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Mariko Kagoshima | Online danger and children in a digital world

Published:Sunday | June 30, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Mariko Kagoshima, UNICEF Jamaica Representative
Online access by children is increasingly taking place within a “bedroom culture”, where children use their devices in private spaces that are not always well supervised.
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Globally, more than 175,000 children go online for the first time every day. That is a new child every half second.

This is the staggering speed at which digital engagement is growing in an era where children are becoming increasingly dependent on devices to connect with each other and with the wider world.

This online access is also increasingly taking place within a “bedroom culture”, where children use their devices in private spaces that are not always well supervised.

While this connectivity creates tremendous possibilities for children who are growing up online, it also brings significant perils. One of them is online violence.

The forms of violence, exploitation, and abuse that children face online are a digital extension of what they experience in real life. This includes the victimisation of children through sexual grooming, child pornography, and live streaming of sexual abuse. It also includes cyber harassment and bullying.

According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report 2017, ‘Children in a Digital World’:

It has never been easier for bullies, sex offenders, traffickers, and those who harm children to contact potential victims around the world, share images of their abuse, and encourage each other to commit further crimes. Digital connectivity has made children more accessible through unprotected social media profiles and online game forums. It also allows offenders to be anonymous – reducing their risk of identification and prosecution – expand their networks, increase profits, and pursue many victims at once.

In a global poll done with 10,000 18-year-olds in 2016, more than half of the respondents (53 per cent) strongly agreed that children and adolescents are in danger of being sexually abused or taken advantage of online. Respondents from Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa expressed the most concern, with two-thirds of adolescents in countries from each region strongly believing that young people are in danger of being sexually abused or taken advantage of online.

Online violence and how it affects children in Jamaica is an area that is yet to be widely researched, yet there have been some data collected that give us important insights.

In 2016, the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA), in collaboration with UNICEF, conducted a survey among just over 500 high school students across Jamaica to learn more about adolescent online activity. Seventy-two per cent had Internet access at home. The majority of the students – 64 per cent – said they had been contacted by a stranger online in a way that made them feel uncomfortable or scared.

Only 40 per cent said they used privacy settings. Worryingly, 63 per cent of boys and 53 per cent of girls said they met face to face with someone they knew only from online.

In a U-Report poll completed in June 2019 by close to 900 young Jamaicans, 34 per cent said they had been victims of online violence or cyberbullying.

PROTECTING PEERS

Often, children turn to their friends when they face risks or have a harmful experience online, leaving parents or caregivers unaware and unable to intervene or help. This means that children play an extremely important role in protecting their peers. They also need to be supported by other key actions that we can take at home, in communities, and at school.

Children may be digitally savvy nowadays, but they may not fully understand their vulnerability to online risks. Parents or caregivers need to play an active role in learning more about their children’s online activity and empowering them to navigate difficult virtual terrain. This begins with parents first educating themselves about the digital world.

Children need to be informed and guided about how to spot sexual predators, to manage cyberbullies, and how to deal with uncomfortable or dangerous situations they encounter online. Children also need to be taught that everything they post online – from social media comments to videos – can no longer be considered private and that content they share (including sexually explicit images) can expose them to the risk of extortion or worse. Parents also need to pay attention to protecting their children’s privacy by not posting content that could expose their children to predators or bullies.

With children going online at younger ages than ever before, schools should incorporate digital literacy programmes that start at the earliest levels. Teachers themselves also need to develop their own skills so that they can help children to learn how to use the Internet safely.

The private sector, including technology firms, has a major stake in how children consume their products and content online and should seek to advance ethical standards and practices that protect children online. This includes supporting law enforcement and child-protection efforts by providing relevant digital tools, knowledge, and expertise.

In a digital world, where a screen is all that stands between a child and a host of harmful possibilities, we must ensure that children have the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves and each other.

* This is a special monthly series running May-November in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a broad set of commitments that world leaders made to children. Jamaica ratified the CRC in 1991.

- Mariko Kagoshima is the UNICEF Jamaica Representative. Email feedback to editorial@gleanerjm.com