Inter-agency support needed to save Malaysian kids from online sexual predators, abuse

An estimated 100,000 internet-using Malaysian children, aged 12-17, experienced online child sexual exploitation and abuse (OCSEA) in the past year.

The experiences reported by children ranged from grooming, being offered money or gifts in exchange for sexual images, being threatened or blackmailed to engage in sexual acts, and having their images shared without permission.

These were among the shocking findings highlighted in the ‘Disrupting Harm in Malaysia’ report, launched today.

The report, which was based on a survey of 995 internet-using children between the ages of 12 and 17, found that:

  • Nine per cent of children were subjected to sexual comments made about them that made them feel uncomfortable in the past year. The majority of the comments were made by someone they knew.
  • Nine per cent of children received unwanted sexual images in the past year.
  • Five per cent of the children surveyed were asked to talk about sex or sexual acts with someone when they did not want to.
  • Three per cent of the children surveyed received a request for a photo or video showing their private parts when they did not want to, in the past year.

Depending on the context, these experiences could be an indication of grooming.

These figures, however, are likely to be under-reported due to the embarrassment in discussing sex, while the stigmatisation of victims discouraged children from reporting the incidents to their parents or the authorities.

According to the report, self-reported digital skills were weakest among children aged 12-13, and those living in rural areas.

The ‘Disrupting Harm’ report is an unprecedented multi-country research project generating evidence on the nature and scope of OCSEA, and the national response systems put in place to combat this threat.

The report was produced by End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) International, Interpol, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Office of Research – Innocenti – with the support of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. It was led by a technical committee chaired by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.

Although there are initiatives – including the Cyber Safe awareness programme in schools and the Malaysian Internet Crime Against Children Investigation Unit by the police – in Malaysia, the lack of dedicated budgets and trained personnel have made it difficult to prevent and respond to OCSEA.

A Child Online Protection task force was established by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry in 2013. It was set up to oversee the Plan of Action on Child Online Protection. The plan, however, ended in 2020.

There is also a need to invest in inter-agency child protection support and response systems, increase the implementation of existing laws, and ensure that the criminal justice system is more child-friendly.

End Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Network Malaysia chair Datuk Dr Raj Karim said children must be empowered with comprehensive sex education to protect themselves from unwanted sexual contacts online, and offline.

“We welcome the passing of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill to prevent unwelcomed sexual advances – it sends a clear message that the behaviour is unacceptable,” she said.

“We also need to look at it together with the Child Act 2001 and Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017, where prevention and the responses need to be reflected in the relevant legislations.

“There must be trust and confidence between children and adults, to ensure early identification and reporting of online and offline child sexual exploitation and abuse. In no way should children be blamed, shamed, or stigmatised.”

Unicef Representative to Malaysia, Edgar Donoso said children are better protected when “we arm them with knowledge”, including comprehensive sex education and providing support when they face harm.

“For children, the border that separates cyberspace and real life does not exist,” he said.

“The friendships and knowledge children gain online have as much impact as the ones they have offline. Of equal consequence are the abuse and exploitation they may face.”

The report also revealed that Malaysian children mainly accessed the internet from their homes.

Almost all the children surveyed used smartphones to access the internet, and only 25 per cent – the younger children aged 12-13 – shared their smartphones with someone else.

The majority of the children surveyed used social media (91 per cent), instant messaging apps (90 per cent), watched video clips (88 per cent), and used the internet for schoolwork (86 per cent) at least once a week.

Sixty-seven per cent said they knew how to change their privacy settings and 66 per cent said they knew how to report harmful content on social media.

To download the full report, click here.