A ten-year-old student was throwing up, complaining of headaches, and refused to go to school for days. Unable to identify any physical causes for the child's distress, his father (a child counselor) sat him down and asked him if anything out of the ordinary had happened. After much coaxing, the boy revealed that his computer teacher had shown him pornographic images online.
His might be an unusual case, but it's not the only one. According to Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre (CWIN, 2008), 79 per cent of young Internet users have seen offensive materials online, either accidently or intentionally. But few parents are aware of what their children get up to in the World Wide Web.
Young Internet users have unlimited access to unfiltered content on the web, especially in cyber cafés. CWIN's survey of 1,430 children aged 12 to 18, consisting of students from elite private schools to street children in Kathmandu, found that 63 per cent of them use the Internet in such public areas. Almost two per cent of the respondents said a porn site was among their favourite websites.
"Most of them stumble upon it in cyber cafés on Internet windows left open by others, or on bookmarked pages," says Sumnima Tuladhar of CWIN. It's not surprising considering the most searched for keywords in Google Nepal's homepage is 'Nepali blue film', which pops up automatically when you start typing Nepal. On www.nepalitimes.com, a 2008 article called 'Porn wave' (#411) about the rise of pornography in Nepal is one of the most visited pages every week despite it not being featured prominently on the site, suggesting that people perhaps encounter it while searching for pornography.
Exposure to porn at an inappropriate age can have dangerous consequences, with children sometimes exhibiting symptoms of having been sexually abused or becoming abusers themselves. A South African study found that 90
per cent of young sexual offenders had been exposed to pornography, according to the group Standing Together to Oppose Pornography.
With the rise in the use of social networking sites like Facebook, children are also at risk from paedophiles and sexual predators, in Nepal and abroad. In March, a serial sex offender was sentenced to life in prison in England after he admitted to kidnapping, raping and murdering a teenager whom he lured by using a fake Facebook profile.
In Nepal, too, the amount of information children are willing to share on the Internet is cause for concern. About 50 per cent of the children in the CWIN survey said they shared their personal information online, including addresses and phone numbers. More than half of those had met their online friends in person. "You start falling in love with the person and get attracted to whatever he says or does," said a young girl. "It's like being under some kind of spell."
Add to that an already burgeoning online industry for child pornography, and the situation becomes truly alarming. Child pornography on the Internet increased by 1500 per cent between 1997 and 2005, says Interpol. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has reported that there are more than a million images of child sexual abuse accessible online and more than 100,000 child pornography websites.
The Computer Association of Nepal(CAN) and theInternet Service Providers Association of Nepalwork with police to shut down sites containing illegal and offensive material hosted in Nepal. "But we don't monitor sites because it is impossible," says Kishor Pant of CAN. Ultimately the responsibility lies with parents to install filters to protect their children.
"There should also be different computers for adults and children in cyber cafés," says Sumnima Tuladhar. Over a year back, police attempted to get cyber cafés to make user registration compulsory and remove partitions between workstations. But with the fast-paced change in technology and ease of access, the onus is on the parents to take an interest in their children's online behaviour. Tuladhar warns: "With 3G devices now, the Internet is just a click away."
Favourite websites (in order of preference)
What are they doing online?
73.7% of boys and 26.3% of girls have given out personal details to strangers
60.3% of children have met online friends in person; 15.5% of those reported having a bad experience in the first meeting
11% of children admitted to talking about sex online with strangers
36% of children admitted to watching explicit sexual material on purpose
1.7 per cent of children mentioned adult sites as one of their favourite websites.