More than 400 per cent increase in cyber crime cases committed against children was reported in 2020 in comparison to 2019, with most of them relating to publishing or transmitting of materials depicting children in sexually explicit act, according to the latest National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) data.
Top five states reporting cyber crimes against children are: Uttar Pradesh (170), Karnataka (144), Maharashtra (137), Kerala (107) and Odisha (71), the NCRB data stated.
Among the 842 cases of online offences, 738 cases were about publishing or transmitting materials depicting children in sexually explicit act.
As the NCRB 2020 data reveals, there is a sharp rise (over 400 per cent) in cyber crimes (registered under the Information Technology Act) committed against children in comparison to the last year.
In 2019, 164 cases of cyber crimes against children were reported while in 2018, 117 cases of cyber crimes were committed against children and 79 such cases were registered in 2017.
Even though the number of cyber crime cases committed against children in 2020 remain small, its rise from 2019 is alarming.
Puja Marwaha, CEO, CRY-Child Rights and You, said while spending more time on internet for accessing education and other communication purposes, children have also become more vulnerable to multiple risks, particularly in the contexts of online sexual abuse, grooming or sexual solicitation, sexting, exposure to pornography, production and circulation of child sexual abuse material, cyber-bullying, online harassment and cyber-victimisation, and many other privacy-related risks.
"While there is little evidence to ascertain the scale of the impact of the epidemic containment measures on online abuse and exploitation of children, closure of schools and children's increased exposure to the online space may have had serious implications on the increased online risks experienced by them," she added.
During the Covid pandemic, measures taken to contain the spread of the pandemic have resulted in closure of schools and movement to virtual learning environments. Children also spent more time online for entertainment, social and educational purposes, whilst not necessarily being aware of any associated risks.
According to the UNICEF report (2020), 13 per cent of children and people aged 25 years or less in South Asia accessed the internet at home. The report also states that in lower-middle income countries only 14 per cent school-age children (3-17 years) have internet access at home.
However, there is no conclusive data available in the public domain to ascertain the numbers of children accessing the internet for education and other purposes across India, especially during the pandemic.
The UNICEF (2020) report, however, estimated that during the Covid pandemic around 37.6 million children across 16 states in India continued education through various remote learning initiatives such as online classrooms and radio programmes.
Marwaha said due to lockdown and closure of schools, limited opportunity for socialisation has also affected the psycho-social well-being of children.
"This may lead to increased loneliness, mood to conduct disorders, substance abuse or anxiety disorders. And, they may be predisposed to using the internet compulsively, accessing objectionable content or simply be more vulnerable to getting bullied or abused," she said.
Marwaha called for a need for cohesion between forums for internet governance policy and child protection on the existing discourse on children's digital rights.
"The Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) has a crucial role in facilitating this discourse. This will help in addressing the gaps in legislative and policy measures on several cyber safety issues such as criminalisation of cyberbullying and sexting among peers and categorisation of self-generated images as Child Sexual Abuse Material," she said.
"There is limited understanding among caregivers, educators and society regarding children's experiences with ICTs and perceived risks that they face online. There is a need to help caregivers, educators and parents to understand what children should know so as to be able appropriately and responsibly and be able to guide them. The existing awareness building programmes lack common content focus, are fragmented and have limited outreach," Marwaha added.
She also stressed on the need for a coordinated approach for equipping children, caregivers, teachers and the public with skills for safeguarding against online threats and being responsible digital citizens.