United Nations — Millions of children around the world are at increased risk of online sexual exploitation, violence and cyberbullying as they spend more time on virtual platforms due to the closing of schools amid COVID-19 lockdown, the UN has said.
More than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by the closing of schools worldwide and many are online now taking classes and socialising, the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF said.
“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 sexualised images, while increased and unstructured time online may expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as greater risk of cyberbullying,” the UNICEF said.
Global Partnership to End Violence Executive Director 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.” The UNICEF together with its partners, Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, International Telecommunication Union, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and World Health Organisation among others is releasing a new technical note aimed at urging governments, educators and parents to be alert and ensure children’s online experiences are safe and positive during COVID-19.
“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.” The agencies are asking governments to keep child protection services open and active during the pandemic and to train health, education and social service workers on the impacts that COVID-19 may have on their well-being, including increased online risks.
Moreover, they are requested to step up awareness raising and educational initiatives on cyber safety and to provide local helplines and hotlines.
Meanwhile, the information technology industry, including social networking platforms, are requested to enhance online platforms with more safety measures, especially while using virtual learning tools.
They are also invited to promote and facilitate child safety referral services and helplines as well as help connect disadvantaged children in low-income households, the UNICEF said. Schools are asked to update current safeguarding policies to reflect the new realities for children learning from home and ensure that they have continued access to school-based counselling services.
Parents are charged with making sure that their children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programmes. They are also encouraged to speak to their children on how and with whom they are communicating online and to set new internet rules, the UN agency and its partners said.