Here's how I befriended your child
Recent cases of Benjamin Sim and Yap Weng Wah, who sexually groomed minors over social media, raise the question: How vulnerable are our young ones to online sex predators? NG JUN SEN (firstname.lastname@example.org) creates a fake online identity and finds out first-hand
How can a young person, barely a teenager, end up willingly having sex with a man he or she does not know?
Does it really just take a Facebook chat?
A child psychiatrist tells this reporter that the method, known as sexual grooming, is not only common, but easy to do.
I was sceptical. To test if this is true, I conducted an experiment to see how many children would respond to my advances.
So for two weeks, I became an Internet paedophile.
It took me all of two hours to put together a fake identity.
Under my new guise, I was a 20-year-old physical education teacher with a love for K-pop and football.
I sent out friend requests to random children, believed to be between 10 and 15 years old, found on homework forums and Facebook groups for secondary school children.
Within a couple of days, 18 out of the 150 children accepted my request even though they had no idea who I was.
It did not even matter that my alter ego's profile picture was a badly Photoshopped image of a man who looks nothing like a 20-year-old.
By befriending me, they also gave me access to their personal photos, bio and friends list.
From their posts, I could also figure out who their family members are, what their interests are and where they attended school.
I managed to strike up conversations with three girls - two 14-year-olds and one 15-year-old - simply by pretending to be interested in making friends.
In two weeks, I found out about one girl's recent boating trip to Lazarus Island with her family and about another girl's problems with her homework.
I was shocked to learn about one girl's obsession with goth subculture and blood.
I feigned interest, playing along to get her to talk more about herself.
All three chatted with me through their mobile phones while in school or at tuition class.
With time and determination, I could easily have progressed to more intimate topics.
In the meantime, I received an automated message from Facebook saying that I was detected to be potentially abusing its system.
Most of my friend requests were sent to people who claimed they "did not know me".
My "punishment" was not a ban, but I had to do Captcha tests whenever I sent out a new friend request.
I stopped the experiment when one of the girls I had been chatting with suddenly blocked me for no reason. Maybe her parents found out.
So what did I learn from being an online predator for a fortnight? Disturbingly, it is all too easy to be one.
Beware the Internet paedophiles.
Drawn to 'interesting' strangers
Sexual grooming is so easy, says child psychiatrist Brian Yeo.
"Just put on a nice enough profile photo, construct an interesting tale about yourself and you will surely get a certain number of responses," says the consultant psychiatrist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre.
Usually done by adults to young people, these online sex predators leverage their victims' lack of maturity to make sexual advances.
And because the Internet grants anonymity, children are more receptive to the false appearances created by the sex predators, says Dr Yeo.
"Children may even find it easier to share their private feelings with these online strangers, who they see as being more willing (than people in the real world) to communicate. The chats then become more intimate."
He adds: "Once (the chat) starts, the bond can develop into a very deep one."
While not a new trend, Dr Yeo believes that much has been done to educate young Internet users on how to go online safely.
Schools and counsellors are helping to spread awareness about online honey traps.
Several cyber wellness groups, such as the Media Literacy Council, also have programmes to warn children of the dangers.
But Dr Yeo cautions there will "still be a few who will fall prey to the antics of sex predators".
Most susceptible are children undergoing puberty, he says.
There is also little that parents can do when children are able to access the Internet at younger ages and without their knowledge.
"Most parents are just not aware of what their children are doing online," says Dr Yeo.
Parents should be more concerned about their children's online safety and start Internet education at a young age, three parents tell The New Paper on Sunday.
Mr Edmund Tay, who blogs about parenting issues on edunloaded.com, says: "Whenever something bad happens that concerns children being exploited online, I will use the articles as a teaching aid."
He hopes that his three children - aged 10, eight and seven - will be honest with him if they encounter a suspicious character online.
"I can't possibly isolate them from the Internet forever, and I cannot be around them all the time," he says.
Parenting blogger Winston Tay from blogfather.sg agrees, so he uses parental control tools to keep track of his two children's online activities.
But the 37-year-old admits that the often repeated advice of "keeping vigilance" will just get harder as new social media technologies surface.
"I thought I am quite savvy, but I don't even understand new things like Snapchat that younger folks are using," he says.
He is referring to the mobile application which is known for being used for "sexting", or sex texting, by teenagers.
Madam Eileen Ng, who has an 11-year-old daughter, says in Mandarin: "In the past, parents will know if their children are hurt if they see scars or bruises on them."
The 44-year-old housewife adds: "Now, parents must go onto Facebook to see if scars appear there instead."
How we created fake identity, dug for information
The test was to find out how easy it is to befriend a young person online.
To do this, we created a false identity, comprising a fake Facebook profile page, which was registered using a bogus e-mail account and an unused pre-paid mobile phone number.
For the profile photo, we made a composite photo of a young man, using parts of images found on Google Images with the search term "Asian man".
We used this Facebook account to send out friend requests to profiles of young people between the ages of 10 and 15.
Out of 150 requests, 18 accepted our friend request - 10 girls and eight boys.
We then chatted with them via private messages. Three girls responded positively, while the others did not respond or quickly ended the conversation.
The conversation was geared towards unearthing personal information, such as their ages, schools, classes and upcoming activities.
At no point did we bring up sexual topics or suggest meeting up, and we ended the conversations immediately after obtaining the information.
To protect the privacy of the young ones, we have withheld their names as well as the name of our fake Facebook profile.