It would be a mistake to think that UNICEF recommends prohibiting children from using the internet" />

Children and the internet: a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund

It would be a mistake to think that UNICEF recommends prohibiting children from using the internet

 

Children playing on an iPad in a Tbilisi courtyard. Photo: REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently published a report entitled: ‘The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World’.

According to the report, children are insufficiently shielded from the dangers of the digital world by their families and/or the state.

How has digital technology changed children’s lives and what can be expected in the future?

Figures and statistics

  • Every third internet user is a child;
  • The most active age group using the internet is the 15-24 years old range;
  • 71% of this age group are active internet users, while for the world’s total population this figure is 48%;
  • For 29% of young people (roughly 346 million), internet is not available.

Is the internet harmful to children?

On the contrary. The authors of the report believe that the internet should be accessible to all children as it provides unlimited opportunities for study, communication and self-expression in the modern world.

The era of digital technology has already come and, according to the report, there’s no going back. Governments, non-governmental organizations, and even parents cannot change this.

What use is the worldwide web to children?

With proper use, the internet can significantly change the lives of children who have a disadvantage, be it due to their race, religion, gender or nationality, who live in poverty, have been forcibly displaced, have a disability, or live in geographically difficult places. Thanks to digital technology, these children can feel like they’re part of the rest of the world.

Imagine a boy that suffers from infantile cerebral palsy communicating with peers on the internet. With the help of the internet, he’s on equal footing with them: for the first time in his life, his abilities exceed his capabilities.

Or a Syrian girl, who escaped from the war who learned how to use a computer in a refugee camp – an entirely new world is opening up for her.

Or 13-year-old Nino Shalamberidze from Kutaisi, who studies Spanish online. Her family doesn’t have the means to hire a tutor, but the internet has provided her with the opportunity to study a foreign language for free.

And for 15-year-old Giorgi, the internet has become the only way he can communicate daily with his mother who lives in Greece.

The report’s authors believe that all children should be able to use the internet, since children who remain without it are not on an even level with others.

For example, if a girl whose family and community customs and traditions keep her from using the internet, she will lack a lot of interesting information that her peers living in more liberal conditions have.

Dangers awaiting children online

In addition to a multitude of benefits, the authors of the report warned that the internet also holds many dangers, providing concrete examples such as:

A boy dependent on video games; a teenager driven to suicide by cyberbullying; nude photos of a 14-year old girl distributed by her ex-boyfriend who forced her to take them and an 8-year-old girl in the Philippines forced by her neighbor to stream sex acts live. There are many similar, real-world examples from all over the world in the report.

Cyberbullying – one of the main dangers of the digital world

“I was a victim of bullying in school, but when I went home and closed the door behind me, my torment was over. Today, you can be a victim in your own home. Bullying can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” said John Kari, a British expert on internet security who came to Georgia specifically to do a presentation on this report.

Predators can easily establish contact with children via the internet without raising suspicion by using anonymous profiles. They can force children into sexual acts or other dangerous contacts. Attempts are often made to radicalize children, or encourage them to commit unhealthy or dangerous acts.

 A study done last year in the UK found that one in three girls aged 13-17 years old received unwanted messages of a sexual nature from their peers, and one in ten received rape threats. According to police in Malaysia, 80% of rape victims from online dating in 2015 turned out to be minors between the ages of 10 and 18. 

Additionally, children can easily encounter websites with content that may traumatize their fragile psyches online. These materials may be sexual or pornographic in nature, photos or videos containing acts of violence, unsolicited advertising, racist or other discriminatory statement, web pages encouraging unhealthy activities, such as self-torture or anorexia or even suicide.

What is being done to ensure children’s safety on the internet?

Internet providers have, at the request of parents, installed filters in almost every UK household with a minor child to block all online resources that may be harmful to a minor. All schools in Great Britain use similar filters.

Mobile phone SIM cards of minors are similarly protected, blocking messages from suspicious sources.

A special commission, comprised of well-known people who enjoy prestige in the community and its confidence, have made a list of undesirable internet pages in the UK.

But despite such regulations, certain dangers and threats remain. For example, a minor can use free services in an internet café to get access to unrestricted and unwanted web pages.

What’s being done to ensure internet safety in Georgia?

Georgia has regulations in place to protect the rights and legitimate interests of consumers in the field of communications. In accordance with these regulations, internet providers and website owners are required to protect users from receiving ‘harmful information’.

But in reality, these regulations don’t actually work. Children using the internet in Georgia are currently not protected within the global network.

Dmitri Hundadze, Deputy of the Parliamentary Committee for Health and Social Affairs said that parliament is developing a new bill to protect internet space from information containing certain dangers.

Many people are skeptical about such regulations however, as such restrictions in weaker democracies (as in Georgia) can become an excuse to restrict freedom of speech, introduce censorship etc. In Turkey for example, strict regulations have affected pornographic sites as well as Wikipedia. The virtual encyclopedia, popular with students all over the world is blocked because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was named a dictator in one article.

Maka Sherazadashvili is a mother of two young children. Both she and her husband are busy at work all day and are therefore not in a position to constantly monitor their children, let alone their internet activity:

“We simply turned off the internet at home,” she said. Now, Maka’s oldest child who is in 6th grade must wait for her to come home from work in order to do her homework so that she can use her mother’s mobile internet. Schools often give assignments that can only be done with the help of information found on the internet.

The head of the communication program for the Children’s Fund Maya Kurtsikidze believes that the state and families should monitor children’s use of the internet: “Discipline regarding the digital world should be introduced in schools beginning in primary classes so children know how to avoid and protect themselves from the dangers of the internet.”

According to Kurtsikidze, minors should neither spend too much nor too little time on computers: “It is not important how much time a child spends on the computer, but what they are looking at and occupied with online.”


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