A group of teenagers walks down the street, Malaysia

for every child | digital safety

While the internet has opened up a world of exploration for children, it has also made it easier for bullies, sex offenders, traffickers and abusers to find them.

 
One country that is particularly well connected is Malaysia. More than 7 out of 10 households have internet access, and connectivity continues to surge. The country also has one of the highest proportions of ‘digital natives’ in the world – youths aged 15 to 24 with at least five years of active internet use.
A growing challenge in Malaysia has been for parents, teachers, policy-makers and the justice system to keep pace with the increasing risks children face online.
One organization fought sexual predators by taking the technology they exploit and turning it against them – then publishing a massive exposé to widespread media attention. This reporting was a catalyst for national change. And for one connected teenager, it would be a spur to activism.
“You need to learn to trust people. I can teach you that.”
“We’ll only do it if you want to.”
“I’ve had sex with a Form One girl, and we’re still friends now.”
Reassurances. All from the mouths of adult men as they tried to convince girls to have sex with them – girls whom they believed to be underage.
The words were captured on tape in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as part of a months-long undercover investigation, ‘Predator in my Phone’, by a popular national news and media outlet called R.AGE. When the coverage began, the young journalists had no idea they would help lead a movement to create Malaysia’s first national law against online grooming.
R.AGE predator in my phone video

Predator in my phone

 
It started a year ago, when R.AGE journalists learned that men had been preying on underage girls via popular mobile chatting apps. They decided to send two female journalists undercover, posing on the apps as 15-year-old girls. With the ‘people nearby’ feature enabled, the young women opened themselves up to chatting with a network of strangers – all within a few hundred metres.
Instantly, they were messaged by men for sex – over 70 in total. Some sent graphic photos and texts straight away, but others took time to build trust with the girls. These men, one reporter said, were more disturbing. They were methodical, spending days texting before suggesting a meet-up. Many presented themselves as caring, fatherly figures. All of them assured their would-be victims that what they were doing was normal.
As the correspondence continued, the men began pressing the girls for dates, which the young journalists agreed to. These in-person interactions were unpleasant to say the least – the men calmly tried to persuade the girls to join them in private, while the girls reacted with discomfort, hesitation and flat out refusal.

 

In Malaysia, 80% of victims raped by an internet acquaintance were children aged 10-18. In Malaysia, 26% of schoolchildren have been cyberbullied - mostly between ages 13 and 15.
R.AGE secretly filmed the meet-ups for a documentary series, with the aim of prosecuting the men. But despite working closely with the police, compiling enough evidence to convict the predators was difficult. Laws against child sex crimes in Malaysia had no provisions for online grooming of children between the ages of 15–18. Technically, what these men were doing was legal.
To build public support for new laws against child sex crimes, UNICEF joined R.AGE as a partner on the Predator in my Phone campaign. The two organizations, as well as several local NGOs, held town hall meetings for children and parents to discuss their experiences with online risks.
In support of a legislative push by Malaysia’s Minister of Law, the journalists used social media to lobby Members of Parliament one by one, under the hashtag #MPsAgainstPredators.
And it worked. In April 2017, Malaysia’s Parliament passed the landmark Sexual Offences Against Children Act. It addresses child grooming and child prostitution, physical and non-physical sexual assault offences and the abuse of positions of trust. The Prime Minister also pledged his support, and helped set up a special criminal court to hear child sexual crimes cases.
Video

A ripple effect

 
The Predator in my Phone campaign was one example of leveraging connectivity for positive change for children. Besides the many children the new law will undoubtedly save from victimization, the campaign has touched a number of youths who have already experienced online risks.
Some have shared their stories through R.AGE’s Facebook group as part of a larger effort to combat victim-blaming culture in Malaysia. Others, like 17-year-old Angeline Chong, were inspired to take action.
Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Angeline is like most teenagers living in Malaysia’s urban centre – her life is embedded in technology.
When she saw the Predator in my Phone story, she was dumbfounded. “It was chilling to actually know that youngsters like me, my age, experienced that,” she says. “I didn’t know [it could happen] to teenagers like us.”
Though the story shocked her, she was all too familiar with other risks that come from growing up online. Because she had experienced them too.

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A girl smiles while sitting at a desk, Malaysia

From friend to cyberbully

 
When Angeline was 14, a misunderstanding between her and a friend about a school project evolved into something more painful.
“He started posting terrible things [about me] online,” she says of her friend. “I was trying not to be bothered by it, [but] you end up caring more.”
Within weeks, an entire group of her friends were ignoring her at school, refusing to sit with her in classes and excluding her from the group. The effect was dizzying.
As she lost her friends and was bombarded with caustic messages – sometimes up to 10 posts a day – Angeline began to believe that she was the problem.
“I took a few screenshots and I actually saved it in my Google drive. That was how much it bothered me,” she says. “I just wanted to remind myself of how terrible of a person I was so that I could improve myself ... I had this mindset that if one person is against you, then it could be a misunderstanding ... but if a whole group is against you, there might be something wrong with you.”
Angeline credits her father with helping her through the worst of it, and eventually the bullying stopped. She and her friend even reconciled.
But Angeline says the experience changed her. “You can never take back something you said or something you posted online,” she says. “I realized how much a word can actually strike a person.”
A girl sits on her bed and works on a laptop, Malaysia

Angeline Chong, 17, uses her laptop and cellphone to study at her home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A generation of digital activists

 
Last year, when she saw the Predator in my Phone story on Facebook, Angeline was deeply moved by the campaign’s attention to online risks. She was also inspired by how digital activism could be turned against digital risk, and ultimately create nationwide change.
She decided to join R.AGE’s BRATs programme – a workshop for teens teaching everything from journalism ethics to social media reporting, interview skills and video editing.
“I realized this is a different type of journalism,” she says. “I felt like it was going to help me grow.”
Both R.AGE and BRATs are examples of how connected Malaysian youth are using social media and digital technology to amplify their voices and seek solutions to the problems in their communities.
Although the internet has expanded the risks around them, it has also become a great democratizer – giving voice and power to groups that are otherwise overlooked.
“The best thing about Predator in my Phone is that it gave hope and faith,” says Angeline. “It portrays how journalism can actually change the world into a better place.”

UNICEF in Malaysia

In Malaysia, 40 per cent of internet users are children and young people under the age of 24. Bad actors can approach children through unprotected social media profiles, chatting apps and online game forums. The largest national survey on cybersafety of schoolchildren in Malaysia reveals that more than 70 per cent of children report being victims of online harassment, while 26 per cent have been cyberbullied.
 

UNICEF is currently on a working committee with the Government to draft guidelines on how best to handle sexual crime cases involving children. And by working with R.AGE and other partners, UNICEF is educating children across the country about online safety topics ranging from online dating to sexual violence.

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