UNICEF urges nations to protect children from online dangers during pandemic
UNICEF says it is concerned that millions of children are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during lockdown in the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide. Many of these students are now taking classes as well as socialising more online.
Spending more time on virtual platforms can leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and grooming, as predators look to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. A lack of face-to-face contact with friends and partners may lead to heightened risk-taking such as sending sexualized images. All this increased and unstructured time online that may expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as greater risk of cyberbullying has sounded a clear alarm bell for UNICEF and its international partners.
‘Alarm bell for UNICEF and partners’
Dr Howard Taylor, Executive Director of Global Partnership to End Violence, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented rise in screen time. School closures and strict containment measures mean more and 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.”
A new technical note aimed at urging governments, ICT industries, 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, has now been issued by UNICEF and these partners: Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), WePROTECT Global Alliance, World Health Organization (WHO), and World Childhood Foundation USA (Childhood USA).
‘We must help them navigate this new reality’
Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, said: “Under the shadow of COVID-19, the lives of millions of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens. We must help them navigate this new reality.
She called on governments and industry to ‘join forces’ to keep children and young people safe online through enhanced safety features and new tools to help parents and educators teach their children how to use the internet safely. Preliminary recommended actions to mitigate online risks for children during COVID-19 include:
Governments: Bolster core child protection services to make sure they remain open and active throughout the pandemic; train health, education and social service workers on the impacts that COVID-19 may have on child well-being, including increased online risks; step up awareness raising and educational initiatives on child online safety, and make sure social service providers, schools, parents and children are aware of local reporting mechanisms and have support numbers of local helplines and hotlines.
Information technology industry including social networking platforms: Ensure online platforms have enhanced safety and safeguarding measures, especially virtual learning tools, and that they are clearly accessible to educators, parents and children; promote and facilitate child safety referral services and helplines; develop standard moderation policies that are aligned with children’s rights; employ built-in protection measures while innovating as appropriate, and provide internet connectivity to improve access for disadvantaged children in low-income households.
‘Schools should monitor good online behaviour’
Schools: Update current safeguarding policies to reflect the new realities for children learning from home; promote and monitor good online behaviours and ensure that children have continued access to school-based counselling services.
Parents: Ensure children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programs; have open dialogues with children on how and with whom they are communicating online; work with children to establish rules for how, when, and where the internet can be used; be alert to signs of distress in children that may emerge in connection with their online activity, and be familiar with school district policies and local reporting mechanisms and have access to numbers of support helplines and hotline handy.
Click here for a guide to UNICEF’s resources for keeping children safe online.