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How to protect my child from sexual predators?

Kids who don’t have healthy attention and affection from their families are more vulnerable to sexual grooming online, experts say. Here’s what you must do to protect your child.

magyoungparents@sph.com.sg

 

He met the 13-year-old girl on Facebook, asked her to be his girlfriend and pressed her to send him pictures of her naked body. Benjamin Sim Wei Liang also kissed, hugged and touched the girl's breasts in a taxi in December 2012.

The security officer then dumped the girl for her younger twin sister, with whom he went on to have sex. He also had sex with two more underage girls after that.

Sim was eventually jailed 20½ years and given the maximum 24 strokes of the cane in July last year.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) saw 267 people turning to their Sexual Assault Care Centre for help via helpline calls, e-mail, WhatsApp and walk-ins last year. This is up from 234 cases in 2014.

Why are there more of such cases?
People may be more aware of the need for protection and looking to seek justice today, said Dr Ken Ung, a consultant psychiatrist at Adam Road Medical Centre.

"In the past, it may have been considered taboo or shameful to talk about such incidents, especially if it happened within the family," he said. "But today, families are keen to see there is action taken and the victim is given protection."

Dr Ung said that about six to seven victims, out of 10, know the perpetrator, who could even be a family member.

Aware programmes and communications senior manager Jolene Tan said the rise in reported cases does not necessarily mean that sexual assault is on the rise. "In (our) 2015 survey on sexual violence faced by young people, only 6 per cent of all victims who responded said they sought help after experiencing sexual violence​, even though one in three reported facing sexual violence​."

The growth of technology, social media and networking sites could also be a factor, said Dr Brian Yeo, a consultant psychiatrist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre.

Sexual predators can now lurk online - behind a veil of anonymity – and target potential, vulnerable victims, who are usually in their teens, he said. "They could even simultaneously chat with many teens at the same time, using the same tactic on each of them and zoom in to those who respond," he said.

Why do young children fall prey to sexual grooming online?
More often than not, many of these young people who seek virtual relationships and end up victimised are from dysfunctional or broken families, said Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director for youth services at the Singapore Children's Society.

As a result, many of these teens – who she said were as young as 12 or 13 – lack healthy attention and affection from their families. "So when they find a listening ear, someone who praises them, or at least someone they think they can trust online, they continue interacting with that person," she said.

Dr Yeo said the teen may form such a strong emotional bond with their virtual friend and be prepared to get physical with the person. "Even when the child realises the person was not who he or she imagined to be, the child still seeks the person's company because of the shared emotional connection," he said.

Why do adults commit such offences?
These adult perpetrators could have issues that hamper them from having a normal relationship with someone their age, said Dr Ung. They could also have more unusual or devious sexual urges, he said.

"Other than seeking sexual gratification, they could also be looking for a sense of control and power over their younger victims. They may like to be the one making suggestions or initiating things," he said.

But the onus should always be on the adult to restrain himself, said psychologist Charles Lee, who is in private practice. "Even if the minor consented, the adult should know it's wrong. Instead of using that as an excuse to take advantage, the adult should be the one guiding and disciplining them."

What can parents and families do?
Spend quality time with your children, constantly talk to them and don't substitute love with money, said Mr Lee.

Dr Yeo also said a strong offline relationship between parents and their children is key to prevent such cases from happening. "Such sexual abuse cases don't start with pornography. It starts because the vulnerable teenager has family and friendship issues and no one to share the problems with.

"It's also not about parents not being Internet-savvy. When the child is going online to find someone to talk to, it means the child is already seeking a substitute for his or her family," he said.

LOCAL CASES

July 2015
Benjamin Sim Wei Liang was sentenced to 20½ years' jail and 24 strokes of the cane on July 29 last year for a slew of offences, including statutory rape and performing an obscene act on a child. Sim had befriended four girls aged between 11 and 13, including a pair of twins, over Facebook.

March 2015
Yap Weng Wah was jailed 30 years and ordered to receive 24 strokes of the cane on March 20 last year, for preying on 31 boys, aged between 11 and 15. His case was described as the worst case of sex offences against young boys here.

Over three years, Yap befriended the victims online and, in all but one case, either sodomised or had oral sex with them at various locations.

A version of this story first appeared in The New Paper.

(Photo: 123RF.com)

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