Keeping children safe online is even more crucial during the pandemic
The threats don’t just come from strangers, they can also come from people that children may already know, online or offline.
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have exploded over the last couple of decades. Generations have grown up with the internet, but there are surprisingly few protections in place to provide children with safe ways of accessing the online world.
More and more children are connecting to the internet across the planet as connectivity and the ubiquity of ICTs are spreading rapidly in the developing world. With the outbreak of COVID-19, there have been global closures of schools and the imposition of social distancing.
This has led to a massive increase in young people relying on the internet for socialising, play and schooling.
The fact that this is possible, even in some countries with weak or low levels of internet access, is remarkable. Although, it has led to some cases of parents having to sacrifice more than they can afford, resulting in wider social gaps. The main issue, however, is this necessary shift online has led to more vulnerable children than ever before being exposed to the dangers on the internet.
Children face challenging issues and serious risks from this new global connectivity. The threats don’t just come from strangers, they can also come from people that children may already know, online or offline.
What are the risks children face online?
Without proper supervision or oversight, children face a variety of potential issues. With increased exposure to the internet, young people may become more relaxed when talking to strangers online. Adults might then build relationships, ‘grooming’ them for sexual abuse or persuading them to swap sexual images or take part in ‘sexting’. This is a particular issue in chat rooms — especially those designed for children — as they tend to be poorly regulated.
Children can be exposed to other harmful sites that can lead to negative behaviour. They might learn about self-harm or see violent, sexist or xenophobic content. Some children have even been radicalised online after seeing extreme content. It is also increasingly easy to stumble on inappropriate material, such as graphic pornography.
Other risks and issues that can seriously impact a child’s development include cyberbullying, which is alarmingly common. These can consist of harmful messages or comments and might lead to a young person feeling increasingly isolated, exacerbating the problem made worse by lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions.
Further dangers are posed to a child’s privacy and future reputation. With all schooling and social activity being on the internet, there is a greater risk of data being compromised leading to an increased risk of identity theft or personal details being shared that could impact them for years.
What can be done to make the internet a safer place for young people?
On a more personal level, there is a need for openness and discussion between parents, teachers and children. Parents need to set boundaries and talk about the possible dangers. As a family, limits on time and the sort of sites visited are crucial, as is the need to inform children of the risks in an open and frank way. Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing and encourage them to share their activities.
However, this approach is clearly down to individuals and not a proper global long-term solution. These problems have proliferated due to a lack of established national or international strategies, and shortage of resources and institutions dedicated to protecting children online. Now COVID-19 has forced a dramatic shift online and more children are connected than ever, the need to establish international protocols is essential.
This is happening but not quickly enough. For example, the Safe Internet Day (SID), developed by the the EU Commission and implemented in a number of countries by the Youth IGF Movement, administered by TaC International, takes place every February and has drawn a lot of attention globally. These kinds of initiatives start international conversations.
Developing countries are getting connected and face different challenges but similar risks
Youth IGF has been spreading the message about online child safety and has conducted interviews with educators worldwide. They have been learning the challenges faced in developing countries, where children can be exposed to the digital world without a lot of prior experience. By talking to local teachers, it is possible to understand better how children access the internet and the urgent need for training on how to teach internet safety. Problems also vary from country to country.
For example, Liya Endale, a teacher in Ethiopia, said that while her school has multiple computers, only one can access the internet. This can be easily monitored for now, but that will change, and the teachers need further training. She said, “One of the program coordinators on our team is the computer and technology teacher in the building. And he doesn’t teach internet safety at all because he’s still focused on trying to get more updated technology.”
Safety Educator Ifechukwu Enweani from Nigeria expressed concerns about the differences in her country between private schools and public schools and those in the country as opposed to urban areas. She says, “When we go to public schools, because they don’t necessarily have access to the internet, then we don’t necessarily dwell on online safety during our safety education programs for kids.”
In remote parts of Tanzania, teaching in remote areas is even more challenging. Samwel Mjirima, a voluntary teacher, is forced to download material from the internet to an iPad and then show and teach children about the internet from downloaded videos and pictures. Even so, he says he is trying to teach them the values of the internet and teach them about safety. But his skills need developing first: “I want to get ICT skills and learn how I can make my pupils very competent in ICT.”
The online world is a global one, and its dangers to children need to be tackled at an international level
The internet is global, and the threats and dangers posed to children are the same everywhere. The interviews conducted by Youth IGF and similar studies show that an increasing number of young people are gaining online access even in the most remote areas. The coronavirus has hastened this, but it’s a situation that is here to stay.
More than ever, international cooperation is needed to protect the young. Online safety is being discussed, and there are increasing numbers of initiatives and projects being established to deal with the issues and risks. However, the pandemic has made the need for online child safety protocols more urgent than ever.