UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell's remarks at the High-Level Political Forum: Protecting the rights of every child in the digital environment

As prepared for delivery

12 July 2022

NEW YORK, 12 July 2022 - "Excellencies, colleagues, distinguished guests,

"Good morning, everyone. I’m very glad to be here.

"I want to recognize and thank the co-chairs of the Group of Children and the SDGs – the Permanent Representatives of Luxembourg, Bulgaria, and Jamaica – for their commitment to championing children’s rights.

"I’m especially excited that we are joined today by two of UNICEF’s amazing Youth Advocates, Gitanjali Rao and Aaraynaa Lohia. And I am looking forward to hearing from all our remarkable panellists – including representatives from the Government of Kenya and SRSG Maalla M’jid, as well as Microsoft, Ericsson, the LEGO Group, and ChildFund Alliance.

"Today’s event is a continuation of a conversation about protecting children’s rights in the digital environment that began in 2021, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning. In digital world, it is up to all of us to make sure that the Internet is a safe place for children to learn, socialize, and express themselves. 

"We are not there yet. 

"I recently learned that the World Wide Web and the Convention on the Rights of the Child were born in the same year – 1989.

"In those early days, I doubt that anyone apart from a handful of technologists really understood how radically and rapidly digital technology might change the world – let alone childhood.

"Today, we know that it has reshaped childhood and adolescence in profound ways, creating new opportunities for children’s development – and new risks to children’s rights.

"I doubt that anyone truly considered how quickly digital disparity would grow … how deeply it might impact the life chances of those who lack access to digital technology.

"And certainly, no one imagined the impact of a global pandemic – and how critical access to the Internet would be for children during school closures and lockdowns.

"We can certainly imagine it now.

"In fact, one of the biggest lessons we have learned during the pandemic is that we need to do more to ensure that the benefits of digitalization reach every child – in every situation. 

"So, I would like to take a moment to discuss two aspects of this complex challenge: connectivity and life online.

"First, connectivity.

"Given the ubiquity of digital technology in our lives, it is difficult to imagine that globally, an estimated 2.9 billion people – over a third of the global population – still do not have access to the Internet. The majority are living in low and middle-income countries.

"At the height of the pandemic, up to 1.6 billion children were affected by school closures. Many children were fortunate enough to have access to remote classes, but hundreds of millions were not.

"Digital exclusion impacts the children who are already most likely to be the farthest behind: children growing up in the poorest places … children affected by conflicts and crises … children with disabilities … and girls.

"These children may never develop the digital skills they need to succeed in our digital world, perpetuating cycles of exclusion and poverty – and limiting sustainable growth.

"Today, we estimate that at least 1.3 billion children still cannot access the Internet at home – and only around half of the world’s schools are able to provide online services.

"Giga – a joint initiative developed by UNICEF and ITU – is trying to change that.

"Giga does three things: it maps how many schools have Internet access … it creates innovative financing models to increase access … and it supports governments’ capacity to contract more effectively for connectivity.

"Since 2019, Giga has connected over 3,800 schools and over 1.3 million children to the Internet – with the ambitious goal of connecting 2.8 million schools and 500 million children to the Internet by 2030.

"This is only one initiative – but it points in the right direction.

"The second thing I want to touch on briefly is the reality of children’s lives online – and the urgent need to keep them safe from harm, wherever they are.

"The pandemic certainly revealed the critical necessity of digital access when it comes to learning. And the Internet has also been a social lifeline for people of all ages – helping maintain connections during times of isolation and providing children with the chance to interact with peers and to express themselves.

"We need to make sure every child can enjoy those benefits. And as they spend more time online, we need to protect them from increased risks to their safety, privacy, and autonomy.

"Technology is becoming more embedded and invisible in children’s lives than ever before. Digital assistants and cameras, and behind-the-scenes software like algorithms and predictive analytics, can compromise children's privacy and wellbeing.

"Digitally enabled sexual abuse and exploitation is a serious threat. UNICEF’s research in 12 countries indicates that up to 20 per cent of children suffered online sexual exploitation and abuse in the past year.

"UNICEF and our partners are working to help countries respond to these threats and prevent them in the first place.

"Many countries have experienced such rapid growth in digital technologies that they have not been able to keep pace with infrastructure upgrades and child-focused legislation and regulation to protect children.

"UNICEF and our partners are working to support country efforts to keep children safe online – from national online child protection plans in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, and Kenya ... to new criminal laws in Zimbabwe and legislative reform in the Philippines and Thailand.

"We are also working more closely than ever with the private sector. Businesses have enormous power in shaping children’s online experiences. They have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to use this power to protect child rights and improve children’s lives.

"The Children’s Rights and Business Principles, developed ten years ago by UNICEF, the UN Global Compact and Save the Children, have been embraced by businesses around the world as they work to address the potentially negative impact of their products on children.

"UNICEF is also working with companies and other stakeholders to create practical tools, including analysis and guidance on digital marketing, and support for data governance to protect child rights.

"Finally, we know we need to educate and empower children so they can navigate the digital environment safely. Parents, carers, and teachers need training and support to help children develop critical reasoning and digital literacy skills, and to provide other information so they can better protect themselves.

"Just as important, we need to make sure children have a voice in shaping the digital environment – after all, they are its most active users. We need their perspectives and their participation in the design and delivery of policies, as well as the products and services they use every day.

"Excellencies, partners,

"Many of the challenges we face to protect children’s rights are extremely difficult to overcome. Bridging the digital divide should not be one of them. Not when we have the technology and the ability to close that gap. We need to find the will.

"This is a collective challenge – and it yields a collective benefit. We will all benefit from a world where children’s privacy is respected online and offline, where children are protected from harm wherever they are, and where every child can develop the digital skills they need to make the most of their lives in a digital future.

"I look forward to working with all of you – and to hearing from all of you."


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