Image screengrab from “Project Unfriend” YouTube video
There have been scattered efforts to protect children online with public and private organizations pooling their own data to launch various campaigns. While preventing online sexual abuse is at the center of these initiatives, children are exposed to different dangers on the internet such as cyberbullying, misinformation, and online gaming addiction.
These digital natives don’t know life without mobile phones or any computing device, which makes it difficult for parents or guardians to restrict their online presence. Even schools rely on various messaging apps to communicate with students in terms of giving homework or projects. Monitoring apps can sometimes feel intrusive and kids are more socially conscious nowadays. They may demand respect for privacy.
UNICEF is at the forefront of keeping children safe all over the world. Its scope has now expanded to the digital world. During the launch of its SaferKidsPH campaign together with the Australian government, the nongovernmental organization revealed that 8 out of 10 children and youth are at risk of online sexual abuse.
Stairway Foundation Inc. (Stairway), a non-stock, non-profit, non-government child care organization located in Puerto Galera, has been advocating for internet child safety for years. As part of the efforts, it conducted a survey titled “Cybersafe” in 2015 to look into how children live their lives online.
(The group, however, posted a disclaimer that “the results may not be fully representative of the whole age groups interviewed.”)
The respondents comprised of 1,268 children aged 7-12 and 1,143 children aged 13-16 who come from the areas of the National Capital Region, the municipality of Silang in Cavite, the municipality of Zamboanga Sibugay, Bayawan City and Bacolod City in the Negros province, Cebu City and the municipality of Tui in Batangas.
While Facebook, the most prevalent social media network in the Philippines, requires its users to be at least of a certain legal age, the survey revealed that about 40% of those surveyed in the 7-12 years old bracket set their accounts in public settings, while 50% of the 13-16 years old have public accounts.
The Cybersafe survey found out 60% of children in both age brackets have seen pornographic links through social media.
However, there is also a serious problem of cyberbullying. In 2019, UNICEF and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Violence against Children released the results of a poll which shows that more than a third of young people in 30 countries report being a victim of online or cyberbullying. The poll also stated that 1 in 5 skipped school due to cyberbullying and violence.
Using a specially designed tool called “U-Report,” UNICEF asked more than 170,000 “U-Reporters” aged 13-24 years old who come from Albania, Bangladesh, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ecuador, France, Gambia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jamaica, Kosovo, Liberia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Moldova, Montenegro, Myanmar, Nigeria, Romania, Sierra Leone, Trinidad & Tobago, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
Merriam-Webster defines cyberbullying as “the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages about a person (such as a student) often done anonymously.” The reality, though, is that there are times when the aggressors do not bother to hide their identity.
Still, in a report by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, while the awareness is high among parents wherein 84% of parents worried about child internet safety, not many of them actually do anything or even talk about it extensively with their children. The report says that parents spend only about 46 minutes to talk about it in the kids’ entire childhood.
Parents cannot help sharing photographs of their children online without their consent. But recent reports state the perils of “sharenting.” It may seem harmless especially if parents share them with a specially curated list of audiences such as family and relatives.
Aside from the humiliation some photos may soon bring to the children when they reach their teens, giving away their own data without their permission is a violation of their own online privacy. Only they should get to choose what they should share or not share in the digital world.
It can be difficult to put restrictions on children because they have easy access to mobile devices and the internet. Cybersafety advocates consolidated their efforts to address the alarming results of various surveys and studies.
While many of them believe that the government and authorities should be responsible, they still pursue educating stakeholders on how to keep children safe.
UNICEF’s SaferKidsPH campaign hopes “to raise national awareness on the extent and impact of online sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the Philippines.” The campaign is part of the six-year SaferKidsPH initiative geared at supporting the stronger implementation of laws and policies that protect children.
The Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines (IMMAP) launched its advocacy titled #BeCyberSafe in partnership with Stairway and the Department of Education (DepEd).
In 2017, IMMAP opened a cyber competition addressing the issue of online safety. Winners Samantha Teaño and Lea Valenzuela of Ace Saatchi & Saatchi created “Project Unfriend,” which shows a middle-aged man having an online conversation with an elementary pupil.
Apart from the “Project Unfriend” video, IMMAP has also come up with campaigns titled Project for Keeps, Dalir-Eskwela, and Chatbot. These are aimed at children from different age groups who are into social media, chat groups, and online gaming. The advocacies hope to enlighten the children of the dangers they face not only from online predators but from their own “addiction” to their own online activities.
Stairway, for its part, has been doing school tours in equipping teachers with various materials, from brochures and videos, and encouraging them to incorporate online safety in their lessons.
There are apps and cybersecurity products that help parents and guardians to manage device screentime and block adult websites. This could be applicable to very young children who are already allowed to use mobile devices. Technology and telecommunications firms have their own caravans that educate teachers on online safety.
Predators will always be around, it’s a fact. Inappropriate content can sometimes slip into advertisements. But like with any campaign, empowering children, no matter what age they are, could hold the key to their online safety. Having an open conversation may lead to a healthy digital life.
It won’t hurt to take all measures in keeping predators at bay. Whatever resources are available online may help. Giving them advice on how to keep their online life private can help them comprehend the gravity of the situation, which may make them understand the need to be wary of their online surroundings.
(The importance of knowing the battery level of children’s mobile devices cannot be reiterated enough. Parents should always have access to their kids through digital means. Should they run out of juice, it would be difficult to get in touch with them.)
UNICEF has come up with guidelines on how to stay safe online which children, parents, and guardians will find helpful.
Ultimately, parents, guardians, and teachers share the responsibility of empowering children in educating them. The way parents tell their kids not to talk to strangers in real life, the same reminder should be given to them in their digital life. While restrictions can sometimes be effective, not every kid is wired to obey their parents.
During the launch of IMMAP’s #BeCybersafe campaign, in partnership with DepEd, in 2018, Education Secretary Leonor Briones advised parents to guard the online activities of their children the same way they do in the physical world.