I thought Aaron* just wanted to be friends. Although later that night, I realised there was more to it. “I thought were just going to hang out,” I blurted, when I found myself in his room and noticed he took off his loafers and socks. “Yeah,” he slurred, his face flushed red from the whisky from the bar downstairs. “We are hanging out.”
No way, I thought, as I made a quick exit. I’m sure “Let’s hang out” isn’t spelled the same way as “Let’s hook up”. Yes, we met on Tinder, like many others did. He was friendly, charming and decent-looking. Being new to this matchmaking app, you could say I was naïve, but at 27, I should have known better. Stranger plus room doesn’t always equate “just friends”. I was lucky enough to leave unscathed, but, unlike me, an adult, children don’t get the same privilege.
In our smartphone era, the deep dark web is a potent threat to children who are at their most impressionable. When Sara*, met Ethan*, when she was 14 through the People Nearby function of WeChat, she thought she was going to make a new friend, or a boyfriend. She was instead added to a group of strangers who all shared a common interest: Pornography.
Feeding off her teenage curiosity and ignorance, Ethan kept sending Sara sexual videos, to “educate” her, and eventually asked for sexual favours in return, to which she obliged. Once her curiosity reached its peak, she agreed to meet with him, after school, and that was when he raped her.
Sadly, Sara’s case is far from rare. In a harrowing series of investigation called Predator in My Phone by local youth news group R.AGE, it became clear that the Internet has become a playground for child sexual grooming here in Malaysia. During their six-month investigation last year, 67 different men approached their team of journalists with sexual advances, despite the latter’s claim to be 15-year-olds. Statistics from the Royal Malaysian Police, as of 2015, reveal that an overwhelming 80% of child sexual predators seek their victims through mobile chat apps (WeChat, Kik, BeeTalk, Facebook Messenger, etc). Using a tactic known as grooming, these predators use the pretense of wanting to befriend the child, then teaching the child about sex, as well as to offer of some TLC which the child may be lacking, all with the end-goal of earning the victim’s trust.
What’s even more unsettling is that online grooming is but a recent, ongoing trend among child perpetrators. Offline grooming, on the other hand, spans a longer history, with implications more chilling to bear with.