The COVID-19 pandemic has forced children throughout the world to change normal practices of life into new ways of communicating and socializing, that has largely been made possible through online platforms and applications.
With schools shut down, learning has moved to online classrooms and e-learning applications. Meeting and socializing with friends through social media online became a replacement to time spent with people in person as a means of social distancing. And with entertainment venues closed throughout the country, online applications that provide interest and amusement are occupying more of children’s time.
While the internet has proved to be a great resource to allow children to continue learning and developing during the difficult time of this pandemic, the increased time spent online greatly exposes them to online risks, such as the risk of sexual exploitation online.
The use of some online platforms contains more risks for children than others, and the rise in popularity of these apps calls for a deeper look into the risks involved and what can be done in order to ensure children’s online experience using them is safe. This piece explores three of the main online platforms that are popular among children in Cambodia.
One of the fastest growing apps rising in popularity in Cambodia is TikTok, which as of April 2020 is ranked #3 in top downloads from Google Play store in the country. (https://www.similarweb.com/apps/top/google/store-rank/kh/all/top-free).
What is it?
TikTok is a video-player app that allows users to upload and share short video clips of themselves, most commonly of them lip-synching popular songs and following dance moves, while they can connect and socialize with other users.
The app allows users to upload and comment on videos, follow other users of interest, private message others, and it also has a special feature where users can “duet” with another user where they combine video’s they create with videos created by other users.
What are the risks?
According to TikTok’s policy, users must be over 13 years old in order to download and use the app and children under 18 must have parental approval. However, this can easily be ignored by children by inserting a fake birthdate during registration.
On the app, children can be exposed to content which is unfitting of age, including offensive and sexual language, sexually suggestive videos, and harassment by other users.
In order to gain popularity and raise the number of “likes” and followers they receive, children are sometimes encouraged to upload videos of themselves where they are lip-synching sexual songs, dancing in sexually suggestive ways and/or in minimal clothing, often without understanding that they are uploading content that can be harmful to them.
Child sex offenders take advantage of the platform in order to seek and follow children of whom they are interested in exploiting. Offenders are known to groom children through the platform, send them private messages and request sexually explicit content.
Keeping the account safe
Once opening an account with TikTok, by default, the privacy settings are set to public and thus allows anyone to see, comment, private message and follow the user’s account. This can be changed immediately after opening an account through the privacy settings. Through the privacy settings, you can control who can see your posts, comment, private message as well as who can make a “duet” with you.
It is important to acknowledge that profile photos, usernames and bios of users will always be public even if the account is set to private, so they should never contain personal or sensitive information.
Another feature included is the ability to control the child’s time spent on the app. This can be done through the settings under “digital wellbeing”, and then turn on the “screen time management”, and “restricted mode”.
Any TikTok user that is acting in an offensive way can be both blocked and reported by entering their profile and pressing on the 3 dots on the top of their page and choosing the wanted action. Specific content can also be blocked and reported by first pressing the share button on the video and then following the instructions to report the content.
Mobile Legends Bang Bang
Every few months a new online game will rise in popularity and each involves different features and online experiences for users. Mobile Legends Bang Bang (MLBB) is currently ranked as one of the most popular online games played by users in Cambodia, reaching #4 in top downloads from Google Play store as of April 2020 https://www.similarweb.com/apps/top/google/store-rank/kh/all/top-free
What is it?
MLBB is a competitive multi-player game where players team-up with other users, and battle against other teams online. The game was designed for play on a mobile phone, allowing anyone with access to a smartphone to download the game for free.
What are the risks?
Although there are some benefits known for children playing MLBB such as increasing strategical thinking and enhancing teamwork capabilities, there are also many risks involved. Aside from being extremely addictive, MLBB contains high amounts of violence which are unhealthy for children’s development.
Although MLBB is free for download, it still contains in-app purchases that can encourage children to accept offers from strangers to pay for different features in the game, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation.
The game can be played with strangers met online and messaging with other players is part of the game. A new feature that was recently introduced is in-voice chat, allowing players to communicate via microphone and headphones. Communication between players is known to get toxic where players insult, harass and use offensive language with each other, or make sexual and vulgar propositions.
Furthermore, some of the people who communicate with children via online games are known to do so with bad intentions. Sexual predators often use online games as an initial point of access to children as it is easier to initiate communication and gain children’s trust through the game. It becomes easier to send a friend request on other social media to get closer to the child and communicate in more private platforms where they try to exploit the child online or request to meet in person for sexual purposes.
The game also has an option to share your location in a feature called “street ranking” to compare your achievements with other players near you. This exposes children to danger with the possibility of offenders knowing the area where the children live and target them for grooming.
Keeping the account safe
Usernames and profiles of players are public and should never include information that can be used to identify who you are or include personal information that can lead to players finding you on other social media or knowing more about you. Make sure to disable the function that shares your location through the settings.
Chatting with strangers in the game can be disabled through the settings so that only predesigned messages are used to communicate between the players, preventing the possibility of bad language and dangerous communication.
Specific players can be “muted” to prevent them from sending unwanted text/voice messages. This will only prevent you from receiving and reading messages by the player muted, but they will still be able to read your chat messages.
You can report players by pressing the report button on the top of the screen, and press the exclamation mark button next to the player(s) you want to report. Public chats and offensive messages can be reported as well, by clicking on the offensive content and pressing the report button.
Although Facebook is slowly losing its popularity among users worldwide, it is still one of the most used online platforms in Cambodia and as of April 2020 is ranked #6 in the country’s top downloads from Google Play store (https://www.similarweb.com/apps/top/google/store-rank/kh/all/top-free).
What is it?
Facebook is a social networking website that allows users to connect with other people online, and to share and create content. Each user has their own profile that allows users to upload information on themselves they want to display. Information can include contact information, work and education, places you visited, significant life events, music you like, main interests and more.
With a Facebook account you can add friends and communicate with them, message and comment on posts, follow pages of interest, and upload content such as stories, photographs and videos. Live videos can also be shared through a feature called “Facebook Live” and allows users to broadcast in real time live videos to an audience of users. You can also join and create groups with other members on common interests.
What are the risks?
Just as with TikTok, users need to be at least 13 years old to be able to register for an account with Facebook, however many younger children are known to open an account under fake birthdates.
The platform encourages users to share personal information, personal photos and location, and once displayed online can be taken advantage of by online child sex offenders. Offenders are known to collect information through Facebook to learn more about the child to connect with them, gain their trust and groom them for sexual purposes. Unless changed through the settings, any person can send a friend request to another user even if they are strangers. Once accepted as friends, the exposure to personal information and ability to communicate privately rises.
Fake accounts are very easy to create, and anyone can impersonate as someone they are not by opening profiles with fake information. For instance, adults can pose as children, or men can pose as women to become more “trustworthy” in the eyes of children, and befriend them. Some offenders are also known to steal the identity of others by creating an account using a picture of one of the friends of the children they wish to groom, to increase their levels of trust.
Another risk is the exposure to harmful content unfitting of age through the platform. Most of the content uploaded by users on Facebook is unregulated, especially when sent through private messages or broadcasted live through Facebook Live. Sexual and pornographic images and videos are sent to children by offenders, and them requesting or harassing children to participate and send sexual material of themselves through the platform is also common.
Keeping the account safe
Once an account is open, privacy settings should be set in order to control who can see your posts, what pages you like, who can send you a friend request and send you messages, who can tag you in photos, and know your location.
Through the settings, you can add people who are on your friend list to a “restricted list”, enabling them to see only posts you set for public eyes. Blocking can be used to either block specific users, specific content, groups, event invites, and more to prevent you from seeing unwanted content and receive unwanted messages. People and content can be reported through the app if they are being offensive or harmful in any way.
Make sure to avoid posting any sensitive and personal information or photos that can be used against you, and avoid adding people you don’t know as online friends.
Regardless of what application is used, the best ways to help prevent sexual exploitation online includes communicating openly about online activities, discussions between parents and children on the different risks of online platforms, thinking critically about who is communicated with online, and making smart and healthy online choices.