Children’s use of the Internet and mobile technology is increasing, and for many children worldwide there is no clear distinction between the online and offline world. Access to the Internet presents many opportunities for their education, personal development, self-expression, and interaction with others. Yet, the increasingly complex online environment also presents risks for child safety online. Children are especially vulnerable to risks, which include inappropriate content, harmful interactions, commercial issues, and overuse.
When it comes to promoting the benefits of technology for children while at the same time fostering a safe and secure online environment, stakeholders need to strike a careful balance between the need to safeguard children, and the need to respect children’s digital rights. The sections below tackle the security aspect of children’s use of the Internet. Children’s digital rights are tackled from a human rights perspective.
Understanding how children use technology and the Internet is crucial for informing policy and initiatives related to children’s online safety. The environment evolves quickly, and is constantly producing new technology that has a significant impact on the lives of children and their safety. Although there is no single blueprint that can universally apply to protecting children online, their attitudes and use of technology and the Internet informs the policy–making processes and mobilises stakeholders to act.
Child safety online: Risks for children and young people
Despite the many benefits of the Internet, children and young people face certain online risks when using the Internet and technology. While users of any age can face risks, children are particularly vulnerable, as they are still in the process of development.
Various classifications of risks have been put forward in studies. They can be synthesised as:
- inappropriate content, including age-inappropriate content (such as language, violence, sexual content, dating sites, and pro-anorexia sites), and illegal content;
- inappropriate contact, including being bullied, being a bully, grooming, and harassment;
- reputational damage and digital footprint: sexting, sharing/sending inappropriate pictures and comments;
- commercial issues, including spam, hidden costs (such as in-app purchases) and inappropriate advertising (see Figure 4 for examples of commercial practices embedded in apps);
- overuse, which can interfere with study and sleep.
Online child sexual abuse and exploitation
While the issue of child sexual abuse is not new, the Internet has exacerbated the problem. One of the main reasons is that it provides an easy means of accessing and consuming child sexual abuse content, and of making contact with vulnerable young people.
Some of the sources of online risks for children may result in sexual violence of one kind or another. Children may receive illegal content, such as child sexual abuse images. They can be exposed to predators, leading to grooming and online and/or offline abuse or exploitation. Children can also become perpetrators of illegal activity with a sexually violent component, such as being persuaded to create and share sexual images of themselves, which may then be used to harass or threaten the victim. When content depicting a child being sexually abused is discovered online, there are two clear priorities: to remove the content from public view, and to find the victim of abuse. The victim can then be removed from harm and offered the appropriate support.
Addressing the challenges of child safety online
There is no single solution to mitigate the risks children face using the Internet. Rather, a combination approach can be used to tackle the risks in a broad way. Such an approach combines policy – including legislation, self- and co-regulation – and other measures aimed at creating an appropriate digital environment. It includes also the use of technical tools; and education and awareness. The issues need to be tackled at both national and global level.
The combination approach requires the involvement of all stakeholders. Parents and educators have a responsibility to guide and support children, especially younger children, to use services that promote positive behaviours. They play an important role in education and awareness, which is considered an important first line of defence in mitigating the risks.
Governments and the industry have the responsibility to ensure that the online environment is safe and secure. Service providers can play a key role in creating such an environment, and many tools can be used to this effect. Such tools include filters and reporting mechanisms. The industry favours self- and co-regulation, which has been found to be an effective approach. In addition, it is increasingly recognised that the industry can promote digital citizenship among children and develop products and platforms to help children benefit from ICTs.
Combatting online child sexual abuse and exploitation also requires a concerted effort. This includes appropriate legislation, the work of law enforcement agencies equipped to deal with investigations, technical measures, and education.
These measures on their own are only part of a solution, and must be provided in combination with other measures to achieve the aim of safeguarding children online. Thus, all stakeholders have a responsibility for child safety online, and to protect and fulfil children’s rights.