From total stranger to friends on FB
THE recent cases of Benjamin Sim and Yap Weng Wah, who sexually groomed minors over social media, raise the question: How vulnerable are our young people to online sex predators? Does it really take just a Facebook chat?
A child psychiatrist said that the method, known as sexual grooming, is not only common, but easy to do.
Last month, Benjamin Sim Wei Liang was sentenced to 20½ years in jail and 24 strokes of the cane for a slew of offences, including statutory rape.
Sim, 30, had befriended four girls aged between 11 and 13, including a pair of twins, over Facebook.
And in March, convicted sex predator Yap Weng Wah was jailed for 30 years and received 24 strokes of the cane for preying on 31 boys aged between 11 and 15. His case is described as the worst case of sex offences against young boys here.
Like Sim, the 31-year-old Yap hunted for his victims on Facebook, which is not meant for children under 13, according to the website's terms and conditions. Both used false identities.
I was sceptical about the ease with which young people could fall prey to predators on social media.
To test if this is true, I conducted an experiment to see how many children would respond to my advances. So for two weeks, I became an Internet paedophile. It took me all of two hours to put together a fake identity.
Under my new guise, I was a 20-year-old physical education teacher with a love for K-pop and football.
I sent out friend requests to random children, believed to be between 10 and 15 years old, found on homework forums and Facebook groups for secondary school children.
Within a couple of days, 18 out of the 150 children accepted my request even though they had no idea who I was.
It did not even matter that my alter ego's profile picture was a badly Photoshopped image of a man who looks nothing like a 20-year-old.
By befriending me, they also gave me access to their personal photos, biodata and friends list.
From their posts, I could also figure out who their family members are, what their interests are and where they attended school.
I managed to strike up conversations with three girls - two 14-year-olds and one 15-year-old - simply by pretending to be interested in making friends.
In two weeks, I found out about one girl's recent boating trip to Lazarus Island with her family and about another girl's problems with her homework.
I was shocked to learn about one girl's obsession with goth subculture and blood.
I feigned interest, playing along to get her to talk more about herself.
All three chatted with me through their mobile phones while in school or during tuition.
With time and determination, I could easily have progressed to more intimate topics. But at no point did I bring up sexual topics or suggest meeting up.
I ended the conversations immediately after obtaining personal information, such as their ages, schools, classes and upcoming activities.
Meanwhile, I received an automated message from Facebook, saying that I was detected to be potentially abusing its system.
Most of my friend requests were sent to people who claimed they "did not know me". My "punishment" was not a ban, but I had to do Captcha tests whenever I sent out a new friend request.
I stopped the experiment when one of the girls I had been chatting with suddenly blocked me for no apparent reason. Maybe her parents found out.
So what did I learn from being an online predator for a fortnight? Disturbingly, it is too easy to be one.
Child psychiatrist Brian Yeo said sexual grooming is easy.
"Just put on a nice enough profile photo, construct an interesting tale about yourself and you will surely get a...number of responses," said the consultant psychiatrist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre.
Usually done by adults to young people, these online sex predators leverage their victims' lack of maturity to make sexual advances.
And because the Internet grants anonymity, children are more receptive to the false appearances created by sex predators, said Dr Yeo.
"Children may even find it easier to share their private feelings with these online strangers, whom they see as being more willing (than people in the real world) to communicate. The chats then become more intimate. Once (the chat) starts, the bond can develop into a very deep one."
Dr Yeo believed that much has been done to educate young Internet users on how to go online safely. Schools and counsellors are helping to spread awareness about online honey traps. Several cyber-wellness groups, such as the Media Literacy Council, also have programmes to warn children of the dangers.
But Dr Yeo warned that there will "still be a few who will fall prey to the (tactics) of sex predators".
Most susceptible are children undergoing puberty, he said. There is also little that parents can do when children are able to access the Internet at younger ages and without their knowledge.
"Most parents are just not aware of what their children are doing online," said Dr Yeo.
Parents should be more concerned about their children's online safety and start Internet education at a young age, parents told The New Paper.
Edmund Tay, who blogs about parenting issues on Edunloaded.com, said: "Whenever something bad happens that concerns children being exploited online, I will use the articles as a teaching aid."
THE NEW PAPER