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Keeping young users safe online has emerged as an increasingly urgent issue

(Image credit: Future)

The explosion of information and communication technologies is a double-edged sword. 

It has created unprecedented opportunities for children and young people to communicate, socialise, share, learn, access information and express their opinions on matters that affect their lives and their communities, while at the same time exposing them to a range of content, contact and harmful conduct online. 

In a world where the internet permeates almost every aspect of life, keeping young users safe online has emerged as an increasingly urgent issue.  

 The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) developed its very first set of child online protection (COP) Guidelines in 2009. Since then, the internet has evolved beyond all recognition. While it has become an infinitely richer resource for children to play and learn, today’s children face many risks online.  

The new set of guidelines has a comprehensive set of recommendations for children, parents and educators, industry and policymakers on how to contribute to the development of a safe and empowering online environment for children and young people. 

“The question of how to ensure children's online safety in the age of Covid-19 is now more pressing than ever before," ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, said.

He said the new guidelines are a very timely tool to safeguard the well-being, integrity, and safety of the children. 

Re-designed from ground up 

The new guidelines were re-designed from the ground up to reflect the significant shifts in the digital landscape in which children find themselves, such as the internet of things, connected toys, online gaming, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Besides, this new edition addresses an important lacuna - the situation faced by children with disabilities, for whom the online world offers a particularly crucial lifeline to full and fulfilling social participation. Consideration of the special needs of migrant children and other vulnerable groups has also been included.

Najat Maalla M'jid, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, said that the behaviour of offenders and criminal networks is constantly evolving, as seen during the pandemic, with offenders taking advantage of the new reality of many children being online far more than usual.

“It is therefore imperative that child protection systems evolve as fast or even faster. A worldwide and cross-border problem requires a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral and child-rights centred approach that brings all key actors, including children, together to ensure stronger and proactive child protection online," she said.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, said the new guidelines are designed to serve as a blueprint that can be adapted and used by different countries and stakeholders in a way that is consistent with national and local customs and laws.

Four parts tailored to key audiences 

  • The guidelines for children are available in a child-friendly format and they consist of three resources: a storybook for children under nine, a workbook for children aged 9 to 11, and a social media campaign and microsite for children and young people aged 12 to 18. These resources help children learn how to manage risks online, while at the same time empowering them to exercise their rights online and engage in opportunities that the internet presents to them.
  • The guidelines for parents and educators serve as a practical tool to help them to effectively support children and young people's interaction with the online world, to sensitise families to the potential risks and threats and help cultivate a healthy and empowering online environment at home and in the classroom. They emphasise the importance of open communication and ongoing dialogue with children, to create a safe space where young users feel empowered to raise concerns.
  • The guidelines for industry aim at supporting industry players in the development of their internal COP policies. They highlight key areas, such as integrating child rights considerations into all appropriate corporate policies and management processes; developing standard processes to handle child sexual abuse material; creating a safer and age-appropriate online environment; educating children, carers and educators about children's safety and the responsible use of information and communication technologies (ICTs); and promoting digital technology as a mode for increasing civic engagement.
  • The guidelines for policymakers serve as a solid foundation on which to develop inclusive, multi-stakeholder national strategies, through open consultations and dialogues with children, to develop better-targeted measures and more efficient actions. ITU and its partners sought to create a highly usable, flexible and adaptable framework firmly based on international standards and shared goals, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.