Keeping Children in Sri Lanka Safe and Empowered Online: UNICEF launches landmark study on Sri Lanka’s digital landscape

UNICEF calls for equitable and safe access for all children in Sri Lanka in response to study that shows substantial ‘digital divide’ between girls and boys, and highlights the risky behaviors of some children online.

06 February 2018
Digital landscape study

COLOMBO, 6 February 2018 – UNICEF has launched a new report entitled ‘Keeping Children Safe and Empowered Online: A study on Sri Lanka’s digital landscape’ to mark Safer Internet Day 2018. The report shows, for the first time, how adolescents access and use the internet in Sri Lanka, and recommends key actions to ensure that young people benefit from the full, positive potential of these technologies, whilst minimizing the potential for harm.

The study reveals that while 52.8 per cent of young people in Sri Lanka access the internet - with the average age of first access being 13 years – there is a significant ‘digital divide’ based on gender, geographical location and poverty. Specifically, among the 11 - 18 year old’s 67.6 per cent are boys reported having online access compared to just 33.1 per cent of girls. Regional variances show that 67.8 per cent of respondents from urban areas were online users, compared to 47.1 per cent from rural locations and just 39.3 per cent from plantation areas.

“Digital technology and the internet has the potential to be a game changer for children and adolescents in Sri Lanka – especially vulnerable and disadvantaged communities - by providing new opportunities to learn, socialize, make their voices heard and prepare for the future” said Tim Sutton, Representative, UNICEF Sri Lanka adding “However, these same technologies can also be a dividing line, exacerbating and enabling inequities to prevail. We must work together to ensure the benefits and opportunities of the digital world are open to all children while ensuring their safety and security online”

While digital access exposes children to a wealth of benefits and opportunities, it can also unlock a host of risks including the misuse of their private information, access to harmful content, and cyberbullying. The report highlights that whilst children and adolescents are increasingly going online, they are doing so without adult oversight or supervision. When asked, 53.6 per cent of child online IT users responded that they were ‘self-taught’ about the internet, compared to 16.5 per cent who were ‘taught by parents’. In terms of online behaviour 46.3 per cent of child online IT users had communicated with people they did not know online, with 27.9 per cent of these respondents having physically met an online-stranger in person. A concerning 18.3 per cent of these young people had done so without informing anyone. 15.1 per cent of respondents admitted to giving true, private information such as their name, age, telephone number and email to strangers online. A proportion of those who undertake risky behavior admitted to sending nasty messages that could hurt someone’s feelings (24.8 per cent) and sending or uploading ‘adult’ images, video, text (10.7 per cent). 25 per cent of child online-IT users were not aware of the privacy settings for their online accounts.

With an estimated 6.7 million internet users in Sri Lanka in 2018 representing 32 per cent of the total population, a rise from 4 million in 2015, internet usage is growing across all age groups. Yet whilst 28.3 per cent of people in Sri Lanka are ‘digitally literate’, this differs substantially by age, rising to 60.7 per cent of
15 -19 year old’s compared to just 19.9 per cent of 40 to 49 year old’s.

The report highlights that many parents feel a ‘knowledge gap’ between themselves and their children in terms of digital technology, resulting in some parents holding a negative view of the internet. 41.8 per cent of children who are not online responded that they did not access the Internet as ‘their parents did not allow them to’.

With poverty, gender, geographical location and parental control limiting the opportunities of some children to engage with digital technology, the report also highlighted a difference in terms of career aspiration and employment prospects. When asked, 25 per cent of respondent boys hoped to gain employment in engineering compared to just 9 per cent of girls. Moreover, 6.2 per cent of boys hoped to find employment in IT or software related industries compared to just 1.9 per cent of girls.

“As Sri Lanka identifies and positions itself for a new role in the wider region, and drives to become a knowledge-based economy as a route to further prosperity, it is clear that the digital skills and wellbeing of its young people will be fundamental. By utilizing the insight presented in this report, and by implementing the clear recommendations, we can help to ensure that we maximize the vast opportunities provided by digital technology to children, whilst minimizing the risk of harm, for the benefit of all in Sri Lanka” added Mr. Sutton.

Among the several recommendations for action, the study highlights the need to provide an increasing amount of quality online content in the Sinhala and Tamil languages. UNICEF’s global The State of the World’s Children 2017 report: Children in a digital world revealed that approximately 56 per cent all websites are in English and many children cannot find content they understand or that is culturally relevant.

Other key recommendations presented at the launch event included the need to;

  • Enact legislation to ensure the safe use of the Internet by children, including revising the ‘Computer Crimes Act’ in terms online safety of children.
  • Establish a self-regulatory body of industry partners (telecom and IT in particular) to develop ‘codes of good practices’ to guide the Internet industry on measures required to keep children safe online;
  • Encourage Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to introduce network-level parental controls to customers, which would give parents the choice and the means of protecting their children online. In this respect, given the expansion of Wi-Fi hotspots in towns and cities in Sri Lanka, an accreditation mark for child-friendly Wi-Fi zones is recommended;
  • Develop age-specific educational and training material into the IT curriculum in schools to build students’ knowledge of digital literacy and safety on the Internet, online security teacher training and ensure that this content is available online and in all three languages.

An expert panel discussion was also held as part of the launch event, which included Mr. Roshan Chandraguptha - Sri Lanka CERT, Ms. Mahishaa Balraj – Hashtag Generation, Ms. Shalini Ratwatte - Microsoft Sri Lanka, Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe - University of Colombo; Dr. Paula Bulancea – UNICEF, and Mr. Isura Silva - Sarvodaya Fusion.

The UNICEF commissioned study was conducted by the Institute for Participatory Interaction in Development (IPID) and questioned over 5,349 children, parents and teachers. Entitled Keeping Children in Sri Lanka Safe and Empowered Online. A study on Sri Lanka’s digital landscape: Potential risks to children and young people who are online, it can be downloaded at

Media contacts

Jeremy Sprigge
Communication Specialist
UNICEF Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 77 723 6548
Suzanne Wooster-Prematilaka
Communication Officer
UNICEF Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 77 316 5378

About UNICEF Sri Lanka

UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. For more information about UNICEF and its work for children visit Follow UNICEF on Twitter and Facebook.