In today’s digital age, people all over the world – including in Cambodia – have turned to the internet for educational, social and entertainment purposes on a daily basis, with children and youths being among the most active internet users, especially on social media.
However, despite the huge increase in internet use, the “digital literacy skills” of both children and their parents are often relatively limited, which may put some children at risk for online sexual abuse and exploitation.
According to statistics from the US-based National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the number of reported cases of child sexual abuse on the internet had increased by 35 per cent in 2021 from 2020 or a jump from around 20 million up to 29 million reported cases.
According to statistics from the Cambodian Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, about 400,000 cases were reported in Cambodia for 2021, which is more than double the number reported in 2020.
To ensure children are safe online, the telecommunications ministry – in collaboration with UNICEF – on June 28 launched a campaign called “Promoting the Participation of Technology Companies in Online Child Protection in Cambodia”.
The ministry presented its report at the June 28 launch of the online child protection campaign with 150 representatives from ministries, technology companies, UNICEF and NGOs in attendance for a workshop held that day on the topic.
Neang Mao, director-general of information and communications technology at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, said the project has three main objectives.
The first objective was to issue guidelines to local technology companies about protecting children online in accordance with international standards that take into consideration children’s rights to freedom on the internet and the best ways to protect children from potential online risks.
The second objective was to organise training for technology companies on child protection and how to report incidents, while the third objective was to prepare for Cambodia to host the ASEAN Technology Forum on Child Protection online, which will further discuss regional challenges.
Mao said the launch of the project was in order to respond in a timely manner to the increase in child abuse through online pornography as the problem had significantly worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic when most Cambodian children were learning remotely online rather than attending classes.
Ben Wildfire, director of the child protection program at UNICEF Cambodia, said the organisation had conducted a survey regarding “online child sexual exploitation” in 2022, which interviewed Cambodian children about their experiences.
He said they found that 60 per cent of those surveyed were aware of the risks of sexual exploitation when they used the internet, such as seduction or coercion by adults to create and share content related to child sexual abuse.
Wildfire added that, at the same time, these risks were exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic as schools in Cambodia adopted an online learning model for 18 months, which was one of the reasons children were spending more time online than ever before as they were using the internet to study, socialise with each other and entertain themselves.
He said that in this context, ensuring that children can get all the benefits available online without the serious negative drawbacks was the most important thing that all stakeholders must participate in together to achieve.
“UNICEF – as an organisation basing its activities on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – believes that the Cambodian government has an important role to play in guiding and promoting respect from the business community by making sure that all of their activities adhere to protecting the rights of the child as stated in the convention,” he said.
Lang Sokleang, a teenage girl, said that during the school shutdown period she spent between 8 to 12 hours per day on the internet, researching things and gaining new knowledge or gaining more understanding about the health issues related to the pandemic.
Sokleang said that she frequently encountered problems like strangers sending inappropriate pictures to her, which shocked and frightened her.
“When it first happened, I didn’t use the internet for a whole month because I was afraid that these strangers would send me inappropriate pictures again. As a teenager, I would like to request that governments as well as other institutions help find measures to prevent risks to children such as child abuse and other dangers,” she said.
One parent who preferred to go unnamed said: “I am very concerned about children who use mobile phones, which can harm their education because they play games – and especially now they use TikTok – and they are vulnerable to being tricked online.”
Nget Mao, who lives in Phnom Penh and raises two grandchildren – a five-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy – said she also worried about the negative impacts technology and the internet could have on her grandchildren.
“My two grandchildren each have their own iPad. They ask for them every morning when they wake up and they cry if we take them away, so we just let them be,” she said.
She said that her grandchildren mostly watch videos on TikTok and Youtube while online.
Kyu Kyu Thein, TikTok public policy manager for Cambodia and Laos, said the company has a policy to protect children on the TikTok network and children under the age of 13 are not authorised to download or use the TikTok app on their own.
Access to it by a four or five year old could only occur with an adult facilitating that for them, in violation of their terms of service, she said.
She added that the company also had a policy against any content that negatively affects children on its platform.
“In the last three months alone, we have deleted more than 85 million videos that violated community guidelines, and 45 per cent of the videos removed are those in violation of children’s rights,” she said.
According to Thein, the company is working with the government and other experts to filter the content to make sure that none of the videos posted are harmful to children.
Suon Samnang, a representative of another private technology company, said: “Our company does not have the authority to deal with child sexual abuse online beyond removing the content and reporting it.
“But the company is willing to participate in fighting it by sharing knowledge and producing content to spread public awareness to children and parents through our websites,” .
Deputy secretary-general of the general-secretariat of the National Council for Children, Sambath Sokunthea, said that she was very proud that the relevant ministries and NGOs had taken action to help with the prevention of online child abuse and she expected increased participation from the private sector now.
Sokunthea said that the most effective online child protection system would be a collaboration between key stakeholders including government ministries and institutions who set policies, laws and regulations, law enforcement authorities, teachers, parents and guardians, NGOs and the private sector acting together in mutual support.
Cambodia’s Interpol National Central Bureau (NCB) chief Phauk Kolkomar said that technology brings both advantages and disadvantages, but negligence and a lack of education related to technology caused some children to fall victim to online sexual exploitation.
Kolkomar said that past operations investigating online sexual exploitation perpetrators were faced with challenges such as late responses by the police and limited information regarding the identities of the victims making it impossible to find out who they are at times.
In Cambodia, a consultation with youth and children conducted in 2020 by the Child Rights Coalition Cambodia found that 15 per cent of children attending the meeting reported that they had been in contact with strangers on social media.
Another two per cent reported that they had been asked to share inappropriate or intimate images on camera by strangers online.