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Children gain opportunities but face risks in age of social media

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A lack of digital literacy among parents and caregivers impedes keeping children safe online. Hean Rangsey

Children gain opportunities but face risks in age of social media

A Children's Fund (Unicef) report on the use of social media by children and adolescents in East Asia says that although access to such sites provides children with big opportunities, it also exposes them to the growing risks that accompany the platforms.

The report, by Unicef’s East Asia and Pacific regional office and the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, compiled the views and experiences of 301 children aged 11 to 18 in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The report also aimed to capture the perspective of children not usually covered in these types of studies – lower-income families, marginalised children, children with disabilities, children living on the streets and refugee children.

It hoped that looking at the risks of child sexual exploitation and abuse online can provide Unicef and its partners with pointers on how to protect children.

The report found that across the countries studied, three themes emerged – a lack of digital literacy among parents and caregivers, restrictive responses by adults to perceived misbehaviour in children’s social media use, and a lack of evidence-based approaches into what works in keeping children safe online.

Unicef East Asia and Pacific regional director Karin Hulshof said that “social media had provided children with huge opportunities, but it had also exposed them to risks and these risks are growing”.

“Denying them access to social media is not the answer to protecting children from risk and harm.

“We need to understand the risks children face online – how they use social media, how they perceive the risks they face and what steps, if any, they take to protect themselves.

“I am confident this report will contribute to shaping discussions and programmes on child online protection in the region and keeping children safe,” she said.

The snapshot study found that children in East Asia had adopted the same strategies seen throughout the world to protect themselves online.

This included keeping accounts and profiles private and blocking unsolicited messages and images from strangers who make them feel uncomfortable.

However, children have been found to accept chat and friend requests from strangers, particularly those claiming to be women, as they often do not view them as strangers in the online context.

They only block them when the conversation goes in a direction that the child does not like.

“Both boys and girls reported being sent and being asked for explicit pictures. Two out of five children in the focus groups reported having bad experiences they would not want to tell anyone about.

“More than half had met someone in real life that they had first met online, most in hope of forming a romantic relationship. In most cases, they did not report experiencing harm from the encounter, but disappointment instead,” the snapshot said.

The report made several recommendations for the family, school, community and service providers. This included improving support for digital parenting and parenting in a digital age.

The report advised that digital parenting should be integrated into evidence-based parenting programmes and should consider different levels of digital literacy among female and male caregivers, as well as differing levels of access to technology.

On February 11, Action Pour Les Enfants (Aple) joined forces with the National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT) and several ministries to promote a safer internet experience for the young, holding a Safer Internet, Social Morality and Family Values event which was attended by 600 children.

The organisation issued a statement saying that parent, caregivers and teachers should instruct children on how to use the internet safely.

They have to be provided with tools and knowledge to have a better choice and internet companies should try and help create a safer internet, it said.

The companies should exercise their responsibility to society by creating safer content, it added.

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