When a 14-year-old girl’s parents in Delhi’s Shahdara district bought her a mobile phone last year to facilitate her online classes, a result of the restrictions imposed on schools to curb the spread of the pandemic, little did they realise the possible social media abuse she may be subjected to.
Over the next year, what followed were classes during the school hours and social media indulgence for much of the remaining period. She garnered hundreds of followers on her social media sites, befriended dozens of other users and casually chatted with a few of them.
Among those many users she had bonded with over the past few months was a person with a criminal bent. When his proposal of sexual relations with the girl was turned down, he hounded her by stalking her on social media sites by creating multiple fake accounts, shooting abusive emails from different identities, and finally threatening to morph and upload her images on social media sites.
For three long days, the girl bore the threats in the hope that they would fade away if she did not respond. When she could take it no more, she gathered the courage to confide in her parents who immediately approached the local police.
Despite him using VPN to mask his online credentials, the police were able to nab the suspect in less than six hours. According to the police, he was a 17-year-old boy who got in touch with this girl with the sole aim of sexually abusing her.
Police investigators said the girl was luckier than many other girls in a similar situation.
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She was able to hold herself from giving in to the demands of the blackmailer, she did not share her private images with him, she did not let the blackmailing continue for way too long, she could gather the courage to confide in her parents, her parents chose to immediately approach the police rather than silencing her and the police were able to trace the suspect before he could upload her edited images online.
But the crisis is deeper. Police and child safety experts say while the sexual abuse over social media is rampant, only a small percentage of children are able to stand up against the abusers and even fewer go on to report them to the authorities.
According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 2,266 cases of sexual exploitation registered by cyber branches across India in 2019. Of these, at least 266 were minors.
The under-reporting of cases
Varun Pathak, chairperson of Child Welfare Committee (CWC), says that only a tiny fraction of online sexual abuse of children is reported, even as such crimes are rising rapidly ever since the pandemic resulted in mobile phones landing in the hands of a large number of children.
The Delhi Police’s comparative data of cyber crimes last year before and during the lockdown suggested a three-time rise. For example, only 48 cyber crimes were reported in Delhi every day in January last year, compared to over 135 such crimes in May when the lockdown was at its peak. And nearly one in every four of these cyber crimes was social media harassment that included morphing photos of people and sexually harassing them.
“Every child suddenly had a mobile phone in her or his hand during the pandemic. Apart from the classes, the children were using them for accessing social media. We went ahead by arming the children with mobile phones, but did not prepare for the side effects which involved widespread abuse,” says Pathak.
While there is no immediate data specific to India to suggest the impact the social media usage has on the children, a survey by Plan International — a rights group for girls – showed that nearly 60% of girls in 22 countries, including India, experienced harassment on social media.
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The study, which was reported by Reuters, revealed that one in every five girls cut down on social media usage due to the harassment.
The vulnerability of children
This is not to suggest that abusers target only girls. In fact, a recent incident in outer Delhi involved the adult owner of an NGO being blackmailed by her driver who recorded her private video and threatened to upload it online. The victim in this case did give in to his demands the first time, but went on to record his threats and report him to police when he persisted with the blackmail.
The police say adults are better placed to deal with social media abuse than children are.
“Children are more exposed to this abuse because of their increasing presence on social media. Unlike adults, the children are unable to stand up to the blackmailers. They don’t know how to tackle such a situation. They fear that their future would be ruined if their identities were revealed. They are afraid to confide in their parents since not every guardian handles these issues with empathy,” says R Sathiyasundaram, deputy commissioner of police (Shadara district).
He said that these are the reasons why the police take every precaution to ensure the identities of the victims are protected.
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“If a child wishes to register her complaint with us without the knowledge of her parents, we are ready to oblige them as long as they are accompanied by a caretaker such as a friend or a relative,” says Sathiyasundaram, the officer in-charge of solving the crime where the 14-year-old girl was subject to harassment.
The role of support systems
But before these harassed children approach the police, they usually reach out to their family, teachers or friends. And teachers say they understand this.
“At our school, I have a blunt way of making girls aware of these threats. We bluntly tell them about how these abusers generally approach girls, how they should be identified and how should they be dealt with. My simple advice to children is to say a direct ‘no’ when a stranger on social media asks for their images or personal details,” says Awadhesh Kumar Jha, principal of Sarvodaya Co-Ed Vidyalaya in Rohini Sector 8.
Every other month, Jha receives a complaint about his girl students being abused on social media. “Despite our efforts, most children hide these complaints from us,” says Jha.
One recent occasion when a student reached out to him for help was in January, but only after a man in his late 20s began threatening a 15-year-old girl about a knife attack if she refused to marry him.
“I immediately called the girl’s parents, asked her to confide in them and advised them to approach the police. The threats ceased after the abuser was threatened with police case,” says Jha.
The principal says that it is more difficult to deal with strangers turning into abusers than known schoolmates playing the same role. “If it is a boy from the school, or someone known to the girl, I call the abuser and deal with him personally. But it is not the same case with strangers,” he says.
The nature of crimes
Police officers say that these sexual cyber crimes against children mainly involve bullying, stalking, morphing photographs and threatening to upload private images on social media. The abusers could range from acquaintances and school mates to strangers befriended on social media sites.
Some of the recent crimes in which children were targeted show that abusers have even donned fake identities to be able to easily befriend minor girls and then extort from them without getting traced by the police.
One such recent crime occurred in outer Delhi where a 13-year-old girl was lured into sharing her private images with a barber who posed as a rich youngster on a social media site. Once she sent across her photos, the man began pressuring her to bring in money if she didn’t want her images to be shared on social media.
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After making desperate but failed attempts to arrange the money, the girl confided in her parents, eventually leading to the arrest of the suspect. The police were able to seize his phone, in which the private images were saved, before he could upload them on social media.
The suspect allegedly turned out to be a serial abuser who blackmailed several girls before landing in police net.
The police response
Chinmoy Biswal, spokesperson of Delhi Police, who has served as head of various police districts in Delhi, says that the first priority of the police on receiving such complaints is to ensure the images and videos used to blackmail the victims are not released.
“Our focus is on assuring the girl that we would do everything to prevent the uploading of her images and videos. In such cases, while arresting the suspect, we simultaneously work on recovering his electronic devices and ensuring he hasn’t shared the photos and videos with anyone else,” says Biswal.
Most of these crimes require meticulous investigation, police investigators say.
Atul Kumar Thakur, DCP of South district where quite a few such cases have been cracked in the recent months, says that a timely reaction is of utmost importance in such cases.
“On certain occasions, delays in response by internet service providers or authorities of social media sites lead to prolonging of investigation. It also becomes difficult when the abusers use sophisticated tools to hide their identity. But our focus remains on ensuring that the suspect is arrested at the earliest and the digital evidence is sent for forensic analysis,” says Thakur.
The police’s priority in such cases usually is to prevent the suspect from being alerted, lest he uploads the private photos and videos on the internet.
Ranjana Prasad, member of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act (DCPCR), says that the only and best way for a girl – in case she ends up getting blackmailed – is to reach out to parents.
“If the parents approach the police, there is a high chance that the police, at least in Delhi, turn active. In the few cases I have noticed, the deputy commissioners of police have taken personal interest to ensure FIRs and pursue action,” says Prasad. Prasad urges girls to call on the DCPCR’s helpline number, 9311551393, if they do end up trapped.
The legal framework
It is not that there are no laws in place to protect the children from cyber abuse, say experts.
“People should know that under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, even possessing a nude image of a child in your electronic device is liable to ₹5,000 fine. It doesn’t matter that you received it from a stranger on WhatsApp or Telegram,” says Pathak.
And if someone is caught sharing such images and videos, it could attract a jail term of up to five years. If the sharing happens for commercial purposes, the jail term could extend to seven years, Pathak says. Moreover, the police are required to ensure that no complaints of cyber abuse of children are ignored. “If a police personnel ignores such a complaint, there is a jail term of up to a year,” Pathak adds.
As for keeping the children aware and alert from social media harm, the CBSE, the Indian Government and other agencies working for children and students regularly share guidelines. “The crux of these guidelines is what we use to guide the children,” says principal Jha.
Yet, all that is not enough to keep the children safe and the biggest hindrance to pursuing such abusers remains the fear among children.
“We just want to assure the children that if they approach us with a complaint, we guarantee to protect their identity and do our best to protect their dignity,” says DCP Sathiyasundaram.
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