Durban — Children are being exposed to online hate messages or violent images across the world, even in countries like South Africa where internet access is low.
The latest report by Unicef Innocenti revealed that a considerable number of children were affected and that the risks remained substantial. It highlighted a need for countries to have “tailored protective measures” based on their circumstances, which ranged from high-risk to low-risk.
The report said that because the digital environment was largely unregulated, it could expose children to age-inappropriate or potentially harmful content. While efforts to mitigate that were gaining momentum, more evidence was needed to guide policy, regulation and industry practice.
Between 2016 and 2021, 31 790 children from 36 countries aged between 12 and 16 years were surveyed and the data extracted from the surveys Disrupting Harm, EU Kids Online or Global Kids Online.
“Once approximately half of the population gains internet access, there is a sharp increase in children’s vulnerability to these online risks. This signals a pressing concern for countries experiencing a surge in internet accessibility,” the report said.
The findings were filed under four categories: high internet access/high-risk countries (including Belgium, Norway, Portugal); high internet access/ low-risk countries (like France Germany, Croatia); low internet access/ high-risk countries (Cambodia, Ethiopia, Uganda); and low internet access/ low-risk countries (several in Africa including South Africa, Kenya, Ghana).
The results showed that some high-connectivity countries managed to maintain low exposure rates to hate messages and violent images online, which researchers said warranted further investigation to understand and emulate the success.
It said that might include existing legislation governing online content, content moderation practices, or learning opportunities that differed based on platform or language. It called on the industry to use its technological expertise to develop procedures and features that would identify and mitigate content risks early and remedy the impact on children.
“Tackling hateful and violent content and supporting children is a critical part of actively promoting children’s rights to education, information, participation, civic engagement and citizenship.”
The Unicef report said that as we witnessed the global digital transformation, safeguarding the well-being of children in the virtual space was not just a responsibility but an essential commitment to a prosperous digital future.
The purpose of the report was to determine what children in various countries were experiencing and if exposure to the content was driven by the level of internet access in the population.
A previous study conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention showed that at least 40% of children surveyed made online contact with someone they had never met in person, and 43% of them were boys.
The study, South African Kids Online: Barriers, Opportunities & Risks, showed that 54% of children met people face to face after they first got to know them on the internet. And most of them preferred to talk to their peers and not adults when they were bothered by something which happened online.
The report also revealed that more than half of children surveyed in this report had seen sexual images while online. While most of them were teenagers between 15 and 17, a substantial number were between 9 and 11 years.
Independent on Saturday