• Angad Chowdhry

Keeping Children Safe Online

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Last year, a 37-year-old mom spent a week online as a 11-year old girl. She received fifteen messages from adult men in a span of two hours. Half of them shared obscene content.

This could be in any part of the world.

One in five children in the USA have been sexually-solicited online, and one in four have encountered unwanted pornography. 66% of children aged 8–12 years in the United Kingdom are exposed to at least one form of cyber-risk. One in three children in Singapore has experienced cyberbullying. Merely 5% of children in the ASEAN region feel safe online.

The pandemic has further accelerated the risks that children face online. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates a 106% increase in the sharing of harmful content across the globe in June 2020. Quilt.AI noted a 100% increase in demand for child pornography in India on the day the country went into lockdown.

In light of this context, Quilt.AI organized a webinar on children’s online safety, exploring the range of threats children face online, the ways in which parents and children can adopt safe online behaviors, and how online and offline interventions address child safety issues.

Speakers included Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov (Law Professor & Consultant, Council of Europe & e-Enfance), Emma Day (Human Rights Lawyer & Child Protection Consultant, UNICEF), and Dr. Angad Chowdhry (Co-Founder & Head of Product, Quilt.AI). The discussion was moderated by Nivedita Ahuja (Technology, Innovations & Partnerships Lead, India Child Protection Fund).

In this article, we highlight key discussion points and important insights on prevention and response mechanisms to strengthen online child safety.

Ensuring Children’s Safety

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (a human rights treaty ratified by 196 countries) sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children and seeks to protect every child from violence, abuse, and exploitation. The convention celebrated its 30th-anniversary last year, as did the World Wide Web. This may be a coincidence, but in the current times, it could not be a better sign to emphasize the need for safeguarding children offline and online.

The Internet has become an integral part of our lives, and 1 in 3 children globally are online. In some cases, this has helped bridge the digital divide (for access to information and opportunities), but in other cases, it has exposed children to numerous risks- not just from people in their vicinity but around the world.

With the online world becoming as “real” as the offline world, there’s no reason why the rights guaranteed to children in the UN convention should not apply online as well.

To ensure this, child protection efforts are required on three fronts: in the private sphere (home and schools), through legal and institutional mechanisms, and digital interventions.

What Role Do Parents and Educators Play?

Child protection efforts start at home, and personal relationships and transparent communication channels between parents and children (and in schools- between teachers and students) play a crucial role, emphasizes Elizabeth.

First, simple everyday actions such as monitoring the online activity of children, keeping the computer in a common area, asking lots of questions (what are they doing, who are they interacting with, what do they like/dislike online), spending time online with children, and regulating the amount of time spent online, can go a long way in limiting and being aware of risks faced by children on the Internet.

Second, precautionary measures such as not talking to strangers, not uploading or downloading photos without parental permission, and applying parental controls on devices and the internet are equally important. Parents and teachers must learn more about computers and the Internet, and be aware of online functions such as blocking, reporting abuse, etc.

Third, talking to children about the risks they face online needs to be done using age-appropriate language and techniques. There are plenty of resources available online to guide parents on this- including material by UK Safer Internet, Telenor, and Stairway Foundation. Children need to know that they can trust their parents and teachers if they face any problems or unusual activities online, and therefore, such a bond needs to be fostered over time. Adults must pay attention to the little things that children express, as only then will children feel comfortable approaching them to discuss bigger, uncomfortable situations, should they arise.

Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, many children are stuck at home and are online more than usual. Lack of in-person time with their peers has led to more texting and sharing of photographs and other information electronically. The pandemic has also resulted in predators being online more than usual; therefore, this is a crucial time to keep a close watch and actively engage with children so that they don’t seek connections with strangers online.

What Role Do the Law and Institutions Play?

Legal and institutional mechanisms are essential to ensure the safety of children- both offline and online. Efforts on this front are promising in some countries, but more needs to be done.

Emma shares that UNICEF is actively working towards tackling online bullying and harassment faced by children, inappropriate processing of children’s data, and harmful digital marketing practices. Governments need to step up in collecting data on child abuse and harassment online and create policies to address the issue. Nonprofits must share the data they have collected on cyberbullying and other issues. Corporations need to be better regulated, especially with regard to marketing to children online and collecting, using, and storing children’s data.

COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of life, including children’s safety online. According to the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK, 8.8 million attempts were made to access child sexual abuse materials in just one month in April 2020.

Childline Thailand received 4000 calls on their helpline in June 2020 (for comparison: they received 614 calls in June 2019), and Cambodia is believed to have received an even higher number of calls. An urgent response to the crisis is needed globally: more helplines for children, more hotlines for the public to report, support for children facing abuse within their homes, access to social services during the pandemic, and better law enforcement for online crimes affecting children. The quality and safety of these services are as important as the availability of these services.

Further, contact-tracing apps launched due to the pandemic collect personal information and treat children the same as adults in most cases. There are concerns around the privacy and efficiency of these apps that go unaddressed.

While technology tools are available to get electronic evidence for law enforcement, there isn’t adequate state capacity and will to regulate technology platforms and prosecute offenders. Parental control apps are available for parents to restrict access to certain websites and monitor the online activity of their children, but most of these are created by private companies that collect children’s data without necessarily complying with security and privacy protocols in the absence of universal guidelines and regulations.

It’s high time governments and corporations developed effective solutions and emphasized “safety by design” and “privacy by design” principles — especially in technology platforms accessed by children.

Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash

How Can Digital Interventions Help?

Digital interventions are cheaper, easier, scalable, and more targeted than offline interventions, and both need to go hand in hand to tackle issues of children’s safety online. Digital “nudges” can be used for child protection in several ways:

1) Redirection of search traffic to legitimate pages on child online safety and how to mitigate risks;  2) Real estate takeover of social media timelines to highlight material on self- protective behavior;  3) Strategic content dissemination; and  4) Linking online behavioral interventions to effective educational offline interventions.

Quilt.AI has been working with the India Child Protection Fund on all of the above. Angad highlights that deterrence works better when it is specific and targeted and not generic. While the Internet signals general deterrence to individuals searching for child sexual material through generic warnings stating that it is a crime, the real challenge is in converting this to more specific, targeted messaging, driving home the point to potential consumers and perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

Our ongoing study shows that there’s a daily demand for child sexual abuse material on search engines (over 20 million searches per month in India alone) on the surface web. Keywords used to search for such material range from ambiguous to specific terms. During the national lockdown in India, searches for the phrase “child porn” went from 3.5 million searches a month on average to over 7 million searches the day lockdown was announced.

Using our proprietary AI tools and some funneling technology that we have built, we understand the person searching for such material and target them with personalized deterrence messaging. While there are people on whom deterrence messaging doesn’t work, we found a 10–30% decrease in demand for child sexual abuse material from those at the start of the funnel. These techniques can be leveraged in other countries as well to track and dissuade potential predators.

Such digital interventions need to be supplemented with offline interventions by NGO partners, service providers, and law enforcement agencies. Multi-sectoral partnerships are necessary for offline follow-up with perpetrators, and in making child safety a reality.

It Takes a Village To Raise a Child- and To Protect One

The Internet is increasingly penetrating every part of human life and will soon be everywhere, touching every person on the planet. Children will exist in a world where everything is listening and watching — and if something is listening, it has the potential to speak back, warns Angad. The world is likely to become much darker and complicated in the days to come.

To navigate this complexity, safeguards to protect children from risks need to be immediately put in place. Everyone is a stakeholder in this- children, parents, teachers, schools, governments, and the private sector; all are involved, responsible, and need to be part of the solution.

Technology plays a critical role in ensuring online safety, but cannot ensure child protection on its own. Children need to be equipped with resilience, knowledge, and skills to protect themselves and navigate the online world. Digital literacy is equally necessary for parents, teachers, caretakers, and law enforcers.

It is also important to recognize that risks and crimes do not occur online in isolation; strong linkages between online and offline spheres need to be made to ensure child protection, effective prevention of abuse, and timely response by authorities. Further, law enforcement and justice systems need to take advantage of technology and cyber tools to understand the risks children face online and better investigate online crimes. 

Private sector corporations need to be better regulated and made to incorporate protective measures by design. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is a positive step toward better Internet governance; however, it took 15 years after the emergence of the first social network for it to be passed. We don’t have that kind of time when it’s children’s well-being at stake.

Until companies and governments figure out a way to regulate online activities and protect children, parents play a critical role in looking out for their children’s safety online.

It’s unfortunate to note that cybercrime is the fastest growing crime worldwide (after human trafficking), and children are the fastest-growing victim group. We need to work together to ensure that every child — no matter which part of the globe they live- is protected from online abuse. And we need to do it now.

You can listen to the webinar here (password: 1ML3%v=w).

To know more about our work on child protection, email [email protected].


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