Children are one of the most significant users of the Internet. They use it for education, communication, and entertainment. There are utopian celebrations that the Internet will empower children and democratise the society. It is also being held responsible for the destruction of childhood as we know it. Too much exposure to it is commonly thought to lead to violence and delinquency, sexual promiscuity, educational underachievement, obesity, apathy, cynicism, and other anti-social behaviours. While there are many benefits, various new child protection concerns have also emerged due to children's access to cyberspace. These need to be addressed urgently.
According to a recent study conducted by Telenor, 49 percent of Bangladeshi children have encountered cyber bullying. Violence and harms against children in cyberspace could be in many different forms. One of those is the production, distribution and use of materials depicting child sexual abuse. Online solicitation or 'grooming' is another serious concern where an abuser secures a child's trust in order to draw them into a situation where they may be harmed. Adult pornography exists in abundance on the Internet, which many children can access. Moreover, information on tools for violence, cults, drugs etc. are freely available through the web, which could be very damaging for children. Social networking sites are a particular growth area that is being exploited for online abuse of children. Cyberspace hosts a vast number of venues (chat rooms, message boards, and games) where children congregate. This provides greater opportunities for abusers to seek out and approach children relatively easily, and eventually they can harm them psychologically and/or physically. It must be remembered that abuse of a child is still more likely to occur within the family than anywhere else, but cyberspace opens up the possibility for family members to use the technology abusively. Moreover, it provides other family members and strangers with the opportunity to contact children with whom they would not otherwise have had any kind of relationship.
It must be said that no country in the world has solved the challenges related to online child protection completely. But important lessons can be learnt from the West. Now it is known that online activities have their roots in offline behaviour, and it is important to understand the contexts in which the Internet is used instead of just focusing on the technology itself. Some prefer blocking software, which will prevent children from gaining access to online materials that are inappropriate for them. However, evidence of effectiveness of blocking software is limited. Rather than simply take restrictive measures, we need to strengthen the capacity of children so that accessing the Internet becomes an empowering experience for them. We need a multi-sectoral response to protect children in cyberspace with active engagement of the information and communication technology sector.
Children's vulnerabilities are connected to their status in the real world. Some children are especially at risk due to a range of vulnerability-enhancing factors. If children live in socially and economically difficult conditions, have already experienced harm such as sexual abuse and exploitation, suffer from loneliness and low-esteem, and are alienated from parents and others, they are more likely to be negatively affected. Thus, it is imperative that adults actively listen to children, understand their vulnerabilities and take sensitive measures to protect them from harm.
According to article 18 of United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), parents have the primary responsibility to raise the child, and the State shall support them in this. However, many parents do not have the capacity to guide their children, as they are not very familiar with the new technology. In Bangladesh, parents in general seem very worried about their children's internet usage and feel a sense of helplessness. This usually leads to a gap between the parents and children. A survey of adult and child internet users in 12 countries revealed a big difference between the amount of time that parents believe their children are spending online, and the amount that children actually do. There is a need for better parent-child communication.
The principles of protecting children online and real settings are quite similar. Parents should spend quality time with their children to understand their lived realities, friendships, and interests in order to provide them with the guidance to protect them in all settings. Parents cannot offer appropriate advice if they do not know their children well.
Governments should consider computer literacy programmes targeting parents and other caregivers so they are better informed about children's use of the Internet. This may not be possible in all cases. For example, parents may not be able to learn about child protection in the cyberspace due to limited or no education, language barrier etc. Even in that case, nothing should stop them from communicating with children effectively; that is critical for protecting children. Teachers could also play a role in guiding children when parents are not able to do so.
Children have the right to explore new territories as well as the right to be protected from harm. There is a need to achieve a balance between utilisation of positive aspects of the cyber world -- ensuring the rights of children to privacy, information and expression, association -- and protecting them from abuse. In Bangladesh, more and more people are using the Internet, but there are limited interventions to protect the best interests of children in online settings. The government should provide leadership in developing policies and facilitating initiatives that enable children to exercise their right to information without being abused. Parents, caregivers and teachers should address the root causes that make children vulnerable in the real as well as the virtual world.
The writer is Director of Child Protection, Save the Children.