In mid-2020, a 21-year-old woman got in touch with the cyber psychologist Nirali Bhatia, seeking help for her younger sister. The sister was distraught.
At the start of the pandemic, cooped up at home, the 15-year-old had become a resident of the internet. Her school classes were online, attended on a shared family computer. Her teachers delivered class notes on her mother’s WhatsApp. And her friend’s mobile was her gateway to socialising.
Early in the lockdown, the sister created an Instagram profile with a photograph of herself. In the profile bio, she wrote, “I aspire to be in IPS and a model.”
Within days, a direct message from a man landed in her inbox, asking if she was interested in a modelling assignment for an apparel brand. She said no. The exam season was on the horizon and she wanted to focus on her studies. Undeterred, the man said he would wait.
Their conversations continued despite the swift rejection of the modelling offer. Over the next few weeks, he told her that he is a former army officer, over 30 years old, and in the same city as her. He began to tutor her online and her grades improved. He said he loved her.
“This was the first time that I felt someone loves me, cares for me,” the girl later told Bhatia.
The man began asking for her photographs. At first, it was just her face or lips. But 10 weeks in, they began masturbating together online and sending each other nude pictures.
He taught her how to take the pictures, they exchanged Instagram passwords, and he wrote her poetry on her birthday. He promised her marriage and a meeting with her parents – but only after the lockdown. Until then, he said, “this is our little secret.”
“She believed she had lost her virginity in front of the screen,” Bhatia said. “It didn’t feel sexual to her. It felt more like love.” On one occasion, the two had a fight and the man threatened to post her pictures online. That didn’t happen, but the girl began using the family computer more than her friend’s phone.
It was her brother who stumbled upon the evidence in the deleted files folder. He told the eldest sister, who encouraged her younger sister to consult Bhatia about the relationship.
“We had to make her realise that this had been a trap,” Bhatia said, calling it a classic case of online grooming. “Grooming works on the modus operandi to hit at the right place – find the weaknesses and work on that. They [the groomers] often look for people who have a void in their lives and are emotionally vulnerable.”
The family filed a police case, but after a while, the girl stopped attending sessions with Bhatia. Meanwhile, Bhatia, who travels the country warning young school children about the signs and dangers of online grooming, received three similar cases during the Covid-19 lockdown.
During the pandemic, like Bhatia, several cyber experts, police officers, lawyers and NGO workers have witnessed a rise in cases of online grooming. To them, the reason is clear. A sudden push for online education accelerated digital adoption, but this shift was not accompanied by necessary warnings and digital literacy.
The National Commission for Protection of Children Rights in India describes online grooming as when someone “build(s) an emotional connection” with a young person to “gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation”. Using methods such as bribes, flattery, sexualised games, desensitisation, threats and blackmail, the perpetrator makes the young person “feel that a special friendship or relationship is developing [so that they] do not understand that they are being groomed”.
The case that Bhatia received was one instance of online grooming. There is a spectrum of activities that fall under the definition, but of them only the most serious ones involving sextortion and blackmail usually go to the police.
The problem spans the globe. In 2020, a study by the Internet Watch Foundation confirmed 1.5 lakh web pages as having child sexual abuse material. Of these, half the images were self-generated – an increase of 16% since 2019. Equally alarmingly, there was a 77% rise in the proportion of websites with child sexual abuse imagery.
“In some cases, children are groomed, deceived or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves,” the report said. “The images and videos predominantly involve girls aged 11 to 13 years old, in their bedrooms or another room in a home setting. With much of the world subject to periods of lockdown at home due to COVID-19, the volume of this kind of imagery has only grown.”
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a non-profit in the US, corroborated the findings, stating that global reports of child sexual abuse material had increased by 106% from 2019 to 2020. The US centre receives data from social media and electronic service providers and shares it with, among others, India’s National Crimes Records Bureau, through the help of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Despite this assistance, it is hard in India to find consolidated numbers. What is easier to come upon are state figures. In Maharashtra, for instance, the cyber cell of the state police registered 216 FIRs over child pornography and made 56 arrests under their campaign called Operation Blackface.
Balsing Rajput, the superintendent of the cell and head of Operation Blackface until November 2020, conceded that their data does not include a separate category for online grooming. But anecdotally, he said, it is one of the fastest growing crimes online.
“The pandemic has forced people to abruptly change their platforms – physical dealings have become virtual dealings,” Rajput said. “Due to this abrupt shift, many people are not able to understand the rules and behaviour on the internet. You may be literate but illiterate in the virtual world. People who make this immediate shift become easy targets of grooming gangs. The problem concerns everybody, not only me. Everybody who is in the digital world has to pay attention to this.”
In August, Aarambh India, an NGO in Mumbai working on child protection, received an email from a boy, probably around 16 years old, revealing that his sister was being abused. Aarambh responded with an offer to help, but the boy was anxious. It took several more attempts from the NGO for the boy to finally open up to its co-director Siddarth Pillai.
The boy’s 10-year-old sister, it turned out, had met a stranger on a gaming app called PK XD. The two began talking on PK XD’s chat channel and then on Snapchat.
“It was an extremely typical case of grooming,” said Pillai, based on the screenshots shared by the boy of the month-long conversation.
At first, it was just flirtatious language. Then the stranger sent the child the link to a website with anime pornography. Next pictures were exchanged and demands made for “more explicit images with more explicit language”. “There was an escalation,” said Pillai.
The brother of the victim made his own fake account, posing as a young girl, and grabbed more screenshots of the perpetrator attempting to create a similar relationship with him.
The family took the case to the local police, while Pillai and his team contacted Snapchat’s grievance cell officer. The platform took the account down shortly after.
Pillai remembers the first grooming case he encountered in 2016 – a Mumbai boy was lured online and then abused offline by a neighbour. “Back then, the police didn’t have a clear way of dealing with the situation,” he said. “I remember they didn’t register the case under POCSO [the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act].”
Things have improved a little. “Now, the police know what it is, but the problem is that filing an FRI does not immediately lead to a takedown notice,” Pillai added. “They need to establish that loop, because the healing process for the child usually begins when the account or content is taken down.”
Takedown notices are important, given the rise in searches for child sexual abuse material during the pandemic. In April 2020, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights cited a 95% increase in online child porn traffic, including through links on WhatsApp groups, when sending notices to top technology platforms.
Right before India’s first Covid-19 lockdown, a report submitted in Rajya Sabha by an ad-hoc committee in January 2020 raised the “alarming issue of pornography on social media”. The report advised the Parliament to introduce a clause into the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 that would address the growing phenomenon of online grooming. “‘Grooming’ needs to be explicitly recognised as a crime in India – to avoid any ambiguity in the meaning of the term,” the report said.
At present, a groomer can potentially be charged under various laws and provisions. The Indian Penal Code makes possession and distribution of child pornography an offence. An amendment to the POCSO Act in March mandates stronger punishment for the same crime. And, without explicitly using the phrase online grooming, the Information Technology Act makes it illegal to “cultivate, entice, and induce” children into an online relationship for a sexually explicit act.
One organisation highlighting the grooming of children by sexual predators in the online gaming space is Cyberpeace Foundation. “Till a couple of years ago, the cases were seen coming mostly from urban areas because that is where internet access was a part of life,” said Vineet Kumar, founder and CEO of Cyberpeace Foundation. “But in recent times, we have seen a larger percentage of the population using the internet. So these incidents are not just limited to urban regions but suburbs and rural sections too.”
Kumar said his hotline has been inundated with grooming cases lately. In July 2020, a call came in about a 13-year-old girl who had met a 21-year-old man from Mumbai on an app called Discord. Like in other cases, he started with “soft flirting” and then started sharing sexual context. “The challenge came when the grooming was exposed and the parents intervened, confiscating her devices and sitting in on her online classes,” Kumar said. “The girl was so badly groomed into [the relationship] that she was ready to ask neighbours for their phones to connect with that man. It was a clear case of online sexual abuse...” He added that several similar cases have come to his attention, including one in early September involving Instagram.
Cyber lawyer Karnika Seth says not all cases of online grooming make it to the courts or into the newspapers. “These cases are clearly on the rise [during the pandemic],” added Seth, “and growing awareness can be a good deterrent.”
Kumar, however, would like the solutions to go further: he called on social media and gaming platforms to have more efficient tracking and reporting systems. “Awareness or stringent laws alone cannot be called a solution,” he contended.
Karishma Mehrotra is an independent journalist. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Technology Writings for 2021.