Shreya* a class 9 student, was a huge fan of a well-known singer, Tejas*. She had followed many of his pages on Facebook. One day, she received a friend request from Tejas himself, who thanked her for liking so many of his pages. The young girl was elated to speak to her idol.
The two began talking and the conversation soon moved to WhatsApp. Shreya, like many Indian teenagers, was afraid of her mother finding out that she had developed such a close relationship with Tejas. So, he sent her a SIM card through which she could continue speaking to him.
This went on for 4-5 months. At one point, Tejas asked Shreya to send him a photo of hers. When she did, he said, â€śNot like this, send me one without your clothes on.â€ť
Eventually, Shreya told her mother that she had been in touch with Tejas over Facebook and that he had asked her to send him photos â€“ she didnâ€™t mention the SIM card. Her mother told her to break contact with him, which Shreya did.
A few days later, however, the mother received a call from Tejas, threatening to leak Shreyaâ€™s explicit photos if she did not send her daughter along with the money he asked for. He told her that he and Shreya were in love, and that she should forget her daughter.
After the mother approached the police and the case was investigated, it was found that Tejas was actually a daily wage worker impersonating the singer. He was also trying to make her leave her mother. â€śHe was promising her a lavish lifestyle in his country as he was a celebrity,â€ť says Nitish Chandan, a cyber-security specialist, narrating the case.
Shreya was groomed â€“ a preparatory process where the abuser gains a child's trust, with the intent to sexually abuse him or her, while also manipulating the child to ensure that he or she does not disclose the abuse. In Shreyaâ€™s case, the grooming happened online. Like her, there are thousands of teens who use social media and who could be vulnerable to such predators.
TNM spoke to experts to find out what happens when a child is groomed, and what safeguards can be put in place.
How does grooming happen?
Groomers can use emotional manipulation to isolate children, make them feel like only they understand them. They can build up a complex web of lies and deception to make the victim believe they are trustworthy, including lying about their age and gender and pretending to be a child themselves.
Nitish, the founder of The Cyber Blog India and project manager of Cyber Peace Foundation, elucidates this with a case where a man in his 30s had over 3,000 friends on his Facebook profile. Of these, the majority were women. While some were genuine profiles, many were fake. Using these fake profiles, the man would comment on his photos saying good things about himself.
â€śHe had even created a website about his fake business, and corresponding Facebook pages. We got to know that there were complaints against him from two girls â€“ one in Aurangabad and one in Chhattisgarh â€“ one month apart. He would send friend requests randomly and once these minors accepted it, he would begin talking to whoever would respond, pretending to be a businessman, providing his photos with fancy cars and tourist places, his website and business pages to authenticate himself,â€ť Nitish narrates.
Groomers also prey on the vulnerabilities of children. In the words of groomers themselves, children who are lonely, isolated, looking for care, attention or validation, belonging to dysfunctional or broken homes are more vulnerable. Further, queer children or those exploring their sexuality online are also at higher risk.
After trust and dependence are established, gradually, the relationship is sexualised. Siddharth Pillai of Aaramabh, an online portal which works on online safety and combats child sexual abuse material online, gives an example: â€śThe abuser can ask the child what they were wearing when they went to the market. Then, its colour. And then what they were wearing under it. The word â€śunderwearâ€ť isnâ€™t necessarily bad. So, the child might feel like a boundary is being pushed, but because trust is established, and the abuser tries to normalise it, the child would be hesitant to report it.â€ť
â€śThere are multiple ways that sexualisation happens. It could be through flattery, bribing, or blackmail â€“ like saying that I will tell your parents about your crush,â€ť Siddharth adds.
Nitish points out that since there are more boys than girls on gaming platforms, the former are more vulnerable. â€śPredators will initiate friendly conversation and slowly start bribing the boy with extra points, special features in the game in return for something like a photo. There can also be financial gratification on offer â€“ an abuser could say, â€śdownload this app and livestream yourself dancing. If you strip, I will give you more moneyâ€¦â€ť and so on.â€ť
It can even move on to meeting and abuse offline. In one instance, Siddharth says, a neighbour who knew a boy created a fake profile on Facebook with a girlâ€™s name and photos he found online. He then sent the boy sexually explicit pictures he found online pretending to be a girl, and encouraged the boy to send him his own. Using the online persona, he started blackmailing the child with the photos, coercing him to knock on the neighbourâ€™s (the predator's) door, and perform certain sexual acts. And when they met in person, the neighbour lied to the child saying that he had been deceived by the same girl â€“ his online persona â€“ who had his photos as well, thereby maintaining his control and deception over his victim.
How to safeguard against grooming?
Kushi Kushalappa of Enfold, a Bengaluru-based organisation working to prevent child sexual abuse and support survivors, refers to a case where a 15-year-old was groomed by a family friend â€“ online and offline â€“ to such an extent that she turned against her parents. She came to believe she is in love with him, is married to him, and her parents would not understand their relationship. The victim is 20 years old now, but still believes that the perpetrator, who was in his 40s when he started grooming her, is her husband.
â€śThe only real solution is to have an open dialogue and conversation in all environments, including schools and homes,â€ť Kushi says. â€śIf we let kids express their feelings, let them interact with all genders in a safe environment, perhaps they would not feel compelled to hide their relationships and activities.â€ť
â€śWhether we like it or not, there will an age when children will look for companionship, and would like to speak to other people outside their circle. It is important for parents and guardians to create a safe environment for them instead of creating an atmosphere of surveillance, compelling the child to shut down and become secretive,â€ť Nitish says.
â€śThere is a larger culture that hushes up conversations about children, relationships and sexuality that needs to change,â€ť Siddharth adds.
Parents also need to be aware of technological interventions they can use to maintain safety. For instance, Nitish believes that children should not be given mobile phones with data packs from the get go.
â€śBoth schools and homes can have WiFi with child safety settings enabled,â€ť he suggests. â€śParents also need to be cyber literate themselves. Many times, kids could be using abbreviations or slang that could be indicative of something inappropriate in their texts and with their friends, which could hint that they are in a vulnerable situation,â€ť he adds.
Siddharth says that other signs to look out for are if the child is spending more than the usual time online and is very secretive about it; if the parents cannot tell if the friends or incidents the child is talking about are related to known friends or people; and if the child is receiving packages or is in possession of material things that parents do not know the source of.
*Not their real name