Children at increased risk of harm online during global COVID-19 pandemic - UNICEF

Newly released technical note aims to help governments, ICT companies, educators and parents protect children in lockdown

15 April 2020

Download the technical note here

NEW YORK, PRETORIA, 15 April 2020 – Millions of children are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during lockdown in the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF and partners said today.

“The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented rise in screen time,” said Global Partnership to End Violence Executive Director Dr. Howard Taylor. “School closures and strict containment measures mean more and more families are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world, but not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online.”

More than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide. Many of these students are now taking classes as well as socializing more online. Spending more time on virtual platforms can leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and grooming, as predators look to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. A lack of face-to-face contact with friends and partners may lead to heightened risk-taking such as sending sexualized images, while increased and unstructured time online may expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as greater risk of cyberbullying.

“Under the shadow of COVID-19, the lives of millions of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens. We must help them navigate this new reality,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “We call on governments and industry to join forces to keep children and young people safe online through enhanced safety features and new tools to help parents and educators teach their children how to use the internet safely.”

In South Africa, the current lockdown may put children’s privacy in danger as they spend more time online. They may be more likely to encounter online risks, including being exposed to child sexual abuse material, or child sexual abuse and exploitation. And while sharing images and stories of lockdown and its challenges through social media is a way to stay connected, children’s rights to privacy and protection should not be compromised.   

“This lockdown is a time for parents to be proactive in speaking to their children about online safety, how to change settings to “private, friends or contacts only”, or prevent spam or unwanted sexual content,” said the Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF South Africa, Ms Mayke Huijbregts.

“By paying attention to the different things that children do online - increased communication, game-playing, learning – we are better placed to manage the time that children spend online. Promoting positive online and recreational use, and building children’s skills to stay safe online, will serve them well after the lockdown is lifted,” she said.

South Africa has a hotline for reporting online child sexual abuse and at the Internet Watch Foundation. Childline South Africa also offers counselling and support to children who need to reach out on 08000 55 555.

UNICEF, together with its partners, the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), WePROTECT Global Alliance, World Health Organization (WHO), and World Childhood Foundation USA, is releasing a new technical note aimed at urging governments, ICT industries, educators and parents to be alert, take urgent measures to mitigate potential risks, and ensure children’s online experiences are safe and positive during COVID-19.

The preliminary recommended actions to mitigate online risks for children during COVID-19 include:

  • Governments: Bolster core child protection services to make sure they remain open and active throughout the pandemic; train health, education and social service workers on the impacts that COVID-19 may have on child well-being, including increased online risks; step up awareness raising and educational initiatives on child online safety, and make sure social service providers, schools, parents and children are aware of local reporting mechanisms and have support numbers of local helplines and hotlines.
  • Information technology industry including social networking platforms: Ensure online platforms have enhanced safety and safeguarding measures, especially virtual learning tools, and that they are clearly accessible to educators, parents and children; promote and facilitate child safety referral services and helplines; develop standard moderation policies that are aligned with children’s rights; employ built-in protection measures while innovating as appropriate, and provide internet connectivity to improve access for disadvantaged children in low-income households.
  • Schools: Update current safeguarding policies to reflect the new realities for children learning from home; promote and monitor good online behaviours and ensure that children have continued access to school-based counselling services. 
  • Parents: Ensure children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programs; have open dialogues with children on how and with whom they are communicating online; work with children to establish rules for how, when, and where the internet can be used; be alert to signs of distress in children that may emerge in connection with their online activity, and be familiar with school district policies and local reporting mechanisms and have access to numbers of support helplines and hotline handy.

Media contacts

Greer van Zyl
Communication Specialist
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 79 896 3447
Helen Wylie
Tel: +1 917 244 2215

Additional resources

Related links and interviews

Technical note Interview with Mayke Huijbregts, Chief of social policy and child protection

ITWeb:  COVID-19 lockdown exposes millions of children to online risk


UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in over 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special efforts on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children everywhere.

Working with a range of partners, UNICEF has had a presence in South Africa since the end of apartheid and continues to work towards bettering the lives of all children in the country.

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