Parents are unable to monitor their children’s online behaviour due to lack of skills
The internet has today become very integral to the lives of Kenyans, who have embraced its potential for communication, entertainment and information.
Children have also not been left behind. The internet is easily accessible to them with technologies such as mobile phones and other hand-held devices becoming a familiar presence in their day to day life.
There is also an increased number of Wi-Fi hotspots in Kenya to be found in homes, schools, restaurants, churches and public transport.
Unfortunately, the advancement in technology has exposed children to serious risk of abuse online while leaving parents and guardians helpless to intervene.
A draft report, “Child Online Protection; A Practical Guide for Children, Parents and Professionals Working with Children” prepared by the Department of Children Services, Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, reveals that in Kenya, the digital divide between children and their parents or guardians is alarmingly huge.
“It is children who teach their parents how to operate technological devices or search for information in the internet. Most parents or guardians are not only unaware of the internet risks; they don’t know where to report should a child be abused online,” reads the report.
Notably, warning signs that can serve to protect children in the physical world are largely absent online. Children engage in ‘chat’ or ‘conversation’ in the private space of their own bedrooms without parental supervision and can unwittingly expose themselves to an unknown worldwide audience, potentially increasing the risk of harm.
“Parental capacity to protect children is also increasingly limited by the fact that many of the activities previously done via computers based in fixed locations are now being utilised on mobile phones with Internet connectivity,” says the report.
When children have access to such phones, as an increasing number do, parents are less able to monitor their children’s activities, introduce filtering or blocking mechanisms, or control the degree of access to the Internet.
The numerous online channels that are available for abusers to access children makes it difficult to police illegal behaviours and to protect them.
Information on privacy and security risks exist for all users. However, children are a particularly vulnerable because they often lack the capacity to foresee possible consequences of disclosure of personal information online.
“Children bear information privacy risks when their personal data are collected online automatically (e.g. cookies), upon request by an information service provider (e.g. when signing up for a service), or voluntarily, when they fill their personal information in online forms .Unlike most adults, children tend to skip privacy statements of online services,” the report says.
Making friends online has attracted particular attention as a risky behaviour, especially when this leads to offline meetings.
And since young people value the internet as a particularly enabling environment for intimate or private communications, it goes without saying that the internet has increased the risk of strangers contacting children.
The draft report notes that there is a particular risk of ‘grooming’ practices which entail communicating and forming a ‘friendship’ with children online with the intent of arranging to meet them in the ‘real world’ to sexually abuse.
The draft report appreciates that such behaviour takes place online, without physical contact between the abuser and child. However, despite the lack of physical contact, children can be frightened and harmed by what has happened and may find difficulty talking about it.
“They may use flattery and promises of gifts, or threats and intimidation in order to achieve some control. Chat rooms and social networking sites are common places for such behaviour to start. Children may in the process be encouraged to give personal details,” says the report.
Groomers’ sometimes pretend to be younger than they are and may change their gender, give a false physical description of themselves and send pictures of other people, pretending that it is them. Usual rules around friendships and trust are changed making it harder to discern true ‘friends’ from strangers in this context.
Notably, minors in search of help or assistance can receive harmful advice from incompetent or ill-intentioned advisors on interactive platforms such as social networks or chat rooms. This contact risk mirrors of being exposed to harmful advice.
“Children may presume, incorrectly, that all information they submit remains within the boundaries of their immediate contacts, and they may fail to anticipate the possible adverse consequences of providing information to “friends of friends”, to people who may subsequently cease to be friends, and to those who may pass information on to others,” draft report.
Although cyberbullies and their victims are often minors, cases of adults harassing children also exist. Strategies include repeated threats by e-mail, text messages or chat, publication on the web or circulation of embarrassing pictures, often taking advantage of the relative anonymity of the online media.
Another key issue which has emerged in the draft report relates to child trafficking and online prostitution. Here, sexual predators, pornographers and prostitution rings have been found to capitalize on the rising popularity of mobile devices and social media to victimise children.
The draft report elaborates that, nowadays, children routinely divulge information about themselves across the Web from the privacy of their cell phones and computers without the knowledge of the parents or guardians.
A major concern has been that there is no law in Kenya that protects children from online abuse. Redress is sought in other statutes such as: Kenya Information and Communications Act, Children Act, Sexual Offence Act, and the Constitution of Kenya. Others are international conventions ratified by Kenya.
The draft report has also identified several challenges to the legal protection of Kenya children online.
These include: Conflicting rights (the freedom of expression and privacy verses child protection); legislation and political commitments (there is need to have mechanisms in place to implement and enforce the desired change, and services to provide support to victims); and the challenges for law enforcement agencies are particularly great when the law does not provide clear definitions of criminal activity (a unique characteristic of the online environment is that physical contact between a child and an offender does not need to occur for a crime to have been committed).
Children who are the subject of child abuse or those groomed for sexual exploitation may experience feelings of shame and complicity.
Therefore, many victims of Internet crime do not disclose their experiences until the pictures or images are discovered. The Internet is commonly perceived to offer users, including potential offenders, anonymity, enabling them to construct identities and determine when, how and to what extent personal information is communicated to others in the online environment.
Investigations into online criminal activity are complex and time-consuming. They often involve coordination across jurisdictions and concern a huge network of offenders.
There is limited specialist expertise. Further, tackling online and offline child sexual abuse and exploitation require combined expertise in policing, computer and Internet technology and child protection.
Another challenge is the lack of multiagency collaboration and coordination. Law enforcement departments may not always view online sexual exploitation as a protection issue. Rather, in many countries, online/offline sexual exploitation is categorised as ‘cybercrime’.
Cybercrime police units are often primarily focused on fraud and organised crime and may therefore have little or no expertise, or professional interest, in child protection; the penalties affiliated to online crime against the child are not explicit hence require review.