(10 October 2017) UNICEF Innocenti was invited to present the results of a survey launched by Global Kids Online (GKO), an international research project co-sponsored with the London School of Economics, at the “Child Dignity in the Digital World” congress organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and the WeProtect Global Alliance, 3-6 October. The Congress brought together outstanding experts, leaders and government representatives from around the world to discuss international efforts to protect children from online sexual abuse and other issues related to child protection in the digital age.
In his remarks Pope Francis recognized the great advantages offered by the digital revolution, but exhorted social media businesses to invest “a fair portion of their great profits” to protect “impressionable minds” and to guide the processes set in motion by growth of technology, rejecting any “ideological and mythical vision of the net as a realm of unlimited freedom”.
The final “Declaration of Rome” called on politicians, religious leaders, and stakeholder organizations to help build a global awareness to protect children from online exploitation.
Jasmina Byrne, child protection specialist at UNICEF Innocenti, introduced the GKO project and shared insights from 5 countries that have already made their results public: Argentina, Bulgaria, South Africa, Chile and Montenegro
Between 32 and 68 per cent of children have seen sexual images online, and between 11 and 27 per cent have felt upset by the images. Moreover, between 7 and 26 per cent of interviewed children were targeted by sexual images with up to 39 per cent feeling upset about it. Both experiences were more common among the older children. Between 20 and 41 per cent of children accepted contact with people they were familiar with but had not met in person, while in the 12 months prior to the surveys between 8 and 32 per cent of children met a “stranger” and of those up to 40 per cent fell into the 15-17 age range.
“Although only between 1 and 8 per cent were upset by meeting those they did not know before” said Jasmina Byrne, “… we should not neglect the number of those who felt bothered about this experience and we need to know more about these children.”
Byrne also highlighted some of the implications for policy that have resulted from the survey, including: the close connection between offline and online risks and the need to understand more about the children who are most vulnerable to online harm. She also highlighted the importance of adopting a child-centered approach to online risks, giving full recognition of diversity in children’s lives, age and gender. Early educational interventions, especially for younger children, to support the development of children’s digital skills, literacies and safety practices are among the most critical recommendations coming out of the GKO research to date. Byrne emphasized the importance of promoting digital citizenship and child safety online through a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral approach, and with engagement from parents and children themselves.
The random household surveys undertaken by GKO research partner countries did not specifically target children or groups of children who are vulnerable to sexual abuse online, but instead looked at the whole range of children’s experiences online. As of 2017 it has collected data from 10 countries and some 10,000 children and 5,000 parents. More information available about country reports, comparative analysis and other resources at https://www.unicef-irc.org/research/270/ and www.globalkidsonline.net.
Also presenting at the Congress was Cornelius Williams, Global Chief of Child Protection based at UNICEF headquarters in New York. Williams explained how the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 provide an important global commitment endorsed by the world’s governments to advocate for improved multi-sectoral efforts to protect children from violence and exploitation online.
Prof. Hans Zollner SJ, President of the Centre for Child Protection said “The congress provides an outstanding opportunity to exchange knowledge and good practice on risks and prevention as children navigate this new digital world.”
Baroness Shields OBE, UK Minister for Internet Safety and Security said: “Our increasingly connected society greatly empowers children, but also exposes them to risks that compromise their safety and wellbeing. To address these escalating global threats we need a broad coalition of government, faith leaders, academia and industry, all committed to protecting the dignity of children in this digital age.”
The Pontifical Gregorian University conference in Rome provided an opportunity to reflect on the magnitude of a rapidly growing global phenomenon which involves children from all ages and in all countries, and to discuss online bullying, pornography and paedophilia at the presence of representatives from the main social media business companies, including Facebook and Microsoft.
The international research project GKO developed by UNICEF Innocenti, London School of Economics, EU Kids Online is a first step in that direction. GKO provides a methodology and a research framework to carry out comparative research worldwide with children from 9-17 and their parents, and to build evidence that can be used to help policy makers and practitioners develop approaches to protect children’s rights in the digital age; maximizing their opportunities to benefit from the internet while minimizing risk of harm.