Make the Digital World Safer for Our Children

One in three internet users worldwide is a child. However, despite their massive online presence, too little is done to protect children from the perils of the digital world and to increase their access to safe online content, UNICEF said in its annual flagship report released end of last year.

The State of the World's Children (SOWC) 2017 Report: Children in a Digital World presents UNICEF's first comprehensive look at the different ways digital technology is affecting children's lives and life chances, identifying dangers as well as opportunities. The report argues that governments and the private sector have not kept up with the pace of change, exposing children to new risks and harms and leaving millions of the most disadvantaged children behind.

"For better and for worse, digital technology is now an irreversible fact of our lives."

"In a digital world, our dual challenge is how to mitigate the harms while maximizing the benefits of the internet for every child," said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

Waibai Buka, 12, holding a tablet provided by UNICEF, raises her hand to answer a question at a school in Bagai, north Cameroon - UNICEF Photo by Karel Prinsloo.

The report explores the benefits digital technology can offer the most disadvantaged children, including those growing up in poverty or affected by humanitarian emergencies. These include increasing their access to information, building skills for the digital workplace, and giving them a platform to connect and communicate their views.

At the same time, the report show that millions of children are missing out. Around one third of the world's youth (346 million) are not online, exacerbating inequities and reducing children's ability to participate in an increasingly digital economy.

The report also examines how the internet increases children's vulnerability to risks and harms, including misuse of their private information, access to harmful content, and cyberbullying. The ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, the report notes, has made online access for many children less supervised - and potentially more dangerous.

Rondiney Diniz, 20, began using social media at an Internet café in Fortaleza, Brazil since age 15 to find people who he could have casual sex - UNICEF Photo by Ueslei Marcelino.

And digital networks like the Dark Web and cryptocurrencies are enabling the worst forms of exploitation and abuse, including trafficking and 'made to order' online child sexual abuse.

The report presents current data and analysis about children's online usage and the impact of digital technology on children's wellbeing, exploring growing debates about digital "addiction" and the possible effect of screen time on brain development.

Additional facts from the report include:-

  • Young people are the most connected age group. Worldwide, 71 per cent are online compared with 48 per cent of the total population.
  • African youth are the least connected, with around three out of five youth offline, compared to just one in 25 in Europe.
  • Approximately 56 per cent of all websites are in English and many children cannot find content they understand or that is culturally relevant.
  • More than nine in 10 child sexual abuse URLs identified globally are hosted in five countries - Canada, France, the Netherlands, the Russian Federation and the United States.
  • Collective action by governments, the private sector, children's organizations, academia, families and children themselves can help level the digital playing field and make the internet safer and more accessible for children, the report says.

Practical recommendations to help guide more effective policy-making and more responsible business practices to benefit children include:-

  • Provide all children with affordable access to high-quality online resources.
  • Protect children from harm online - including abuse, exploitation, trafficking, cyberbullying and exposure to unsuitable materials.
  • Safeguard children's privacy and identities online.
  • Teach digital literacy to keep children informed, engaged and safe online.
  • Leverage the power of the private sector to advance ethical standards and practices that protect and benefit children online.
  • Put children at the centre of digital policy.

"The internet was designed for adults, but it is increasingly used by children and young people, and digital technology increasingly affects their lives and futures. So digital policies, practices, and products should better reflect children's needs, children's perspectives and children's voices," said Lake.

Making The Digital World Safer For Children - Malaysia Experience

While the internet has opened up a world of exploration for children, it has also made it easier for bullies, sex offenders, traffickers and abusers to find them.

One country that is particularly well connected is Malaysia. More than seven out of 10 households have internet access, and connectivity continues to surge. The country also has one of the highest proportions of 'digital natives' in the world, where youths aged 15 to 24 with at least five years of active internet use. Forty per cent of internet users are children and young people below 24 years of age.

A growing challenge in Malaysia has been for parents, teachers, policy-makers and the justice system to keep pace with the increasing risks children face online. Bad actors can approach children through unprotected social media profiles, chatting apps and online game forums. The largest national survey on cyber safety of school children in Malaysia reveals that more than 70 per cent of children report being victims of online harassment, while 26 per cent have been cyberbullied.

The number of active internet users in Malaysia has exceeded 20.1 million, with 16.8 million being active on social media. As the number of of digital natives grows, so do the risks. According to the Royal Malaysian Police D11 (Sexual, Women and Child Investigations) Unit, in 2015, children aged 10-18 years old made up 80 per cent of victims raped by an internet acquaintance.

UNICEF is currently on a working committee with the Government to draft guidelines on how best to handle sexual crime cases involving children. By working with a popular national news and media outlet called R.AGE and other partners, UNICEF is educating children across the country about online safety topics ranging from online dating to sexual violence.

'Predator in my Phone' campaign

A months-long undercover investigation dubbed 'Predator in my Phone' started a year ago, when R.AGE journalists learned that men had been preying on underage girls via popular mobile chatting apps. They decided to send two female journalists undercover, posing on the apps as 15-year-old girls. With the 'people nearby' feature enabled, the young women opened themselves up to chatting with a network of strangers - all within a few hundred metres.

Instantly, they were messaged by men for sex – over 70 in total. Some sent graphic photos and texts straight away, but others took time to build trust with the girls. These men, one reporter said, were more disturbing. They were methodical, spending days texting before suggesting a meet-up. Many presented themselves as caring, fatherly figures. All of them assured their would-be victims that what they were doing was normal.

As the correspondence continued, the men began pressing the girls for dates, which the young journalists agreed to. These in-person interactions were unpleasant to say the least - the men calmly tried to persuade the girls to join them in private, while the girls reacted with discomfort, hesitation and flat out refusal.

R.AGE secretly filmed the meet-ups for a documentary series, with the aim of prosecuting the men. But despite working closely with the police, compiling enough evidence to convict the predators was difficult. Laws against child sex crimes in Malaysia had no provisions for online grooming of children between the ages of 15 to 18. Technically, what these men were doing was legal.

To build public support for new laws against child sex crimes, UNICEF joined R.AGE as a partner on the 'Predator in my Phone' campaign. The two organizations, as well as several local NGOs, held town hall meetings for children and parents to discuss their experiences with online risks.

In support of a legislative push by Malaysia's Minister of Law, the journalists used social media to lobby Members of Parliament one by one, under the hashtag #MPsAgainstPredators.

And it worked. In April 2017, Malaysia's Parliament passed the landmark Sexual Offences Against Children Act. It addresses child grooming and child prostitution, physical and non-physical sexual assault offences and the abuse of positions of trust. The Prime Minister also pledged his support, and helped set up a special criminal court to hear child sexual crimes cases.

A ripple effect

The 'Predator in my Phone' campaign was one example of leveraging connectivity for positive change for children. Besides the many children the new law will undoubtedly save from victimization, the campaign has touched a number of youths who have already experienced online risks.

Some have shared their stories through R.AGE's Facebook group as part of a larger effort to combat victim-blaming culture in Malaysia. Others, like 17-year-old Angeline Chong, were inspired to take action.

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Angeline is like most teenagers living in Malaysia's urban centre. Her life is embedded in technology. Last year, when she saw the 'Predator in my Phone' story, she was dumbfounded.

"It was chilling to actually know that youngsters like me, my age, experienced that. I didn't know (it could happen) to teenagers like us," she says.

Though the story shocked her, she was all too familiar with other risks that come from growing up online. Because she had experienced them too.

When she read the 'Predator in my Phone' story on Facebook, Angeline was deeply moved by the campaign's attention to online risks. She was also inspired by how digital activism could be turned against digital risk, and ultimately create nationwide change.

She decided to join R.AGE's BRATs programme - a workshop for teens teaching everything from journalism ethics to social media reporting, interview skills and video editing.

Angeline studies at home in Kuala Lumpur, and as a victim of cyber-bulling was inspired to join R.AGE's young journalist programme - UNICEF Photo by Richard Humphries.

"I realized this is a different type of journalism. I felt like it was going to help me grow," she says.

Both R.AGE and BRATs are examples of how connected Malaysian youth are using social media and digital technology to amplify their voices and seek solutions to the problems in their communities.

Although the internet has expanded the risks around them, it has also become a great democratizer - giving voice and power to groups that are otherwise overlooked.

"The best thing about 'Predator in my Phone' is that it gave hope and faith," says Angeline.

"It portrays how journalism can actually change the world into a better place," she added.

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