The quest for a child-friendly digital world

S. M. Rayhanul Islam
Thursday, April 5th, 2018


Like globalization, ‘digitalization’ has already changed the world. The rapid proliferation of information and communications technology (ICT) is an unstoppable force, touching virtually every sphere of modern life, from economies to societies to cultures, and shaping our everyday life. Childhood is no exception. The amount of technology available to children today is greater than in any previous generation, and it is more specifically designed to capture their imaginations. However, there is a heated debate as to how the digital influx is shaping children’s development and experience. Are social media changing the way that children form relationships? How is technology changing the way that children think, and how will it shape the classroom of the future? The UNICEF publication “The State of the World’s Children 2017” examines the ways in which digital technology has already changed children’s lives and life chances – and explores what the future may hold. It also argues for faster action, focused investment and greater cooperation to protect children from the harms of a more connected world – while harnessing the opportunities of the digital age to benefit every child.


The report contains five chapters. The first chapter ‘Digital Opportunity: The promise of connectivity’ looks at the opportunities digitalization offers to children everywhere, but especially children disadvantaged by poverty, exclusion, conflicts and other crises. For example, ICTs are bringing education to children in remote parts of Brazil and Cameroon and to girls in Afghanistan who cannot leave their homes. ICTs are also enabling child bloggers and reporters in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to advocate for their rights. They’re increasingly supporting children and their families in emergencies. And they’re literally giving a voice to children with disabilities: “The day I received an electronic notepad connected to the internet, my life literally changed,” Ivan Bakaidov, an 18-year-old with cerebral palsy, writes in this report.


Chapter Two titled ‘Digital Divides: Missed opportunities’   examines the data on who is being left behind and what it means to be unconnected in a digital world. The top-line numbers are striking: Nearly one third of all children and youth worldwide – around 346 million 15–24 year olds – are not online. In Africa, 3 out of 5 youth (aged 15 to 24) are offline; in Europe, the proportion is just 1 in 25. But digital divides go deeper than just connectivity. In a world where 56 per cent of websites are in English, many children cannot find content they understand or that’s relevant to their lives. Many also lack the skills, as well as the access to devices like laptops, that would allow them to make the most of online opportunities.


The next chapter ‘Digital Dangers: The harms of life online’ delves into the digital dark side and the risks and harms of life online, including the internet’s impact on children’s right to privacy and expression. ICTs have amplified some of the traditional dangers of childhood: Once confined to the schoolyard, the bully can now follow victims into their homes. But they have also created new dangers, such as expanding the reach of predators, fostering the creation of tailor-made child sexual abuse material, and broadening the market for the broadcasting of live sex abuse. As one child victim of online streaming said, “When the foreigner says, ‘get naked’, then we undress.” And then there are the dangers that many children and parents are unaware of – the threats to children’s privacy and identity, for example, from the industrial-scale data processing that the internet has now made possible.


Chapter Four titled ‘Digital childhoods: Living online’ explores some of the ways digitalization is changing childhood, for better and for worse. ICTs have changed how children form and maintain their friendships, allowing them to maintain almost-constant contact with their peers. They have also transformed how many children spend their leisure time, providing them with a constant feed of videos, social media updates and highly immersive games. Needless to say that these changes are not all for the better, and that excessive screen time is isolating children from their families and surroundings, fuelling depression and even making children obese.


The report concludes with priority actions and realistic recommendations for how society can harness the power of digitalization to benefit the most disadvantaged children and limit the harms to protect the most vulnerable children. These include: 1) Providing all children with affordable access to high-quality online resources – Actions should include creating incentives to encourage telecom and technology companies to lower the costs of connectivity; investing in more public hotspots and the creation of more culturally and linguistically appropriate content; and confronting cultural and other barriers that prevent children from going online. 2) Protecting children from harm online – Actions should include coordinating more closely at the international and national levels and deepening collaboration between law enforcement and the technology industry to keep pace with digital technology that can enable and conceal illegal trafficking and other online child sexual abuse. 3) Safeguarding children’s privacy – Actions should include urging a much greater commitment by the private sector and government to protect and not misuse children’s data; enforcing the application of international standards in collecting and using data about children online. 4) Teaching digital literacy to keep children informed, engaged and safe online – Actions should include greater collaboration between governments and technologists to develop ICT platforms and curricula from primary school through high school; teaching children how to recognize and protect themselves from online dangers; and making digital citizenship a core component of digital literacy instruction. 5) Leveraging the power of the private sector to advance ethical standards and practices that protect and benefit children online – Actions should include ethical product development and marketing that mitigates risks to children and a greater commitment to expanding children’s access to connectivity and content online. 6) Putting children at the centre of digital policy – Actions should include investing in better data about children’s access and activities online; developing regulatory frameworks that recognize the distinct needs of children; strengthening coordination and knowledge sharing at the global level to address the challenges of a digital world.


The writer is an independent researcher.

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