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Freedom and protection: the ultimate online dilemma

Marv Bernstein, Chief Advisory, Advocacy, UNICEF Canada

How do countries tackle online child sexual abuse; different forms of child exploitation like infringement of privacy; and bullying; while supporting the social and educational benefits to young people and accepting the reality that most of their online actions are beyond the control of adults? It’s a challenge for parents, service providers, professionals, policymakers and business leaders to cross not only the generational divide, but also the digital divide, to ensure our responses will balance these realities – and that they’ll work.

As more and more children switch to smart phones as their preferred gateway to cyberspace, they have more freedom, and their parents even less control. Offenders are taking advantage of increasing broadband and mobile phone penetration, along with other technology, to access vulnerable children and produce and share child abuse images. There are an estimated 16,700 web sites globally that depict child abuse images. There are millions of such images online, showing tens of thousands of children. The age of these exploited children is getting younger, with three in four victims appearing to be under ten years old. And it has opened a new gateway for offenders in low- and middle-income countries, where the Internet is still a novelty and growing at such breakneck speed that it is hard for legislation, industry, parents and schools to keep pace with how young people are using it, let alone respond to the risks. In Brazil, for example, the number of children over ten who logged on to the Internet rose by 75 per cent in three years, to 56 million users. While sub-Saharan Africa still lags behind with 11 per cent usage, growth has been exponential, particularly thanks to cyber cafés and mobile phones.

For most children, bullying has become the most prevalent problem they face online. Bullying, like most forms of online harm, is largely perpetrated by the people in children’s offline lives, and is having devastating impacts. But because harm crosses over between children’s online and offline worlds, adults can cross the digital divide and help children in their daily lives – in their homes, schools and communities.

The online environment has increased the scale and reach of risk and harm, explains a new UNICEF research paper, Child Safety Online: global challenges and strategies. But for most children, risk does not result in harm, and there are specific actions that are more likely to result in harm than others. The new report, from UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre, examines the extent of risks, how children are using the Internet, and how they can be protected.

From Canada to Cameroon, what are the most promising solutions?

A primary goal is informing young people to enable them to make responsible decisions. This recognizes that most incidences of risk and harm are not reported to adults, and that young people are more likely to turn to their peers when they encounter problems online, especially if seeking adult advice risks having their online freedom curtailed.

A second aim – removing impunity for abusers – requires a level of international coordination in legislation and enforcement that has yet to materialize in most countries. “From a law enforcement point of view the most important thing governments can do is harmonize the legislation,” says Deputy Chief Constable Peter Davies, Chief Executive at the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), UNICEF’s research partner. “Any significant Internet investigation is likely to cross national boundaries, and too often, law enforcement bodies who 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.”

Of 196 countries reviewed, only 45 have legislation sufficient to combat child abuse image offences. Canada is a leader in building a protective legislative framework at home, and collaborating internationally in teams like the Virtual Global Taskforce. But all lawmakers must ensure legislation designed to protect children isn’t actually harming some of them. This can be achieved through the use of early child impact assessments. For example, some laws allow for criminal charges for distributing child pornography when teens circulate sexual images of other young people (‘sexting’), which can result in a disproportionate response to what are usually unintentional and uninformed actions.

The third line of response is to redouble the responsible practices of the private sector. There are a number of initiatives industry can take. Internet service and content providers can remove the availability of child sexual abuse images and other harmful content, along with filtering and blocking mechanisms such as Cleanfeed in Canada.  They can create more child-friendly spaces online with better privacy management tools and accessible hot-buttons to report concerns and access counseling.

The fourth element of a stronger protective environment for children is to support the recovery of child victims; no easy task when most abuse, both online and offline, goes unreported. Programs and services must address the crossover between online and offline harm and extend recovery services to all children who need them.

It may never be possible to remove all the risks that exist in the online environment. But more should – and could – be done. And there is scarcely a response that wouldn’t benefit from consulting young people. Effective responses address actual risk, and the range of ways young people live in an integrated online/offline world. Ask them.

For sources of help and suggestions for action in Canada, go to

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