With an estimated 1.5 billion children out of school around the world and widespread social distancing measures keeping children confined to their homes, education and socialization have moved online.
Not only are many additional children joining the online world for the first time, but children are also spending longer online than ever before.
Italian operator Telecom Italia reported a more than 70 per cent increase in internet traffic over its landline network in mid-March, which was largely attributed to online gaming platforms such as Fortnite.
Facebook, meanwhile, reports new usage records almost every day across all of its platforms. In places hit hardest by the virus, such as New York – at time of writing, the current global epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic – messaging, voice and video calling have more than doubled on its Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp platforms.
For many children, the global lockdown has also meant going online earlier than may have been expected. One parent explained to ITU News that the sudden shift to home schooling has meant that their children – aged 9 and 11 – have been given used mobile phones earlier than planned, simply so that they can keep up to date with schoolwork, educational activities and friends in this extraordinary time.
This sudden and dramatic rise of screen time is part of a wider trend. In February, a report by the Association of Play Industries found that in less than a decade there has been a 50 per cent increase in children’s discretionary screen time.
How to establish a safer, trustworthy online environment?
For many parents, the question of how to ensure their children’s online safety is now more pressing than ever before.
What can parents do to minimize online risk? Here are some tips from the upcoming updated version of ITU’s Guidelines for Parents, Carers, Guardians, and Educators for Child Online Protection:
- Set up parental controls: All leading browsers (Google, Safari, Firefox, Bing, Duck Duck Go) include a parental control mode; make sure you turn it on, and also check the individual privacy settings on apps and games. Some internet service providers and mobile operators provide additional parental control tools, which block or restrict access to certain types of content, as well as limiting the amount of time spent on devices. For example, ITU Platinum Sector Member Verizon has issued new guidance on parental controls in the wake of a 75% increase in online gaming and a double-digit increase in video-streaming, brought about by ‘new normal’ levels of online activity linked to COVID-19 lockdowns in the United States.
- Talk with your children about online safety and be aware of the online and mobile services they are using. Help them understand the importance of managing personal information in the correct way. The NSPCC, a UK children’s charity, recommends that parents and guardians ask children to show them what they enjoy doing online, in order to better understand their habits and the potential dangers they face.
- Help your children be tech ready: Common Sense Media provides advice for age-appropriate apps, games and other platforms. Help children set up a strict privacy setting with the e-Safety Guide and check if they know how to report inappropriate content.
- Stay aware of the online and mobile services used by your children: Spend time with your children online. Better Internet for Kids recommends that parents check on their children’s technology use regularly – find out about what they are doing online, what new tools and apps they might be using. They recommend selecting online tools and content together, and discussing why certain tools and apps might not be appropriate.
- Know how to report problems and seek help: When playing online games or using apps children can be exposed to serious risks like cyberbullying and grooming. The NSPCC recommends that parents show children the blocking and reporting functions in each game and app, so that they can prevent bullies or strangers from contacting them.
- Create a culture of support so that children and young people feel comfortable seeking help: Open dialogue and discussion are crucial. The way adults react has a critical influence on children’s readiness to disclose if they are upset, worried or concerned by something they have seen or that has happened to them online. Research has shown that many young people are reluctant to speak to an adult about a negative online experience for fear of the consequences. Be alert of any sign of distress.
- Manage children’s screen time: It is important to set boundaries and limits for online activities where possible. Build safe online habits and find a balance between online time and other activities.
ITU’s Child Online Protection Initiative*
More tips and advice are available in the ITU’s Child Online Protection guidelines. For more advice, meet Sango, the new Child Online Protection Mascot created by children, for children!
The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s Working Group on Child Online Safety, co-chaired by World Childhood Foundation USA and mobile operator Zain, recently released a set of recommendations for all stakeholders to improve child online safety. In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, these recommendations were reflected in the Commission’s new Agenda for Action: For Faster and Better Recovery. The newly adopted Agenda outlines immediate measures that governments, industry, the international community and civil society can take to shore-up digital networks, strengthen capacity and boost digital access and inclusivity, with the aim of strengthening collective response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Help us protect children by signing the Child Online Safety Universal Declaration!
*ITU launched its Child Online Protection (COP) Initiative in November 2008. COP partners work together to create a safe and empowering online experience for children around the world, through the sharing of best practice guidelines for children, parents and educators, industry and policymakers.
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