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Children in the digital world


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The digital world is a complicated place for children. On one hand children have the chance to access limitless human knowledge but they can also become prey to dangerous abuse on the internet. The challenge is for governments, the private sector and other stakeholders to keep up with the pace of change and ensure technology is used for the right reasons.   

Despite children’s massive online presence – 1 in 3 internet users worldwide is a child – too little is done to protect them from the perils of the digital world and to increase their access to safe online content, UNICEF said in its annual flagship report released this week.

‘The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a digital world’ presents UNICEF’s first comprehensive look at the different ways digital technology is affecting children’s lives and life chances, identifying dangers as well as opportunities. It argues that governments and the private sector have not kept up with the pace of change, exposing children to new risks and harms and leaving millions of the most disadvantaged children behind. 

The flagship report explores the benefits digital technology can offer the most disadvantaged children, including those growing up in poverty or affected by humanitarian emergencies. These include increasing their access to information, building skills for the digital workplace and giving them a platform to connect and communicate their views.

But the report also shows that millions of children are missing out and face a ‘digital divide’ based on poverty, gender or other factors. Around one-third of the world’s youth – 346 million – are not online, exacerbating inequities and reducing children’s ability to participate in an increasingly digital economy. Drawing on data from the soon to be released first-ever Sri Lankan national study into the online usage of 11 to 18-year-olds, the report also highlights a ‘digital divide’ that sees girls in Sri Lanka account for only a third of the adolescents using computers and mobile phones to go online.  It is simply not good enough that many young people - especially girls - are missing out on the real benefits of the internet in Sri Lanka. For this country to achieve its ambitious economic and societal goals, girls and women must provide equal opportunities for success to the next generation. This must include equal access to information to enable young people to build their skills for the digital workplace. Critically, however, children need a safe and secure online platform to connect and communicate their views. 

The internet also increases children’s vulnerability to risks and harms, including the misuse of their private information, access to harmful content and cyber-bullying. The ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, the report notes, has made online access for many children less supervised – and potentially more dangerous.

Only collective action – by governments, the private sector, children’s organisations, academia, families and children themselves – can help level the digital playing field and make the internet safer and more accessible for children. Putting children at the centre of digital policy is a good place to start, giving them equal access to high level online material needs to be balanced with how technology will affect them and the world’s future.  


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