Build resilience in children to help them stay safe on social media

“Our Lives Online: Use of Social Media by Children and Adolescents in East Asia – opportunities, risks and harms” – UNICEF

26 February 2020
Boy using mobile phone
Sukhum Preechapanich

Bangkok, 26 February 2020: Children from all backgrounds in East Asia have access to mobile devices, with Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, PubG and Mobile Legends being the most popular platforms for girls and boys, says new UNICEF report, “Our Lives Online: Use of Social Media by Children and Adolescents in East Asia – opportunities, risks and harms.”

The report by UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific regional office and the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention explores social media use in East Asia, gathering the views and experiences of children aged 11 to 18 years in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. It also captures the perspective of children not usually covered in these types of studies – lower income families, marginalized children, children with disabilities, children living on the streets and refugee children. 

Across the countries studied, three themes emerged: a lack of digital literacy amongst parents and caregivers; restrictive responses by adults to perceived misbehaviour in children’s social media use; and a lack of evidence-based approaches into what works in keeping children safe online. The report looks at the risks of child sexual exploitation and abuse online and provides UNICEF and partners with pointers on how to protect children. 

“Social media provides children with huge opportunities, but it also exposes them to risks and these risks are growing. Denying them access to social media is not the answer to protect children from risk and harm. We need to understand the risks children face online, how they use social media, how they perceive the risks they face and what steps, if any, they take to protect themselves. I am confident this report will contribute to shaping discussions and programming on child online protection in the region and to keeping children safe,” said Karin Hulshof, Regional Director, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific. 

The snap shot study found that children in East Asia adopt the same strategies seen throughout the world to protect themselves online: keeping accounts and profiles private and blocking unsolicited messages and images from strangers who make them feel uncomfortable. But children do accept chat and friend requests from strangers, particularly those claiming to be women, as they often do not view them as strangers in the online context. They only block them when the conversation goes in a direction that the child does not like. 

Both boys and girls reported being sent and being asked for explicit pictures. Two out of five children in the focus groups reported having bad experiences they would not want to tell anyone about. More than half had met someone in real life they had first met online, most in hope of forming a romantic relationship. In most cases they did not report experiencing harm from the encounter, but disappointment instead. 

These insights are critical in ensuring that interventions are tailored for children and young people in the region. The report makes several recommendations for the family, school, community and service providers, including:  

  1. Improve support for digital parenting, and parenting in a digital age: digital parenting should be integrated into evidence-based parenting programmes and should consider differing levels of digital literacy amongst female and male caregivers, as well as differing levels of access to technology.
  2. Foster online and offline resilience in children: Resilient children—those equipped with skills in areas such as communication, conflict resolution and self-efficacy—are more likely to make appropriate choices when using social media, be better equipped to manage conflict that they may encounter through the platforms that they use and take better measures to keep themselves safe online.
  3. Ensure that messaging and responses by teachers and adults are based on evidence of patterns of use, and what works: Greater emphasis must be placed on evidence-based approaches within schools, and in homes, that equip children with the skills required to keep themselves safe online, to promote appropriate and positive decision-making skills, and that also support the opportunities that present through an increase in digital skills.
  4. Three steps for technology companies: Technology companies should make profiles private by default; the default options for new contacts is most commonly ‘everyone’; this could be changed to ‘friends of friends.’; and finally, social media apps can relatively easily be designed to block photos being sent by people outside contact lists.


Notes to editors

The study attempted to address a series of questions:

  1. How are children using social media apps?
  2. What are the risks for children in the online environment, and how do these relate to risks in the offline environment, and what are the protective factors that can reduce harm (and foster resilience)?
  3. What measures are being implemented in the region and each of the countries to reduce child sexual exploitation and abuse online?
  4. How might these measures infringe or impact children’s other rights?
  5. What are the opportunities that children are accessing online and how do the apps that children are utilizing enhance these opportunities? Does the use of social media enhance access to offline opportunities?
  6. Drawing on the findings of the study, what are the recommendations to protect and promote children’s rights online, when using social media?

Methodology: a desk review undertaken and in-country data collection - 34 child focus groups were carried out with a total of 301 children across four countries.  


Media contacts

Shima Islam
Regional Communication Specialist
UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific
Tel: +66 (0)23569407


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