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Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse

New UNICEF report examines the risks facing children online

By James Elder

FLORENCE, Italy, 13 December 2011 – A child’s first steps into a run-down Internet café in Benin can be a transformative experience, offering access to new friends on other continents, exploration of distant lands, and entertainments far beyond the traditional village scene.

VIDEO: UNICEF reports on children around the world learning to protect themselves from online threats.  Watch in RealPlayer


Young people from the developing world are now logging on to cyberspace in increasing numbers, broadening their horizons and bridging the geographical divide.

But this very freedom also presents dangers, including sexual predators and cyber bullying. As of this year, there are an estimated 16,700 websites depicting child abuse images.

How can children, parents and community leaders strike a balance between the Internet’s many opportunities and its dangers?

A report released today from the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre offers some answers. ‘Child Safety Online: Global challenges and strategies’ examines the extent of these risks, how children are using the Internet, and how they can be protected. 

Growing at breakneck speeds

Awareness of the Internet’s risks to children has been increasing in industrialized countries, the report notes, but the same is not true of lower- and middle-income countries. In these countries, the Internet is growing at breakneck speeds, making it hard to assess how young people are using it, let alone how to protect them from underlying dangers.

But there is also good news.

“With a combination of interventions and actions, children in the emerging Internet markets can enjoy a protective environment that is put in place ahead of time,” says UNICEF Director of the Office of Research Gordon Alexander. “Indeed, relative latecomers can benefit from some of the lessons that have taken too much time elsewhere.”

© Panos/ Wiggers
Children use new laptops in Ethiopia. The computers were received through the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project.

Addressing the threats

‘Child Safety Online’ outlines three steps to protecting youth online.

The first is to empowering children and youth and enhancing their resilience to harms. They should be encouraged to access the creative benefits of the Internet while understanding its hazards and managing their risks. This will require the acknowledgement that there are indeed threats on the Internet for children.

“Sometimes in conservative societies there is a denial of such threats or issues, so this is one problem young people in developing countries may face,” says Nevine Tewfik, Director of Research and Strategies at Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

The second element – removing impunity for abusers – requires international coordination in legislation and enforcement. Unfortunately, this has yet to materialize in most countries; of 196 countries reviewed, only 45 have sufficient legislation to combat the proliferation of child abuse image.

“From a law enforcement point of view, the most important thing governments can do is harmonize the legislation,” says Peter Davies, chief executive at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in the United Kingdom. “People need to understand that any significant Internet investigation is likely to cross national boundaries, and too often, law enforcement bodies that are all keen to tackle the harm that’s caused by the Internet find their efforts frustrated because the law that applies in one country doesn’t apply in another.”

The third step is to remove the availability of, and access to, child sexual abuse images online. This will require the cooperation of Internet service providers as well as child-friendly filtering and blocking mechanisms.

“It may never be possible to remove all risks that exist in the online environment,” notes the report. “It is a space too huge, evolving, expanding and creative to ever be subject to the type of controls that would be necessary to fully protect children. Nor is it desirable that such control is sought, because total control would destroy the essence of the Internet and its many benefits.”

But more should – and must – be done to ensure children are the Internet’s beneficiaries and not its victims.



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