Keeping young people safe in an increasingly virtual world.

Op-ed by Edward Carwardine, UNICEF Representative to the Republic of Azerbaijan

Edward Carwardine
UNICEF Representative in Azerbaijan Edward Carwardine takes a selfie with young people at the Binagadi Youth House.
10 February 2020

I remember the first time I used the internet. In those days, I would attach the computer to a telephone line, dial a number to connect to the server, go and make a cup of tea, and hopefully by the time I returned the web page would have loaded.

It is a process inconceivable to anyone under the age of 30 today. And even current technologies will seem archaic to the next generation of internet users – such as the 50 per cent of under ten-years old in Britain who now have a smartphone, according to a recent study by the UK media regulator Ofcom, which also found that nearly a quarter of 3 and 4-year-olds have their own tablet.

The internet is more accessible to more people than ever before. UNICEF estimates that a child goes online for the very first time every half a second. This phenomenal growth in connectivity creates exciting opportunities for our children and young people – access to knowledge, culture, new friends and exchange of ideas, opinions and feelings on a global stage.

As this virtual, borderless world expands and becomes an easier place for children to reach and in which to live, as in all communities, it has its own inherent dangers. Increasingly, that means violence, exploitation and bullying.

A 2019 study of young people in 30 countries undertaken by U-Report – an online survey tool developed with UNICEF support – found that 1 in every 3 young people has experienced cyberbullying, and nearly three-quarters of young people said that this bullying takes place mainly on social networks. One in five young people said they had stopped going to school at times because of online bullying. Other recent studies have shown that girls are more likely to be victims of cyberbullying than boys.

The consequences of online bullying extend far beyond the cybersphere. UNICEF has found that victims of cyberbullying are more likely to use alcohol and drugs and skip school than other students. They also are more likely to receive poor grades and experience low self-esteem and health problems. In extreme situations, cyberbullying has led to suicide.

Two girls working on the computer at the Mingachavir Youth House
UNICEF Azerbaijan/Pirozzi/2018

Today, Safer Internet Day, provides an opportunity for us to acknowledge the risks that our young people face in their online worlds but also to show how these risks can be reduced. We should not be afraid of the internet, and neither should its youngest users. We just to need to do more to make it a safer place for them in which to live, learn and play.

Building internet safety into the school curriculum, for example, both educates young people about protecting themselves online and creates a line of communication between teacher and student that can encourage young people to talk with confidence about negative experiences they encounter online. Parents can learn more about their children’s online habits, establish ground rules for how much time can be spent online, where their children can use their smartphones and tablets, and talk to them about safe internet use. And children themselves can be supportive to one another, especially in cases of online violence, to tackle the stigma and shame that too many young people experience when they are victims of bullying or exploitation.

Throughout history, children have done things they later wish they had not. It is part of growing up, part of how we learn and evolve. Today, children and young people will make mistakes in their online world. And when they do, we need to be there to offer our care and understanding. Those who exploit children online take advantage of the fear that many young people have of speaking up when things go wrong. The silence that results from the fear of retribution that many young people feel when they make an error of judgment online is the same silence that abusers will exploit further to shame and manipulate young people even more.

So if we do just one thing today to make the internet safer for our children, let’s speak to them about the exciting opportunities the internet brings, be open about the risks that we know exist in cyberspace, but above all let our children and young people know that we will always be there to protect them, in the virtual world as much as in the real one.