The State of the World’s Children 2017 has recommended actions to protect children from online harm and called for close coordination at international and national levels to keep pace with digital technology that enables and conceals online child sexual abuse.

Other recommendations include providing children with affordable access to high-quality online resources, safeguarding children’s privacy and identities online, teaching digital literacy to keep children informed, engaged and safe online, leveraging the power of the private sectors to advance ethical standards and practices that protect and benefit children online, and to put children at the centre of digital policy.

The report states that only collective action of governments, private sector, children’s organisations, academia, families, and children themselves can help level the digital playing field to make the internet safe and more accessible for children.

Speaker of National Assembly, Jigme Zangpo and UNICEF Bhutan representative, Rudolf Schwenk, launched the report on December 11 in Thimphu. The report is flagship annual publication of UNICEF that examines the issues affecting children through key themes.

Rudolf Schwenk said that this year’s theme, Children in a Digital World, examines the ways in which digital technology has changed children’s lives and explores what the future may hold. “The report is motivated by a conviction that the digital age is here, sweeping across children’s lives and transforming their opportunities to connect and learn.”

According to the report, youth (15–24) are the most connected age group in the world. “Worldwide, 71 per cent are online compared with 48 per cent of the total population.”

It is estimated that one in three internet users around the world are children and adolescents under 18. However, about 29 percent of youth, around 346 million, are yet to be connected.

The report states that children who are connected to the digital world are making their voices heard through blogs, videos, social media, magazines, cartoons, hash tags and podcasts, among others. “They recognise the potential of digital tools to help them access information and seek solutions to problems affecting their communities. Digital technology has enormous potential to extend the reach and improve the quality of education.”

However, for children living in the poor countries and in rural areas, basic internet connectivity is a challenge.

“Digital connectivity is not only the ‘new necessity of our times’; it offers the potential to break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage from which the poorest children may not otherwise be able to break away,” the report states.

Globally, 56 per cent of websites are in English, making it difficult for children to find content they understand or are relevant to their lives. “Factors such as education, user skills, device type and the availability of local language content all impact how children use the internet, what they do when they are online and how they can maximise online opportunities,” it states. “Digital technologies also allow children to access information on issues that affect their communities and can give them a role in helping to solve them.”

The report also points out threats that children could face online such as loss of privacy, cyber bullying, expanding the reach of child abusers, and fostering the creation of ‘made-to-order’ child sexual abuse material. “Children are less likely to understand the risks and more likely to suffer the harms.”

The report states that efforts to protect children should focus on vulnerable and disadvantaged children, who may be less likely to understand online risks but are more likely to suffer the harms.

Rudolf Schwenk said to better protect children and to help them make the most out of their time online, focus should be more on what children are doing online and less on how long they are online.

Karma Cheki