Protecting Children Online During a Pandemic

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

... the online risks to children are truly global.” stated Howard Taylor, Executive Director of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children on an episode of The Do One Better! Podcast.

His sentiments echo that of Andrew Morley’s, the President and CEO of World Vision International (WVI). On an episode of The Do One Better! Podcast, Andrew Morley emphasizes that closed schools during the pandemic have forced children to stay at home and away from the protective, social and learning environment in schools. This exacerbates the risk of violence against children, including on the Internet.

The Internet has become an integral part of our lives. Worldwide, 1 in 3 Internet users is a child. In some cases, this has helped bridge the digital divide (for access to information and opportunities), but in others, it has exposed children to numerous risks- not just from people in their vicinity but around 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. Many children are stuck at home and are online more than usual. Lack of in-person time with their peers, teachers and community members 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.

These effects are already present in numbers across the globe. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates a 106% increase in the sharing of harmful content across the globe in June 2020. 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. In order to tackle this pervasive issue, child protection must be embedded in the prevention and the responses to COVID-19 that governments around the world are leading on.

Since the onset of the pandemic there are organizations that have taken a lead in protecting children online. Organizations like World Vision, End Violence Against Children and UNICEF, among others, have launched multiple interventions to address online violence and harassment of children.

Whats Working During the Pandemic?

Across the globe, organizations and institutes are ramping up their efforts to tackle violence children face online.

For example, UNICEF is actively working towards tackling online bullying and harassment faced by children, inappropriate processing of children’s data, and harmful digital marketing practices. End Violence against Children has teamed up with the world’s largest tech companies to launch the Project Protect initiative. The project aims to drive innovation in technology that detects child sexual abuse content, encourages collective action toward the issues, and drive additional funding toward the prevention programming. Similarly, World Vision has developed resources for families, communities and government to protect children from predators and other potentially harmful content that children encounter while online. While this project focuses on research, organizations like Thorn, aim to precisely identify and report child sexual abuse material for tech companies by training classifiers and AI tools.

At national or local levels, non-profit organizations and governments have set up or improved hotlines for children. For example, Child Helpline International has gathered resources on reaching and responding to children in 142 countries through hotlines. By June 2020, Childline Thailand had received 4000 calls on their helpline June 2020 (compared to 614 calls in June 2019). In Nepal, the Child Helpling run by CWIN, has also seen a spike in calls from 200 to 300 calls a day after the lockdown.

However, more needs to be done to respond to this global crisis. Governments need to collect more data, on child abuse and harassment online while taking into consideration the ethics around privacy and consent of children. The data can inform law enforcement’s interventions to deter online crimes affecting children. 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.

How Can Digital Interventions Help?

While organizations tackle online child protection through research or helpline outreach, digital interventions can meet children where they are - 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

  4. Linking online behavioral interventions to effective educational offline interventions.

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. In order to track and dissuade potential predators, government and companies can profile those who search for child abuse material and target them with personalized deterrence messaging.

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.

Collaboration is Key to Protect Children Online

The Internet is increasingly penetrating every part of human life and will soon be everywhere, touching every person on the planet. 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.

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. In particular, End Violence against Children and UNICEF have gathered several resources to help parents keep their children safe online.

Cyber crime 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.