Safety in the Digital Age

During this month’s meeting with our university students, Social Workers Bona and Kongkea started off by asking the students a question: “Have you ever received sexually inappropriate messages, pictures, or videos from strangers to your social media accounts?” Two of the students said yes, they had, but didn’t know what to do at the time besides blocking those individuals. In the last few years, Internet access and usage have skyrocketed in Cambodia, and with it comes both freedoms and risks. In 2017, Internet users in Cambodia numbered 10.8 million people, and in 2019, this number has reached a staggering 15.8 million.[1][2] While increased access to the Internet and improvements in digital literacy are undeniably a win for human rights, it also poses risks. The rapid spread of affordable, high-speed Internet and smartphone ownership in Southeast Asia means more people are online than ever before, with a world of information and resources at their fingertips.[3] The dark side of this recent boom, however, is the accompanying rise in online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) and increased concern from some that Cambodia moving too slowly in the fight against OCSE.[4] Across the world, OCSE is on the rise, and Cambodia is no exception. As explained by EPCAT (2019), “While the Internet has been a positive catalyst for innovation, education, and economic growth, it has also enabled those who would harm children by making it easier for them to produce, access and share child sexual abuse materials; to find like-minded offenders; and to reduce their risk of detection.”[5]

As a result of the Cambodian government’s increased crackdown on the commercial sex industry in recent years, much of the sex industry has been pushed underground or to alternate spaces. This, coupled with the restrictions on undercover investigations into sexual abuse cases, mean new challenges for law enforcement to catch and prosecute offenders.[6] [7] While a more comprehensive cybercrime law is reported to be in the pipelines, a big point of concern right now is the lack of awareness and understanding among young people in Cambodia around Internet safety. NGOs like Terre des Homes and Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE) Cambodia have responded by offering training workshops for young people and those working in Child Protection on the topic of OCSE. In October, six Free To Shine team members attended one such training, where they learned about the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet and social media, how to protect against and avoid online sexual abuse, and what to do when sexual abuse happens.

With the knowledge and tools learned at the training, our team can start to discuss the best ways to keep the girls on our program safe when they are online. This is especially important in Free To Shine’s work as girls are at the highest risk for online abuse. According to the statistics shared by APLE during the training, 65% of children who face online sexual abuse in Cambodia are girls, and 35% are boys.[8] Social Worker Kongkea reflected that ”Most of our girls are teenagers, and they have less information and understanding about social media. So, the risks are high that it could possibly happen to them.” Social Worker Bona added, “How people use social media has changed a lot in the past few years, especially for the students. Today people use the Internet to connect with people who are far away, and it's very important for all the people to get engaged with each other, but it gives us some dangers as well. Facebook has grown a lot recently in Cambodia, and the things that we are telling students, especially the university students, are important so they can use social media in a way that's useful and not harmful to them.”

Bona reflected that in talking with the girls on our program about social media in the past, “We saw that they may have a lot of friends but actually know only two or three out of the 1,000. Sometimes when they post a photo, they don't think about where that photo is going, that if it’s set to public, it’s going worldwide to everyone using Facebook. That's why we have to teach them about the dangers.” In light of this, Free To Shine has begun taking steps to start integrating lessons on online safety into our visits and our university meetings in the future. With the skills and knowledge from the APLE training and supplementary online training course, Free To Shine education officers and social workers can provide the girls on our program and their families with some tips on preventing abuse and what to do when it happens, including what information to share online, how to change their privacy settings, and how to report abuse to Free To Shine or to APLE through the Internet Hotline Cambodia (IHC).

As a child protection and sex trafficking prevention NGO, it is imperative that we address any new safety threats faced by the children and on our program and equip community members with the knowledge they need to face these threats and keep their children safe. To succeed in this, our social workers plan to integrate lessons on OCSE into our community trainings. It’s through our partnerships with best-practice organisations and our community connections that we are able to stay up to date and to ensure we’re providing the girls and families on our program they need to stay safe in their homes, communities, and on the Internet.

*Online Child Sexual Exploitation (OCSE) is “a form of exploitation and child sexual abuse that occurs on ICT platforms, such as websites and other online platforms, phones, and mobile apps and includes production, possession and distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online; grooming of potential child victims online with the intention of sexual exploitation; live streaming of child sexual exploitation and abuse and corruption of children, involving adults or other children exposing children to pornography online, and sexual extortion of children.”[9]

[1] C. Sok, ‘Number of Internet Users Up This Year’, Khmer Times, 7 December 2018,, (accessed 27 November 2019).

[2] V. Chea, ‘Internet Users Near 16m’, Khmer Times, 26 July 2019,, (accessed 27 November 2019).

[3] J. Thomas, ‘Southeast Asia’s Internet Economy Booming’, The ASEAN Post, 8 October 2019,, (accessed 27 November 2019).

[4] Reuters, ‘Cambodia Feared Lagging Behind Predators in Cybersex Trafficking Crackdown’, Voice of America, 14 September 2019,, (accessed 27 November 2019).

[5] ECPAT International, ‘Online Child Sexual Exploitation’, ECPAT International,, (accessed 27 November 2019).

[6] C. Overs, ‘From Sex Work to Entertainment and Trafficking: Implications of a Paradigm Shift for Sexuality, Law and Activism in Cambodia’, IDS Evidence Report No 23, Sexuality, Poverty, and Law, Brighton, United Kingdom, Institute of Development Studies, pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y, (accessed 29 October 2019).

[7] Reuters, op cit.

[8] Action Pour Les Enfants, 'Launching Event: Online Learning Resource Center for the Prevention of Online Child Sexual Exploitation', Pannasastra University, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 25 October 2019.

[9] Terre des Hommes, ‘Nine Chinese Men Arrested in Cambodia for Online Child Sexual Exploitation’, Terre des Hommes, 13 December 2018,, (accessed 27 November 2019).