The digital world is a dark, dangerous place for children - here's how we can change that

Child safety on the internet is a huge challenge

The internet can be a place of play or peril for children Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Joanna Rubinstein
President & CEO, World Childhood Foundation, USA
Lina Fernandez
Special Projects Manager, World Childhood Foundation USA
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The Digital Economy

This year the World Wide Web celebrates its 30th anniversary. In that time, the internet has transformed every facet of our lives, from how we learn and work, to stimulating economic growth and increasing access to markets.

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified convention in the world. As we mark both birthdays, it is important to take stock of how this transformational technology impacts children. There are many benefits: it provides children with access to information, education and entertainment, and serves as a great communication tool. But like any technology, it can be misused and expose children to risk and harm. We have to ask ourselves, is the digital world today a safe environment for children?

Have you read?

Today, more than 50% of the world’s children experience violence every year. In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all the world’s nations, representing a global commitment to a better future for all. SDG 16.2 calls for an end to all forms of violence against children by 2030; target 9.C calls for the expansion of broadband to reach the unconnected in the developing world where most of the world’s children live.

In order to achieve these two targets, we urgently need to prioritize children’s safety online. Every day, children are exposed to more atrocities online and we learn how connectivity enables the violation of children’s rights. It is our duty to find a way to keep our children safer online without denying them access to the benefits of the digital world.

What are we doing to keep children safer online?

Some countries have put in place a regulatory framework to control the online space that's similar to the regulation of offline spaces. The UK and Australia lead the race in protecting children online. They have developed a safe per design and by default code that companies must follow, created child-friendly terms and conditions and appointed special commissioners in charge of protecting children’s rights in the digital space.

Experts in the field have developed different initiatives and tools to guide countries and companies’ decision-making processes towards a safer online space. Some of these initiatives are the WePROTECT Model of National Response framework and the Children’s Rights and Business Principles (CRBP), developed by Save the Children, UNICEF and UN Global Compact, and the ITU’s Child Online Protection guidelines, to name but a few.

Companies like NetClean have developed tools that help detect images and videos of child sexual abuse on computers in business environments. The NGO Thorn developed a tool that can be deployed directly onto a company’s platform to identify, remove and report child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Thorn also organizes hackathons to fight child sexual abuse and exploitation. A different product, Griffeye, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to scan for previously unclassified content, compare it with the attributes of known CSAM content and flag suspect items for review by an agent, helping to speed up investigations.

Elsewhere, Microsoft has developed PhotoDNA, a tool that creates hashes of images and compares them to a database of hashes already identified and confirmed to be CSAM. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Google work closely with law enforcement, governments and NGOs to develop tools and approaches for combatting child abuse and exploitation online.

Are we doing enough?

Early this year, The Economist Intelligence Unit launched the Out of the Shadows Index to measure the response of 60 countries to child sexual abuse and exploitation. This new tool also looks at the response of the ICT industry to child online sexual violence. The index and the survey of some of the broadband commissioners indicate that we are not doing enough; no country has a perfect child online protection system in place.

The amount of child sexual abuse material on the internet grows every year and just last year, technology companies reported 45 million photos and videos that depicted child abuses. We don’t even know what proportion of all the images they constitute.

A recent investigation by The New York Times suggests that “many tech companies failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it.” Unfortunately, there is no mandatory reporting for companies in the majority of the countries.

What can we do to make the digital world safer for all children?

Based on the recommendations of the new Child Online Safety report we need:

  • a robust, effective and enforceable legal framework that protects children’s rights;
  • a company culture that actively promotes child safety;
  • the education of children on their online and offline rights;
  • the education of children, parents, family, caregivers, educators, health professionals and community leaders in how to stay safe in the digital world;
  • age-appropriate online products and services to mitigate risks (this includes all solutions that are being used by children).

We need to keep in mind that children and perpetrators are not virtual, but real people. We also need to support law enforcement agencies with technological solutions and funding so they can rescue more children and apprehend more perpetrators as quickly as possible.

We need a multi-prong approach to improve child online safety with the cooperation of all stakeholders. More support, investment, engagement and technical expertise from the private sector is also required.

We have an opportunity and an obligation to save millions of children from unnecessary suffering. Failing to do so will render our societies incapable of deriving the maximum benefit from the digital transformation. A safer online environment will only exist if everyone plays their role.

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