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Emojis: How sexual predators use and abuse them against minors

by Gaby Agbulos

YOU might have seen the viral video that depicts how innocent emojis being used in our daily digital conversations are being used (and abused) by sexual predators.

The video of Bahay Tuluyan, which gained many reactions from netizens – especially those still unaware of the deeper meaning of the emojis – showed the darker, more explicit side of messaging to which the youth (particularly minors) are exposed to.

What’s more bothersome is that according to the video, more than 500,000 sexual predators are online every day.

Child porn in PH: Numbers, still in the thousands

As per a report from Save the Children Philippines, the number of cases of children being sexually abused online has only gotten worse since the pandemic.

Amid said pandemic, cases of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC) increased by 264.6%, with 202, 605 reports coming in, especially during the time of enhanced community quarantine in 2020.

Cases only seem to be growing worse and worse. As per Catherine Scerri, the Executive Director of Bahay Tuluyan, an organization dedicated to protecting children’s rights, there is a high probability that your child has already talked to – or is talking to – an online predator, only you aren’t yet aware of it.

Given the prevalence of social media at present, sexual predators online are finding more and more ways to victimize children online. Their newest mode of exploitation? Using emojis as code for sexual acts they want to do to children.

Emojis, being used by child predators

Bahay Tuluyan reports that at present, over 500, 000 online predators are on the internet befriending children and using emojis in their conversations. What these children may not know, however, are the sexual connotations attached to such emojis. 

If you’re a parent and are wondering if your child is safe from online predators, some emojis you should be wary of are the following:

  • Eggplant emoji (🍆) – male genitals
  • Peach emoji (🍑) – butt
  • Water droplets emoji (💦) – orgasm
  • Winking emoji (😉) – desire / pagnanasa
  • Cherry emoji (🍒) – woman’s chest
  • Corn emoji (🌽) – porn
  • Taco emoji (🌮) – female genitals
  • Donut emoji (🍩) – butthole

Scerri further explains that predators get close to these children by also pretending to be kids, and then using emojis to get close to them and then abuse them. Some ways they do so are by asking for images of the children’s private parts or asking them to perform sexual acts for them.

OSAEC has seemingly always been a part of Philippine society, so much so that back in 2022, the country was declared number one in the world regarding this issue. 

Aside from the reasons of poverty and the country’s visa-free policy, UNICEF also notes Filipinos’ high use of technology to be one of the reasons behind the prevalence of this problem.

What is the government doing?

The government has implemented many laws and internet regulations to combat the issue of OSAEC in the Philippines, such as the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009, the Anti-OSAEC or Anti-CSAEM Act currently being amended, as well as the shutting down of over 3, 000 websites that had links to online child abuse back in 2021.

As per an interview conducted by the government station PTV 4 with the Philippine National Police, they are currently doing their part in facing this problem by conducting operations alongside other government agencies to investigate OSAEC cases in the country.

“We don’t have yung numbers na yun, yung nagsasabi na mataas,” PNP WCPC Chief Portia Malalad said with regard to the number of OSAEC cases in the Philippines.

“Pero mayroon kaming mga data dito na tumataas naman yung aming operation against sexual exploitation of children.” 

The PNP also noted that anyone can come to them to report cases of OSAEC, but PTV Philippines notes that it is up to the parents to be able to better avoid the problem, for example by communicating with their children or by checking their phones.

Not all parents, however, are tech-savvy enough to do this; either they are not familiar with how social media works, or their children put passwords on their phones to hide the messages they share with other people.

Telcos doing their share

Just last January, PLDT and Smart announced that they recorded over 16 billion cyber-attacks in 2023. Said attacks spiked to nearly 9, 000%, with 16 billion cases taking place as compared to the previous year’s 182 million.

As a means of fighting against the issue, the PLDT Group was able to block more than a billion hits from November to December of 2023. 

In combatting OSAEC in particular, Globe took the initiative to block an estimated number of 489, 849 child pornography sites back in 2023; they noted that this year, the number of disabled URLs with lewd content of children had gone up by 21.8%.

This was done in collaboration with the government, as well as some of the company’s stakeholders, as part of Globe’s #MakeITSafePH campaign that is in line with the Anti-Child Pornography Act’s requirement for internet service providers to prevent the access to or transmission of child pornography in the country.

According to Angel T. Redoble, the Chief Information Security Officer of PLDT, Smart, and ePLDT, the country is in the midst of a cyber war, hence why there is a need to secure all of its vital infrastructures such as energy, telecoms, and financial services.

“If we talk about cyber resiliency, stakeholders – both private entities and government units – must collaborate,” he also stated.

“And we need the government to orchestrate our efforts.” 

Internet service providers, however, can only do so much. In reality, even parents can only do so much. 

In the previous year, both PLDT and Smart attended the ASEAN ICT Forum on Child Online Protection in Thailand, explaining the challenges they have come across under the Anti-Child Pornography Law of 2009, wherein internet service providers were solely responsible for blocking and filtering any sites that may have online child abuse on them.

The companies explained that with the past law, there were provisions that they deemed both conflicting and unconstitutional and that the law didn’t take into consideration things like online payment channels and social media networks since it was made all the way back in 2009.

PLDT and Smart have since started working in collaboration with the government to better the amendment of the Anti-OSAEC or the Anti-CSAEM Act, ensuring that the responsibilities of internet service providers are made more clear and that any issues with the previous Anti-Child Pornography Law are taken note of.

While it is definitely a good thing that more and more attention is being placed on the issue of OSAEC in the Philippines, concerned parties will always be worried if what’s being done is enough. 

Will this be able to lessen the problem? Will it finally be put to a stop? Will it help to ensure that the Philippines will no longer become a hotbed for the sexual exploitation of children? 

One may also wonder why it is only now that such an act is being passed in the first place, as well as what measures the government is taking now to ensure the internet is a safe place for children to be on, especially given that it use is no longer avoidable due to many schools continuing to follow either a hybrid or an online setup.

All these questions, for now, remain unanswered pending the passing of the act into law. 

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