes it easier than ever today to sexually exploit children. Predators use social media, live streaming applications, video-sharing sites and the dark web to direct and watch live child sexual abuse. With children spending more time online because of being at home during lockdowns, it heightens the risk of child grooming.

Malaysia has seen an increase in cases involving child sexual abuse materials and child grooming during the Movement Control Order. In Indonesia, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rise in online platforms offering sex, including child prostitution. In Thailand, the Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force seized 150,000 abusive files and rescued 100 children in just two months. Over in Cambodia, multiple stakeholders got together to launch the OCSE Action Plan 2021-2025 to prevent and respond to online child sexual exploitation.

What can parents do?

This reality is tough for many parents to swallow. A lot of parents aren’t aware of the irreversible harm unsupervised Internet usage can do to their children. Far more parents don’t know how they can reduce the risk of their children falling victim to sexual predators online.

Serious Women got in touch with Ms Srividhya Ganapathy, co-founder of CRIB Foundation (Child Rights Innovation & Betterment) and The Talisman Project, to seek advice on what parents can do to curb the surging online sexual grooming of children during the pandemic.

The age of access to the internet is getting younger and younger. From your perspective, what are the highest risk apps right now?

All apps that allow strangers to connect with children and which allow children to chat with strangers are high-risk apps. This includes popular social media apps and online gaming platforms.

What are the common signs that parents should look out for that could indicate child grooming?

Some of the signs include a change in the child’s behaviour patterns, secrecy, the tendency to leave the room and be private with their phones, unexplained gifts or store credits that your children are suddenly enjoying, or the fact that your child has stopped asking you for certain gifts or for online payments that they used to ask for.  

We can all agree that our phone privacy is important to us. Even as children ourselves, we didn’t like it when our parents tried to pry. How can parents be aware of their children’s online activities without being invasive?

I always advise parents to enter into contracts with their children over phone usage, i.e. for example – “I will allow you to use your phone/device for reasons other than school, and I will pay for your data, but in return, you have to make sure that I am always informed of the password to your phone and that I can check it at any time.”


Image: Unsplash/Adem AY


We only share secrets with people that we trust. What can parents do to make sure that their children trust them enough to confide in them? 

Trust is such a fragile thing. Our children being people who live with us are rather like anthropologists. They study us and they know our behaviour patterns. So trust cannot be faked by a parent. You either trust your child or you don’t. 

I always ask parents this – is your child a teammate or a terrorist? We don’t trust terrorists; we always think they’re up to something, we spy on them and feel no qualms about breaching their privacy. However, we treat teammates differently. We share with our teammates the same common goal (in this case, the safety of your child) and concerns about their well-being. We identify potential problems together, discuss them regularly and alert each other as soon as they occur.

Think carefully. How have you been treating your child? If it looks like you have one or more terrorists at home, then you need to rectify this situation as soon as possibleor else you will not win in the war against child grooming. Children are better at tech than us and they know ways to hide their online activities and keep secrets. Teaching your children to trust you means that your actions have to be trustworthy and rational. Your children will gauge how you respond to a situation and then decide the next time a situation arises whether you can be trusted or not.

These days, online relationships are common. How can parents educate their children about child grooming?

Children these days are so much savvier than before. Their exposure online means that they are bombarded with sexualised images and language from a very young age. There is no way for parents to protect children from this exposure. All we can do is educate them and talk to them very frankly about the things online and sex. 

People tell me all the time that this is difficult and that we are Asians. All I can say is this: Your child is going to learn about this from someone. Most parents are unaware that their child is being groomed or exploited. Don’t allow a stranger to teach your child about sex and then prey on them. If you talk to your children about sex and teach them that strangers will wish to exploit them and their bodies, they will be educated enough to know that if a stranger approaches them and starts asking for personal questions or asking for photos or videos, they should alert you.

What is the most important advice that you would give to parents?

Educate your children. Make them your teammates. Trust them. Help them to trust you meaning to sayhelp your child to understand that if they alert you about a potential groomer, you will not go ballistic and blame your child for risky behaviour. Children are online all the time. They cannot help but be exposed to risk and risky behaviour.


Image: Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto

The Talisman Project was founded in 2016 by Ms Srividhya Ganapathy and her best friend, Ms Ajeet Kaur while they were part of the Child Rights Committee (CRC) of the Bar Council. The Talisman Project aims to educate children about their rights. Their motto is “Educate, Empower, Protect”.

CRIB Foundation was launched in 2019 after Ms Srividhya and Ms Ajeet left the CRC. The foundation works within the framework of child protection to advocate for reform and change and is passionate about training stakeholders in child protection, including law enforcement officers, judicial officers and judges handling children in courts. CRIB Foundation firmly believes in child participation. The Talisman Project is now a youth-led project under CRIB Foundation.