Making the digital world safer for children while increasing access

Despite the massive online presence of children, one in three internet users worldwide is a child, too little is done to protect them from the perils of the digital world and to increase their access to safe online content, UNICEF said in its annual flagship report released this week.

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.

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

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.

But the report shows that millions of children are missing out. Around one third of the world’s youth around 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 cyber bullying. The ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, the report notes, has made online access for many children less supervised and potentially more dangerous.

And digital networks like the Dark Web and crypto currencies 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.

Likewise, young people are the most connected age group. Worldwide, 71 percent are online compared with 48 per cent of the total population. African youth are the least connected, with around 3 out of 5 youth offline, compared to just 1 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 9 in 10 child sexual abuse URLs identified globally are hosted in five countries – Canada, France, the Netherlands, the Russian Federation and the United States.

Only 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 policymaking and more responsible business practices to benefit children are to provide all children with affordable access to high-quality online resources, protect children from harm online including abuse, exploitation, trafficking, cyber bullying and exposure to unsuitable materials and safeguarding children’s privacy and identities online.

It also teaches digital literacy to keep children informed, engaged and safe online and leveraging the power of the private sector to advance ethical standards and practices that protect and benefit children online and put children at the centre of digital policy.

UNICEF Bhutan Representative Rudolf Schwenk said: “Let’s strive for faster action, focused investment and greater cooperation to protect children from the harms of a more connected world. Let’s harness the good of the digital age to benefit every child.”

In Bhutan, the report was launched by the Prime Minister, Lyonpo Tshering Tobgye. Senior government officials, UNICEF partners and children were present at the launch event.

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