Child using tablet computer. Image: Kelly Sikkama/Unsplash

Children now represent one-third of all internet users.

This number is expected to increase once developing countries — where most of the world’s children live — become digitized.

This is both exciting and worrisome. Exciting because it has been established that connectivity opens doors to new educational experiences, skills, and other benefits. Worrisome because of what we know and experience about the internet’s darker side.

A new report by the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has identified the following online risks for those aged 18 years and under: sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking; online harassment, victimization, and cyberbullying; radicalization and recruitment by extremist organizations; exposure to misinformation and age-inappropriate content, such as pornography or violence; apps and games designed to encourage unhealthy habits and behaviours; illegal or unethical data harvesting and theft; and the normalization of gender-based violence through exposure to online abuse materials.

The report, Child Online Safety: Minimizing the Risk of Violence, Abuse and Exploitation Online, cites numerous statistics that show the extent of the problem now, and its potential to escalate.

For instance, the World Health Organization estimates that every year, at least 200 million children are sexually abused, with much of it taking place online, or captured and distributed digitally.

In Canada, communication technology has increasingly been used by child sex offenders to communicate with victims. Offenders used instant messaging, email, social media, chat rooms and other technology to “groom” victims in 83 per cent of child sexual abuse cases involving 714 adults identified as perpetrators, according to a study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

Meanwhile, one in five young Canadians have experienced some form of cyberbullying or cyberstalking (bullying or stalking involving the use of technology), according to a 2016 Statistics Canada study, which examined the issue among internet users aged 15 to 29 and looked at how they impact personal behaviour and mental health. About 36 per cent were cyberbullied but not cyberstalked; 33 per cent were cyberstalked but not cyberbullied, and 31 per cent experienced both.

“Between 19 per cent to 26 per cent of 10- to 20-year-olds report exposure to cyberbullying on an annual basis and the risk of exposure to cyberbullying increases with time spent on social networking sites,” according to Canada’s chief public health officer.

The challenges in addressing these problems, says the UN report, include the inconsistency of or lack of legislation across jurisdictions on child abuse crimes committed online, and the lack of regulations and laws that hold service providers accountable for child abuse material hosted on their platforms. Newly digitized countries are at greater risk, because often “educational and law enforcement infrastructures will have difficulty keeping up with sophisticated and determined criminals misusing digital platforms and services,” the report notes.

The fact that digital spaces where children spend time — such as social media, live-streaming apps, and interactive games — are often un-moderated compounds the problem, the report says. Digital companies often design technology “with limited or no consideration about the ways these could be used to exploit or abuse a child,” it adds.

Only a “unified and coordinated global approach” by governments, international institutions, private sector companies and civil society can combat these problems, the report stresses. “We know that it takes a village to keep children safe both online and offline.”

There are now more than 2.2 billion people under the age of 18, making them “the biggest vulnerable group,” in the world, the report states. They are also the fastest-growing online demographic in a world that is in the midst of the fourth Industrial Revolution, which offers even greater opportunities and risks.

If we care about our children and if we want them to gain the full benefits of connectivity, we cannot afford to wait any longer.

Tess Sison is communications consultant for WACC Global, an international NGO that advocates for communication rights in order to promote social justice.

Image: Kelly Sikkama/Unsplash