A United Nations-backed new report published this week urged countries across the world to make the digital world safer for children, in the face of rising internet connectivity that makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse, online harassment and bullying, recruitment by extremist groups, and other risks.
“It takes a village to keep children safe both online and offline. Therefore, all the stakeholders need to prioritise children, collaborate and generate collective actions to prevent and address all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation of children online,” members of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, a body that conducted the study, said.
Globally, there are more than two million people under the age of 18 and nearly 71% of youth are already online, according to United Nation Children’s Fund UNICEF).
The report lays out staggering statistics showing the extent and scale of the problem. For instance, in just one year the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) found more than 105 000 websites hosting child sexual abuse material.
Unsupervised internet use by children is rife in many cities across Africa, where learners watch adult content online via their smartphones or at internet cafés.
In Cotonou, Benin’s commercial capital, school children in uniforms have been caught watching porno movies after school at an internet café, without any adult or the manager of the place seating nearby lifting a finger to say anything.
Learners told a man who caught them red-handed that watching porno was cool and helping them prepare for the phase of manhood. “I’m 15-year-old and I just started dating. So I need this kind of stuff to guide my sexual life,” the learner said.
The learner said porno watching was rife on smartphones across Cotonou schools. He said he did not understand why the man who caught them was making it a big issue.
The rage of smartphones on the continent, triggered by China’s dumping of cheap devices in Africa, also seems to have compounded the problem. Nevertheless, some observers blame parents for letting their children carry smartphones at school, which they use to watch adult content when nobody is looking.
The study by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development underlines the need for everyone to ensure children remain safe as they explore “the digital world”.
The report recommends that countries take immediate action, as no government has developed fully effective protection systems.
“Steps that protect children online include establishing a single national authority with ultimate responsibility for child online safety, as well as ensuring robust legislation is in place, among other measures.,” it said.
The Commission’s working group on Child Online Safety that undertook the study comprised senior United Nations representatives, non-governmental organisations, law-enforcement agencies, regulators, and private companies.