Protecting children online

Every child must be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse on the internet

UNICEF Kazakhstan/2021/Ruslan Karsamov
UNICEF Kazakhstan/2021/Ruslan Karsamov
10 February 2022

Children are spending more time online than ever before. And they’re getting there sooner. Around the world, a child goes online for the first time every half second.

Growing up online offers limitless opportunities. Through computers, smartphones, gaming consoles, and televisions, children learn, imagine and develop their social networks. When used in the right way – and accessible to all – the internet has the potential to broaden horizons and ignite creativity the world over.

But with these opportunities come serious risks.

Cyberbullying and other forms of peer-to-peer violence can affect young people each time they log in to social media or instant messaging platforms. When browsing the internet, children may be exposed to hate speech and violent content – including messages that incite self-harm and even suicide.

Children can also be put at risk when tech companies breach their privacy to collect data for marketing purposes. Child-targeted marketing through apps – and the excessive screen time it often results in – can compromise a child’s healthy development.

More than a third of young people in 30 countries report being cyberbullied, with 1 in 5 skipping school because of it.

Most alarming is the threat of online sexual exploitation and abuse. It has never been easier for child sex offenders to contact their potential victims, share imagery and encourage others to commit offences. Children may be victimized through the production, distribution and consumption of sexual abuse material, or they may be groomed for sexual exploitation, with abusers attempting to meet them in person or exhort them for explicit content.

In the digital world, any person from any location can create and store sexually exploitative content. Child sex offenders may even livestream sexual abuse from the confines of their homes, directing on-demand abuse of children far away.

Some 80% of children in 25 countries report feeling in danger of sexual abuse or exploitation online.

As children embrace more digital platforms, they too may self-generate sexually explicit imagery. And though these images might be intended for an age-appropriate relationship, they can end up widely shared without consent. Sometimes, trusted adults solicit children to share imagery. For a child victim, this may result in social isolation, mental health issues, substance abuse, self-harm or suicide, as well as an increased likelihood of exhibiting abusive behaviours themselves in adulthood.

What happens online reflects the realities children face every day – at home, at school and in their wider communities.

Strategies to promote online safety must protect the educational and health benefits of digital technologies, while addressing the risks of exposure to violence, exploitation, and abuse, as well as to privacy breaches.

UNICEF works to make the internet a safe place for children to learn, socialize and express themselves. We partner with governments to advocate for necessary regulation, and with tech companies to promote the use of acceptable safety measures on their platforms. We also support ministries of education to teach children digital-literacy and online-safety skills.

Through our Global Kids Online  and Disrupting Harm projects, we gather evidence on children’s digital rights, opportunities and risks to better understand how use of digital technology contributes to their lives – and when it amplifies their risk of harm.

How does UNICEF address the online sexual exploitation of children?

UNICEF prevents and responds to the online sexual exploitation of children at the country and global level. We support coordinated national responses to online child sexual exploitation in over 20 countries – using the WePROTECT Global Alliance model – and strengthen the capacity of on-the-ground responders to provide services to victims. We work closely with governments to guide investments in evidence-based preventive programmes and awareness-raising. And we collaborate with tech companies to make digital products safer for children, providing industry guidelines and developing cutting-edge tools to stop the circulation of child sexual abuse materials.