Risk of online child exploitation as kids spend more time online.
As the times turned challenging, manual content moderation has become a more significant challenge than anticipated. Now, the social platforms started being more responsible for the kind of content reaching the public. They are ensuring that the content shared is automatically moderated and is not influencing the public by creating stress or anxiety. Too much misinformation about the pandemic is circulated earlier and added to this the easy accessibility of all this information, online content, and UGC to the kids and teenagers. Noting all these, the agencies have imposed algorithmic content moderation resulting in the ethical and right content.
COVID-19 made a makeshift in the pattern of children being active. Engaging children in a productive time is a challenge each parent faces, especially during the pandemic when the world has shut down, turning the homes into safer places for kids to play, study, and everything under the same roof. This restraint on children going outdoors has increased the accessibility to gadgets and online content. Many kids across the globe are at increased risk of online abuse during the pandemic. In accordance with the current situation.
Global Partnership to End Violence Executive Director, Dr. Howard Taylor said, “The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented rise in screen time. 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.”
According to research, more than 1.5 billion children are affected because of the closure of schools. Moreover, many of these affected students are now attending online classes and socializing through virtual platforms, placing them under a high risk of cyberbullying. When kids are exposed to a certain amount of “screen time,” they are high chances of them being exposed to online toxicity. There are many risks involved when kids are given an open gateway to online information during the COVID-19 phase. Following are the risks involved without content moderation:
- Online sexual abuse: There are high chances of kids/young adults being approached by strangers with a sexual interest in them. These strangers might belong to their close group or known people. These strangers tend to either contact the kids by sharing sexual content or even ask for photos or videos of themselves. Adults usually connect with kids intending to abuse them, which is called “grooming sexually.”
- Cyberbullying: Another risk the children might be exposed to is cyberbullying. Here, the kids tend to receive hate or demeaning comments, messages, and posts. These posts may be directly indicating the child or could be about some other person. It brings in a lot of stress and loneliness in the kid and may result in being an online bully himself or herself.
- Risk-taking online behavior: When the kids are continuously exposed to the online and virtual environment without any face-to-face interactions with friends, it may lead an individual to take online risks. These risks involve sending sexually explicit messages to strangers or sharing sexual videos or photos. This shared information might be passed to others without their consent leading to the risk of extortion, harassment, humiliation, and more. Receiving and sending such content does also lead to criminal threats.
- Harmful content: When the kids/teenagers are getting access to the laptops or desktops, they are given a freeway to access content on any platform. During their screen time, the website or virtual platforms the kids’ access may or may not have parental control, leading to sharing or sending of harmful content, that consists of incitement to self-harm, violent or xenophobic content, and information that is inappropriate for children. During this pandemic, there are chances that kids/teenagers are exposed to misinformation about COVID-19 leading to anxiety, fear, and confusion about their world.
- Children’s Privacy: There are many apps making things convenient for adults. When the schools are shut, and the teaching moved to online classrooms, schools might be sharing some app links to download and connect. The applications come along with potential risks to the users. So, when they are downloaded, there are chances of the data being compromised, like our personal information, and other vital details.
The risks mentioned above not only come from strangers, but also from known people those are already online or offline. We can navigate the risk of kids being exposed to social media is by talking about content toxicity, ensuring internet safety by using parental controls, and so on. A technical note is going to be released by UNICEF along with its partners, is aiming and urging governments, ICT industries, educators, and parents to be vigilant and to take necessary, urgent measures to alleviate potential risks for the children. And, ensure that their online experience is positive and safe during the COVID-19 phase.
Throwing some light on the same, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, said, “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. 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 a way to mitigate online risks during COVID-19 for kids and teenagers, the UNICEF recommends the following preliminary actions:
- Governments: Reinforce core child protection services and ensure that they remain open and active through the pandemic. Impart proper training to health, education, and social service workers about the impacts of COVID-19 on kid’s well-being. These training should include awareness related to the increased online risks, educational initiatives on child online safety; also ensure that social service providers, schools, parents, educators, and everyone around the kid are aware of the local reporting authorities and its mechanisms. It is advisable to have local helplines and hotline numbers handy.
- IT industry, including social networking platforms: Ensure that the virtual learning tools are following safety and safeguarding measures and are easily accessible to educators, parents, and children. These virtual platforms should facilitate with referral services and helpline toward child safety. Also, ensure to develop standard content moderation and adhere that the standards are aligned with children’s rights.
- Schools: The schools should upgrade their safeguarding policies emphasizing the new realities and sharing the same with children. Promoting and monitoring good online behaviors during the classes and ensuring that the children have continuous access to school-based counseling services should be part of the school’s plan.
- Parents: While giving access to the devices, ensure that your kids have the latest software updates and have an antivirus installed. Engage in open dialogues with children on how and with whom they are communicating online. Please spend some time with kids to know where, how, and when the Internet can be accessible to them. Be vigilant to your kid’s behavioral change; if the child seems to be in distress, and it is related to the online activity, make sure you discuss with your kid. Be familiar with the school policies and local reporting authorities, and keep all the vital support numbers accessible.
While we adhere to all the information and guidelines shared by UNICEF for kids’ online safety, there are other ways to keep them safeguarded and to stay away from online toxicity during this COVID-19 phase. As mentioned earlier, it is impossible to prevent kids and adolescents from spending more time online, as they have limited alternatives to be engaged. Kids spending time online does not always intend to be at risk; there might be User-Generated Content (UGC) that keeps them informed and engaged. As technology is offering and streaming educative online content and providing easy accessibility, kids’ enthusiasm toward learning something new is high.
Being a parent, if you are worried about the parental controls and the online content kids access, then here are a few tips to keep your children and teenagers safe during COVID-19.
- Set some agreed boundaries: Kids can have access to extra screen time, but regulate this with a set time limit. Please discuss with your kid or teenager how much time more they require to spend and come on common ground.
- Explain online safety: It is an excellent practice to keep the kids informed about their neighbourhood, the safety measures to be taken while online, explain about the age-appropriate content access. You can also add in details about how online toxicity can cause harm to the kids’ concentration on studies and other activities. Also, make sure that the kids inform you about their communications, friends, and other activities they engage in while online. Keeping a positive environment and open conversation will help the kid understand the severity better.
- Imbibing social values and respect: During the COVID-19, as access to the outside world has shortened and communications are built online, kids and teenagers are the primary groups of individuals who spend time browsing information, playing games, watching videos, and attending online classes. While they are engaged in so many activities on the virtual platform, parents have to ensure that they adhere to the rules, ethics, respect toward elders while connecting online, and learning the social values.
- Online safety tools: Some manual moderators like Safe Search mode and other online safety tools are available if you are looking at content moderation and limiting access to inappropriate content for your kids and young adults. These moderators help in filtering the right and useful information and deliver it to the kids. Also, as part of online safety, ensure that the kids’ data and other information is safe on the web browsers or other applications.
- Internet safety laws: There are specific laws designed for the personal safety of the kid. Any person who is trying to gather a child’s personal information without the consent of the parent is tracked and questioned. These safety rules are applicable for kids below 13 years. This law prohibits websites from taking any information from the child without the parent’s permission, while the child is trying to enter an online contest or a game.
- Seek help: In case you are unaware of the safety guidelines of the website/online content your children are browsing, then learn to seek for help. Check the FAQs or Help section of any browser to filter out or check if there is any unwanted and inappropriate content available on the site, or if your child is at risk of sexual abuse or cyberbullying. Depending on your location, there are services and hotline numbers to help your kid out of such distress situations.
- Be vigilant about your neighbourhood: A study says that there are more cases of child abuse during COVID-19 than at any other time. Hence, a parent needs to be vigilant about one’s neighbourhood. To ensure there is no impact on the kid or teenager because of any inapt behaviour of an adult, make sure that your kid is surrounded by trusted people or understand if the kid is sharing any alerts/signs of abuse.
The Internet is a great source of knowledge if put in the right use. With so much activity happening in and around the house, it might be challenging to keep a tab on the activities of kids and the adolescents. Yet, monitoring them is imperative to keep the children away from any risk. Continuously observing what the kids are engaged with, whom they are interacting with, and what kind of online content they have access to, is the right way to parental control. Apart from this, the procedures for automated parental control is explained in the article, like internet safety laws, online protection tools, content moderators, and so on. During this pandemic, Governments, schools, educators, and parents’ only concern is to safeguard the kids and teenagers from any toxicity.