Manager Online | Features
 

Prey mates

By Lim Li Min
20 March 2006 11:36
As internet users get younger, the dangers of the web grow and the authorities play catch-up

On the internet, teenager Chinnawat Sakultangphaisal can be whoever he wants, and take on an assortment of personas simultaneously. He is chatting online to several people at once on Pirch, a Thai website popular with teens. To “Meow,” who is “looking for somebody to talk to... My mind and body are free,” he goes by the nickname of “Big.” To “Angel on Bed,” he is “Dee,” a moniker chosen because it could belong to either sex. To “Boss,” he is “Sandy,” a 17-year-old female student.

Within minutes, Meow has offered Chinnawat her mobile phone number, and an agreement to call later is made. Angel wants to find out where he studies. Boss, who is led to believe Chinnawat is a girl, tells Chinnawat he can drive over to Bagna to pick him up, as Chinnawat has told Boss this is where he lives.

Chinnawat, a 14-year-old student, who founded www.thaispykids.org, a website to warn kids of the hazards of the internet [see sidebar], was merely demonstrating how easy it is to assume multiple identities in cyberspace, and deceive people at the other end of the ether. For the hundreds of thousands of Thai teenagers who enter chat rooms every day heedlessly, the internet is rife with dangers, which many are oblivious to.

In a January 2006 ABAC poll of 1,464 internet users in Bangkok, two percent of the 15-24 age group surveyed revealed that they had gone on to physically meet the person they had chatted to online; 13 percent of those who physically met up with their dates proceeded to have sex with them. While some of the encounters seem to lead to consensual sex between teens of the same age, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI)’s Pol Col Yanaphon Youngyuen, director of the Hi-Tech Crime Bureau, has encountered about three cases of rape related to meetings originating in cyberspace in the last five years.

Social workers are also reporting that online solicitation or “grooming” by adults, a phenomenon so far mostly known in the West, is beginning to make inroads here, complementing the already well-established domestic juvenile sex-crime industry. Regional project coordinator Chakkrid Chansang of the Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights Foundation, reports that those who meet their virtual dates in real life are of the average age of 13.

“The biggest group who prey on teenagers are middle-aged men, who are 30 and above,” says Anusorn Kraiwatnussorn, an online gaming consultant.

According to ABAC, 75.2 percent of those interviewed in the January 2006 survey said they had been sexually harassed online, while Internet Filter Review, an internet publisher of product reviews for software and web services, estimates that an even higher proportion receive sexual solicitations in chat rooms in the west. Judging by statistics tracking global trends, it’s clear that as Thais become more wired, the risks of online predators are only likely to increase unless action is taken now.

Besides grooming, the virtual world offers adult material that minors, who are rarely supervised, are seldom ready for. Children as young as 11 are exposed to the more extreme forms of pornography, according to the ABAC poll.

“The big problem in Thailand, where the number of estimated users is between seven and 10 million, is that 60 percent are children. It’s bad for children to see porn because it normalizes it and [revises] the standards of what is obscene,” say Ithipol Pretiprasong, a lecturer at the Eastern Asia University’s (EAU) law school.

Besides being at the receiving end of porn, some teens may be exploiting the web for their own ends. The DSI’s Yanaphon says he encountered Thai teens with webcams looking to make money by stripping online. Although Thai law prohibits sex with a minor, defined as age 18 or under, many teens are soliciting sex on the web, says the EAU’s Ithipol.

Others photograph themselves in sexually suggestive or explicit positions for their boyfriends or girlfriends – only to have these images made public via mobile phones or emails, sometimes out of spite after the relationship ends. Chillingly, these images may end up circulating in child pornography rings – tarring or haunting a minor well into adulthood.

Although teens are spending more time online – often starting at age 13 – they are seldom equipped with the right skills or social commonsense. “You wouldn’t just put kids on a plane and send them [unsupervised] to the other side of the world. That’s the same as the virtual world,” says Carmen Madrinan, executive director of ECPAT – an organization that deals with child sexual exploitation issues. “Virtual behavior is not the same. In person, you can read, make an assessment very easily about the person. On the internet, there is anonymity, which creates a different set of dynamics.”

Wannee (not her real name), 15, logs onto Pirch’s “Nah Rak” or “Cute room” regularly. In Pirch, there are many rooms: Handsome Boy, Heart Clinic, Active, Computer Story, Tom Dee or Lesbian, Flirting, Wan Chai or Darling.

There’s one room that’s simply called Looking for Boyfriend or Girlfriend. But the best-looking girls use the Cute room, says Wanna. Her evidence: there are 145 members in the Lesbian room; 320 in Cute at present. Calling herself ‘Candy’ she receives a deluge of messages from people wanting her address, photo and mobile number within seconds. “Do you have a boyfriend yet? Can we be friends?” asks someone by the name of Pai. A good-looking boy called Ball sends her a photo of himself, telling her he’s the same age and that they share the same hobbies.

“The main reason teens go to Pirch is to meet boyfriends or girlfriends,” explains Wannee. In Pirch, everyone can see what everyone else is chatting about, as all conversations start in the public rooms. But you only need click onto a person’s name to send them a private message or start Instant Messenger, she explains. Once, she says, a boy called her up on her mobile phone – although she insists she never gave her number out. But these things have a way leaking out on the internet, as many minors have found out, to their detriment.

Faced with an onslaught of online woes, Thailand’s internet laws and cyber policing desperately need to play catch-up. The trouble is, there is very little legislation that exists to protect minors in the country. Distributing porn for commercial purposes, whether it be adult or child pornography, only gets you three years in jail or a fine of 6,000 baht. While there are no specific internet laws against the viewing of child pornography in Thailand, the producers of child porn could be charged under the 1997 child trafficking law.

The government has tried to police the internet with projects such as Cybercop, whereby a group of officers and volunteers monitor the web for obscene sites. It has also countered with the distribution of free software called Swing, which allows users to click on an icon to report porn. But since these ventures were introduced three years ago, only 10,646 Thai pornographic websites have been reported and blocked out of the potential millions of URLs that exist on the internet.

“Even though we have [some] policies, we will never have the qualified tools. It is true that these measures have not been very effective,” says Chart Thai Party deputy leader Weerasak Kowsurat, who adds that Thai parents are seldom aware of what their children are up to.

Says Phunthip Saisoonthon of Thammasat’s law faculty: “The problems in the online society are the same as real society. Children can be cheated by adults but we cannot find bad men online. And on the internet in Thailand, we have no police to take care of these cases.”

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