Children from the "Gray Zone"

In the last quarter of last year, La Strada specialists were contacted several times about the appearance on social networks of scandalous accounts, where children appear in nude poses, creating and distributing nude images with erotic connotations. This issue was later reconfirmed during the information and awareness campaign that we implemented in February-March, in the context of Online Safety Day.

Since the pandemic broke out, these cases have multiplied. La Strada specialists analyzed the circumstances in which such accounts appear on social networks, the causes of the children's behavior, and the consequences of neglecting or incorrectly addressing the sexualized behavior of a minor in the virtual space.

At the end of last year, a teacher notified us about the students' reactions during a lesson. The children found a ‘fan page’ account of a girl who regularly published photos and videos of herself half-naked. The teacher noticed the bad attitudes of the children and the ugly comments towards the girl and asked for help from La Strada specialists to manage the children's reactions properly.

The data collected by the Issues Affecting Children Program shows that, frequently, children who show accentuated sexual behaviors come from socially vulnerable or dysfunctional families, in which they do not receive enough attention or are abused. The child is neglected by the family and parents, and further, under the pretext of problematic behavior, the child is gradually excluded from the education system. And if neither the school nor the medical system notices the worrying signs in time, the risks to the child's health continue to increase.

Unfortunately, the legislation of the Republic of Moldova does not see a child who goes through an experience of harassment, bullying, or cyberbullying as being at risk. On the other hand, these children are vulnerable, going from absenteeism to school dropout, due to the attitude of their classmates and the emotional impact left by the experience they live online or at school. Harassment neglected by the parent, teacher, psychologist, social worker, police encourages blaming attitudes and aggressive and denigrating behaviors among children.

One of the trends noticed by the representatives of the IT Crimes Investigation Directorate is the increase in the number of cases in which adolescents aged 15-17 keep, distribute, and publish images with minors in explicit sexual poses. Few parents (and even fewer teenagers) know that these seemingly harmless actions are crimes.

Images with sexual connotation of a child represent a distinct category of materials at the borderline of the legal framework, in the "gray area." On the one hand, in the Republic of Moldova, these materials are not illegal. Their publication can only be considered a crime in terms of the inviolability of the child's private life. On the other hand, international experience of combating child abuse and online sexual exploitation proves that these images are solid stimuli for abusers.

In some states, images that exploit the child, but do not have an explicitly sexual character, but presents him in an erotic pose, have come to be incriminated by criminal law and national legislation in the field of media. In these states, combating the sexual exploitation of children starts from establishing clear definitions of what is meant by child sexual abuse and exploitation and continues with internationally standardized procedures, in which private companies are also involved. In our country, there are no real mechanisms for collaboration with Internet service providers, which would motivate them to get proactive, take notice, and apply effective filters when it comes to content that endangers the safety and lives of children.

Last but not least, we dramatically lack a minimum level of understanding of the place and the consequences that images of a child in suggestive sexual poses can have when accessible in the public information space.

For the last 11 years ‘La Strada’ has been providing psychological and legal assistance services to children victims of sexual abuse and exploitation; the specialists have provided information support for 4962 children and referred to support services and law enforcement agencies over 100 beneficiaries, presumed victims of online sexual abuse. And the year 2020 also brought us a gloomy anti-record: on the platform, 55 presumed cases of online sexual abuse committed against children from our country were reported.

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