Staff Reporter

Children in Bhutan are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than 170,000 children in Bhutan from classes PP-XII are today affected by the school closure. Many of these students are now taking online classes and are spending more time on virtual platforms, which can leave children vulnerable to online exploitation. Increased and unstructured time spent online could expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as greater risk of cyberbullying.

Foreign Minister and Chairperson of National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) Dr Tandi Dorji said the government is making efforts to ensure people have access to online resources when they are home.

“Everyone is staying at home and so spending more time online. This means all of us must also be aware of the risks of being online.”

The government and its partners, he said, are working on technical and practical guidance aimed at urging educators and parents to be alert, take urgent measures to mitigate potential risks, and ensure children’s online experiences are safe and positive during Covid-19.

“The government is doing its part to ensure our children have access to as well as are safe online, but we call on everyone – parents, caregivers and teachers to do their part in keeping our children safe online.”

Children in Bhutan remain vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation including online. The Study on Violence against Children and Young People, 2016 found that more than 20 per cent of the surveyed children had been exposed to adult content either in their own home or in someone else’s home.

Director of NCWC Kunzang Lhamu said, “School closures and strict containment measures mean more families are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world, but not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online.”

To mitigate online risks for children during Covid-19, parents have to ensure children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programs.

The UNICEF recommends parents to have open dialogues with children on how and with whom they are communicating online, and work with children to establish rules for how, when, and where the internet can be used.

Parents have to be alert to signs of distress in children that may emerge in connection with their online activity, be familiar with school district policies and local reporting mechanisms and have access to numbers of support helplines and hotline handy.

Schools, according to the UNICEF have to update current safeguarding policies to reflect the new realities for children learning from home.

Schools can promote and monitor good online behaviours, and ensure that children have continued access to school-based counselling services.

UNICEF Representative for Bhutan Dr Will Parks said that under the shadow of Covid-19, the lives of thousands of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens.

“We must help them navigate this new reality,” he said. “We call on parents and adults to be alert and keep children and young people safe online through enhanced safety features and teaching their children how to use the internet safely.”

Those who experience or come across any form of child protection issues or require any help including counselling during these difficult times are asked to seek help and support through NCWC’s woman and child toll-free helpline 1098, which operates around the clock.