Child Safety Online: global challenges and strategies

Myths are better for entertaining children than for ensuring their online safety.

The Internet, mobile phones and other digital media provide children and young people with many educational and social benefits – and also with risks. For most children, online activity does not lead to harm. However, the increased risk of sexual abuse, exploitation and other forms of harm in both online and offline settings demands a coordinated response by governments, parents, professionals, business and young people themselves.

UNICEF’s report, Child Safety Online: global challenges and strategies, reviews global evidence and practice, and answers the questions, “what are the risks to children online?” and “what are the most effective responses to make them safer?” The report exposes myths and provides evidence to equip policymakers, professionals, families and business to respond.

What the study says

The Internet and associated technologies have made abusive images of children easier to create and distribute, and provide new opportunities for abusers to contact children online and offline and for bullies to harass their victims. They have also made it easier for children themselves to get into conflict with the law, usually for unknowing actions like exploring or sharing sexual images of peers, such as ‘sexting’; unwittingly accessing child abuse images; or passing on libelous messages and infringing others’ privacy. The harm to children can be tremendous, and includes sexual abuse and suicide.

Building a safer environment for young people – for whom the Internet is a fundamental part of their lives and the online and offline worlds come together – requires four key strategies: 1) empowering children and promoting their resilience; 2) removing impunity for abusers; 3) reducing availability and access to harm; and 4) supporting recovery for children who have experienced harm.

It’s clear that effective responses are informed by a balanced assessment of children’s rights as defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international standards; by evidence about actual risk and about what works; and by young people’s views. Some of the legal, technological and educational safeguards designed to protect children online miss the mark, based on insufficient understanding of how young people experience and respond to risk.

It’s essential to educate young people to make ethical choices when they use digital media; provide learning opportunities for youth to understand and manage risk; raise their awareness of the legal risks and devastating impact of cyberbullying and other harmful actions; and guide them in responsible digital citizenship in an increasingly global society.

Some myths and facts about children’s online safety

Myth: All children are at high risk of being victimized by online sexual predators and other online actions like cyberbullying.

Fact: There is a difference between risk and harm. Most young people are not victimized by sexual abuse online or by cyberbullying. The risk of sexual abuse is heightened by specific behaviours like interacting with people met online, and meeting them offline.

Myth: Many young people cyberbully others.

Fact: Most young people do not cyberbully. Most say that by and large, the online actions of other young people are positive. It’s important to understand where to target our support for children: more young people are bullied at school than over the Internet.

Myth: Most adult predators young people encounter online are strangers.

Fact: In the majority of cases, the abuser is someone the child knows and trusts. In many cases where a young person is lured or groomed to engage in sexual activity by an adult met online, the young person knows the person is an adult.

Myth: Building protective laws is the best way to make children safe.

Fact: Creating and enforcing laws to prohibit all forms of abuse and exploitation is a key part of the protective environment. But most of the risks online can’t be regulated or policed, and most sexual abuse is not reported. Education for young people to effectively understand and manage the real risks and adopt responsible behaviours is crucial, along with efforts by parents, professionals and business to reduce exposure to harm. As well, laws must be designed based on understanding all the risks and behaviours of young people online, and avoid bringing more young people into conflict with the law for uninformed actions.

Myth: The prevalent source of harm to children online is adult sexual predators.

Fact: Sexual abuse of children by adults is a deeply traumatizing and prevalent form of violation, but it is important to know that young people themselves describe cyberbullying as the most prevalent form of problematic behaviour online that they have to face. According to the UK-based Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre, as many as one in five youth 11 to 17 years old have received a sexually explicit or distressing text or e-mail, and 70 per cent knew the sender. The majority of such exchanges are between friends and schoolmates, not between children and adult abusers. This means that responses must do more than target adult sexual abuse through laws and educational campaigns – they must take into account the range of online harms and behaviours. Reactive and punitive policies for young people are rarely effective; preventive and educational responses are crucial.

Actions you can take today to protect children online

Report child abuse content at

Young people

Access information at:

Protect yourself and others by:

  • Never meeting offline with someone you meet online.
  • Creating a gender neutral personalized nickname and password protecting your accounts.
  • Treating others with respect; sharing or posting only positive messages, and not posting messages or photos about someone else without their permission.
  • Avoiding visits to adult content Web sites, connecting to pop-ups and strange search links.
  • Telling an adult when something makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Reaching out to the target of bullying and supporting them.

Parents

  • Go online and get familiar with the many different environments and activities that are popular with children and youth, and the benefits and risks.
  • Talk with your children about online issues and encourage them to be critical and responsible. Setting rules such as never meeting people offline that are met online and otherwise inviting open discussions about online activities help promote resiliency.
  • The Canada Safety Council and Media Awareness Network provide Internet safety tips and learning resources to help parents protect their children at all ages.

Organizations and businesses

  • Understand how young people use your online technologies and services. Ask them for their views.
  • Protect children in the online environment you create, such as filtering content, providing easy to use and access online reporting functions, and ensuring child-focused privacy protections. A hotline link to Cybertip.ca and to Kids Help Phone should be readily accessible on the sites Canadian young people regularly visit.
  • Privacy protection is often too complex for young people. Make the information more friendly and accessible, including an opt-in vs. opt-out default.
  • Stop the collection, use and disclosure of all personal information from children under the age of thirteen.
  • Train professionals who work with children in online risks and harms.
  • Expand one-stop support centres for children, with child-sensitive law enforcement officials, and medical and legal help.

What Canada can do

Numerous improvements to federal and provincial laws in recent years make Canada a world leader in this area, consistent with international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Pornography and Prostitution.

To further protect Canada’s children, Canada should:

1.Provide all Canadian young people with age-appropriate, accurate and useful information to inform their online choices and manage the risks. They need information about:

  • Their rights online to information, privacy and protection.
  • Specific risks and how to avoid or manage them.
  • How to act online in a responsible way to protect themselves and respect others.
  • Specific knowledge of what to do if they encounter problems (such as easier to use and readily available reporting hot-buttons).
  • How to support their peers.

2. Ensure that protective legislation is developed with child rights impact assessments that take into account the actual risks to children online and the full scope of children’s online behaviours. Increasing protective laws designed to prevent harm to children can actually create harm, if children themselves are brought into conflict with the law for largely unintentional and uninformed actions like ‘sexting’ – sharing sexual images of other young people. Recent arrests and child pornography charges against teens as young as 15 in Canada illustrate cause for concern in light of the emerging legal regime. One approach is to amend legislation to include a special provision for juveniles, as recommended in the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (the “Lanzarote Convention”). It can also be achieved by introducing police charging and prosecutorial guidelines accompanying legislation, with proportionate measures for young people whose online actions bring them into conflict with the law.

3. Join up isolated strategies that deal with the sexual exploitation of children. There is a national strategy to address the online sexual exploitation of children (Public Safety Canada’s Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation on the Internet). But there is a strong link between protection online and protection offline. Children account for the majority of all victims of sexual assault reported to the police. A broader strategy should address all forms of sexual exploitation of children.

4. Establish a national Children’s Commissioner. The Senate Committee on Human Rights has repeatedly called for a Children’s Commissioner and recommends in its new report on the sexual exploitation of children in Canada that one of the first steps the federal government should take is the creation of a national Children‘s Commissioner. A Children‘s Commissioner could provide oversight of programs and policies in response to the sexual exploitation of children and hold the government accountable for its progress to ensure every child who needs them can access them. The Commissioner should also be mandated to focus on the challenges facing Aboriginal children who are at heightened risk of sexual exploitation.

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre publications identify and research issues relating to children’s rights to generate global debate and facilitate the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in all countries.