Why India should make online child safety a priority | analysis | Hindustan Times
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Why India should make online child safety a priority

There is enough evidence to show that the Internet and social media play a part in the radicalization of children and youth as they are vulnerable to cyberbullying, online sexual abuse and exploitation

analysis Updated: Jun 29, 2018 12:30 IST
Children and young people are remarkably sensitive to the matter of online safety. As a Unesco global youth survey of 2017 shows, 95% of the respondents believe that their online safety is very important to them, and 94% place a high premium on the online safety of others.(Getty Images)

With over 470 million children under 18, India has the largest child population in the world. The explosion in Internet use and mobile access in the country has meant that a significant proportion of these children are now active Internet users.

Digital empowerment is a notable result of the widespread use of information and communications technologies. At the same time, a variety of cyber threats to children has emerged in India, making the online safety of children and young people a matter of national concern.

Children are vulnerable to cyberbullying, online sexual abuse and exploitation, the online enticement to illegal behaviour, and other horrific practices such as ‘grooming’ or the preparation of children for sexual manipulation. Internet dares such as the Blue Whale Challenge, for instance, which has allegedly claimed the lives of five teenagers in India, are another emerging risk. There is also enough evidence to show that the Internet and social media play a part in the radicalisation of children and the young.

Messages on social media have a demonstrated ability to incite violence. Recently, two young men from Assam were lynched to death by a mob on the suspicion of being child abductors, a suspicion fuelled by an inauthentic message circulating on social media. Facebook has revealed that in the first quarter of 2018, there has been an increase in posts related to graphic violence. Of every 10,000 views, 22 to 27 were views of content containing graphic violence.

The important thing is that change is possible. Sustained advocacy and action could have a transformative effect, countering online risks, and optimising the potential of the Internet to empower individuals and promote peace.

The shocking cases of the rape of minors in Kathua and Unnao united thousands in India and abroad in outrage and a collective demand for justice. The new media served as the primary channel for building and expressing solidarity, with a related hashtag dominating newsfeeds globally. The incidents led to the signature of an online petition by 1.6 million people around the world, making it the largest global online petition to date.

This represents a powerful crossover between the online and the offline, where outrage at on-ground incidents translated into a mass movement in cyberspace, which, in turn, can yield tangible results on the ground. The promotion of online child safety too requires a robust combination of online and offline mechanisms.

Priority interventions in the Indian context could include the creation of more partnerships to promote online child safety and sustained research on the subject. The government of India is doing its part by enabling policies and legislation to support the protection of children from online abuse. Every attempt should be made to remove offensive material from the Internet. Further investment in the capacities and resources of the police and cyber forensic professionals would go a long way towards ameliorating online sexual abuse.

Children and young people themselves are remarkably sensitive to the matter of online safety. As a Unesco global youth survey of 2017 shows, 95% of the respondents believe that their online safety is very important to them, and 94% place a high premium on the online safety of others. Over 90% of those surveyed feel that they ought to acquire the necessary skills and competencies to protect themselves, as opposed to being monitored by their parents or governments.

At Unicef and Unesco, we believe it is critical to mobilise parents, teachers, civil society, tech companies, and, of course, government leaders around a platform that addresses multiple risks and provides solutions. It is imperative too that we recognise that the young are change agents and equal partners in peacebuilding and development. Campaigns such as Unicef’s #StaySafeOnline help boys and girls engage in meaningful dialogue about online safety and groom them to become youth ambassadors for the cause.

Finally, responding to a need articulated by young people globally, substantial investments must be made in media and information literacy, and the inculcation of critical thinking as a 21st-century skill. Improved knowledge, skills and attitudes among children and the young may prove to be the single most effective antidote to online radicalisation and sexual abuse, and a catalyst for the promotion of social harmony.

Yasmin Ali Haque is the UNICEF Representative for India. Eric Falt is the newly-appointed Director and UNESCO Representative of the UNESCO Cluster Office for India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka

The views expressed are personal