On Monday, UNICEF released a new 215-page report on ‘Children in a Digital World‘, and their Executive Director seemed to echo the title of my book Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst, although you’ll note that I’ve, as always, sought to seek the benefits first, whilst acknowledging and seeking to manage the risks:
“For better and for worse, digital technology is now an irreversible fact of our lives,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “In a digital world, our dual challenge is how to mitigate the harms while maximizing the benefits of the internet for every child.”
The key messages from the report, taken from pages 1-3, are here:
Digital technology has already changed the world – and as more and more children go online around the world, it is increasingly changing childhood.
- Youth (ages 15–24) is the most connected age group. Worldwide, 71 per cent are online compared with 48 per cent of the total population.
- Children and adolescents under 18 account for an estimated one in three internet users around the world.
- A growing body of evidence indicates that children are accessing the internet at increasingly younger ages. In some countries, children under 15 are as likely to use the internet as adults over 25.
- Smartphones are fuelling a ‘bedroom culture’, with online access for many children becoming more personal, more private and less supervised.
Connectivity can be a game changer for some of the world’s most marginalized children, helping them fulfil their potential and break intergenerational cycles of poverty.
- Digital technologies are bringing opportunities for learning and education to children, especially in remote regions and during humanitarian crises.
- Digital technologies also allow children to access information on issues that affect their communities and can give them a role in helping to solve them.
- To accelerate learning, information and communication technology (ICT) in education needs to be backed by training for teachers and strong pedagogy
But digital access is becoming the new dividing line, as millions of the children who could most benefit from digital technology are missing out.
- About 29 per cent of youth worldwide – around 346 million individuals – are not online.
- African youth are the least connected. Around 60 per cent are not online, compared with just 4 per cent in Europe.
- Digital divides go beyond the question of access. Children who rely on mobile phones rather than computers may get only a second-best online experience, and those who lack digital skills or speak minority languages often can’t find relevant content online.
- Digital divides also mirror prevailing economic gaps, amplifying the advantages of children from wealthier backgrounds and failing to deliver opportunities to the poorest and most disadvantaged children.
- There is a digital gender gap as well. Globally, 12 per cent more men than women used the internet in 2017. In India, less than one third of internet users are female.
Digital technology can also make children more susceptible to harm both online and off. Already vulnerable children may be at greater risk of harm, including loss of privacy.
- ICTs are intensifying traditional childhood risks, such as bullying, and fuelling new forms of child abuse and exploitation, such as ‘made-to-order’ child sexual abuse material and live streaming of child sexual abuse.
- Predators can more easily make contact with unsuspecting children through anonymous and unprotected social media profiles and game forums.
- New technologies – like cryptocurrencies and the Dark web – are fuelling live streaming of child sexual abuse and other harmful content, and challenging the ability of law enforcement to keep up.
- Ninety-two per cent of all child sexual abuse URLs identified globally by the Internet Watch Foundation are hosted in just five countries: the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, France and the Russian Federation.
- Efforts to protect children need to focus particularly on vulnerable and disadvantaged children, who may be less likely to understand online risks – including loss of privacy – and more likely to suffer harms.
- While attitudes vary by culture, children often turn first to their peers when they experience risks and harms online, making it harder for parents to protect their children.
The potential impact of ICTs on children’s health and happiness is a matter of growing public concern – and an area that is ripe for further research and data.
- Although most children who are online view it as a positive experience, many parents and teachers worry that immersion in screens is making children depressed, creating internet dependency and even contributing to obesity.
- Inconsistent advice can be confusing for caregivers and educators, underlining the need for more high-quality research on the impact of ICTs on well-being.
- Researchers acknowledge that excessive use of digital technology can contribute to childhood depression and anxiety. Conversely, children who struggle offline can sometimes develop friendships and receive social support online that they are not receiving elsewhere.
- For most children, underlying issues – such as depression or problems at home – have a greater impact on health and happiness than screen time.
- Taking a ‘Goldilocks’ approach to children’s screen time – not too much, not too little – and focusing more on what children are doing online and less on how long they are online, can better protect them and help them make the most of their time online.
The private sector – especially in the technology and telecommunication industries – has a special responsibility and a unique ability to shape the impact of digital technology on children.
- The power and influence of the private sector should be leveraged to advance industry-wide ethical standards on data and privacy, as well as other practices that benefit and protect children online.
- Governments can promote market strategies and incentives that foster innovation and competition among service providers to help lower the cost of connecting to the internet, thereby expanding access for disadvantaged children and families.
- Technology and internet companies should take steps to prevent their networks and services from being used by offenders to collect and distribute child sexual abuse images or commit other violations against children.
- Media stories about the potential impact of connectivity on children’s healthy development and well-being should be grounded in empirical research and data analysis.
- And internet companies should work with partners to create more locally developed and locally relevant content, especially content for children who speak minority languages, live in remote locations and belong to marginalized groups.
Download the full report.