Surf Safe, Kids!
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Ceylon Today Features
The way in which children experience the world has been broadened with the introduction of the internet. Just like in conventional society or a community, the internet too consists of good, responsible people and sources as well as some bad apples. However, unlike in normal society, catching these cyber perpetrators is something proven to be hard due to the anonymity and the lack of tangibility the internet offers. Rules and laws do help. Thanks to them, a minor can be kept away from alcohol for example, but can we successfully claim the same about adult content on the internet? Not to deny that there aren't any cyber laws because there are but are our children really safe out there on the internet?
There are 3.9 billion internet users worldwide and nearly half of them live in Asia. Worldwide, 175,000 children go online for the first time, every day. That's a child in every half a second. In Sri Lanka, online presence in 2015 was about four million people. Today, the numbers have gone up to 6.6 million. These figures were revealed by UNICEF Representative for Sri Lanka, Tim Sutton in an event held recently to launch the very first national level study about children's access and the usage of the internet. The event also brought out insights from many distinguished experts of various related fields which could well help in guiding Sri Lankan youth towards safe online practices.
Kids who are accessing the internet are undoubtedly prone to fall victims. In order to safeguard the online safety of children, it is vital to know children's online behaviours in detail. The first-of-its-kind survey now will aid policy makers to have detailed insights into issues and how to counter them.
A study on Sri Lanka's digital landscape
This study has focused on 5,349 children between 11 to 18 years old from 73 government and private schools and tele-centres. Additional data was collected from principals, teachers, parents, 'heavy' internet users and also from key policy makers.
The study categorized three types of IT users. Seven per cent of all children were non-IT users who had no access to any digital device. One of the major reasons for this was their parent's inability to afford either a computer or a mobile phone but interestingly, 29 per cent of the kids reported that they disliked using computers and 42.5 per cent said they disliked mobile phones.
Around 40 per cent of the children had access to a digital device but were not able to access the internet. They were categorized as non-online IT users. A majority of the group had access to either computers or to mobile phones but had their internet access deprived by parents or teachers.
A majority of the online IT users who had access to both a digital device and to internet were from urban areas of the country. Rural and plantation areas of the country saw receding numbers of online IT users. The gender disparity too is well observed among online IT users as two thirds of them were boys.
Children's internet usage
The average age of first internet access in Sri Lanka is 13 years. According to the children they access the internet in search of information for educational purposes. Other than that, they downloaded information or videos, watched online content, accessed social media, listened to online radio and played online games while on the internet. Children have said that they used social media to chat with friends and communicate with relatives in distant places. They have received a range of benefits by being online as well. More than half of online users have said that they obtained their examination results online.
Online threats for children
On the flip side, amongst the benefits were some threats to children as well. Both girls and boys had communicated with people that they had only met online and never in person. More boys than girls reported arranging meetings with the strangers they had met online.
Many had faced online identity threats. Some had been requested to make payments to obtain lottery prizes and to meet online friends they had never met before. Nearly 25 per cent of children were not aware of privacy settings in their accounts and therefore were exposed to potential online threats. About 10 per cent of children had admitted to uploading or sending material inappropriate for their age and 41 per cent had admitted to sharing photographs and personal information with unknown people online. There was some indirect evidence suggesting that children, knowingly or otherwise, infringed on copyright laws and engaged in online identity theft and cyber bullying.
According to the report, there are a few major focal points on which the country should focus on in order to provide its children with a safe digital habitat. One of the main issues is the inequity of internet facilities around the country. The disparity of access is clear within non IT users. Among them, 79.7 per cent have no access to a computer while 66.4 per cent of them do not have access to a mobile phone.
"We take internet access for granted, especially in areas like Colombo. However, the report clearly shows that there is a divide between urban areas and rural areas. In plantation areas it is even more apparent," said Mahisha Balraj, Co-Founder of Hashtag Generation. Balraj who also currently works as an Executive Assistant at the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) revealed her experiences regarding inequity of access to the internet in Sri Lanka.
"To one of our campaigns in Batticaloa came a group of nine children from a rural school. This school only had one working computer and to power it they had to use the only power supply which was originally for a light bulb. Girls I talked to there had no idea what internet or email was. We have to address the issues regarding infrastructure," said Balraj.
As a ripple effect of not having proper infrastructure facilities, the children are deprived of many opportunities down the line. "There were fifteen girls in Batticaloa who didn't know what internet was but had Facebook accounts. They don't know the connection between the internet and Facebook. The language barrier plays a major role. We all know Google translate is largely a failure. Almost all the original content on the internet is predominantly in English. As a result of the iniquity of access, children are missing out on life and employment opportunities. The future is about being able to have access to the online world and also digital skills are very vital in securing employment," said an adamant Balraj.
More than half of online IT users (53.6 per cent) revealed that they learned to access internet by themselves without the supervision of parents, a teacher or an adult. Among them, boys were the better self-taught, gender-wise, as nearly half of all girl online IT users were taught online access by their siblings. Only 17.8 per cent were taught internet by teachers and even lower 16.5 per cent were taught by their parents.
Despite adults not getting much involved in providing children with internet and affiliated knowledge, digital literacy is high among children. Only 28.3 per cent of the local population is computer literate and within that sect, 60.7 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 19. Computer literacy among people who are over 50 years old who most likely are the parents is only 11 per cent.
Some parents have the tendency of looking at the internet as something millennial and give children the freedom to roam in digital space. Some parents however, perceive the internet as something bad and try to keep it away from the children as much as possible. 55.7 per cent of non IT users have said that their parents would not allow them to use a mobile phone. 20.3 per cent of them have reported that they are not allowed to use a computer.
"Whenever a new technology comes in, we initially don't know how to use it. Back then, computer literacy for teachers meant knowing MS Office. Inappropriate disclosures on social media are one of the huge problems regarding digital literacy nowadays. Kids need to know what to and what not to post online. IT teachers too now need to be taught how to recognize anti-social behaviour. We should not just say that we need digital literacy and stop there. All these are prerequisites to enable us to actually shape the technology of the future. We are not behind any other countries in this. We should be setting standards that other people too can follow," opinionated Senior Lecturer at University of Colombo, School of Computing (UCSC), Dr. Ruwan Weerasinghe.
The government has taken action to promote safe internet use via online platforms such as e-thaksalawa but conversely, the report also shows that the facilities at schools and government computer training institutes such as Nenasala are rarely being used. Only 11 per cent of the children have actually used school facilities to access internet.
Parents do have lower digital literacy but still the fact remains that there are some children in the rural areas who have been deprived of internet facilitates due to lack of infrastructure and English illiteracy. Apparently 56 per cent of all websites are in English and many children cannot find content they understand or which is culturally relevant. Dr. Weerasinghe believes those should be addressed by the policy makers and hopes the survey would do just that.
Access to digital technology could well be unsafe for many children but as many adults feel that there is a knowledge gap between them and their kids, most children are now wandering through the internet unsupervised. Free roaming has the potential of attracting unwanted attention.
46.2 per cent of online children had been approached by people they didn't know and had actually communicated with them.15.1 per cent of the children had revealed their true information (name, age, telephone number, email and so forth). 27.9 per cent of the child respondents had physically met the online strangers in person and 18.3 per cent of them had done so without informing anyone.
Principal Information Security Engineer Roshan Chandraguptha believes that while technical and legal action against children being ill-treated online could be taken, it is parents' and teachers' duty to make themselves aware about the potential risks these children are facing online. "Yes, technology is changing very fast and both parents and teachers need to spend some time and catch up with it for the sake of children. Children often go to peers and colleagues in search of answers but they might not be the proper solution. Another key point is to promote ethical use of the internet. If not, the kids could be not just victims, but perpetrators themselves as well," warned Chandraguptha.
"We lack a unified privacy protocol. We have a single sign in protocol for many online accounts but when it comes to safety settings, we have to set it separately for each account," Dr. Weerasinghe pointed out.
Based on these findings the study has formulated a set of recommendations which have been drawn up using international guidelines and the opinions of a diverse set of national experts. The recommendations focus on policies, laws and regulations to strengthen a national policy framework.
In addition to that, capacity building campaigns, introduction of specialized technologies to enable safe online usage, awareness programmes and reviews of school curricula for safe internet use have also been suggested. The core strategic objective of the recommendations is to protect children who are online, based on the principles of empowerment rather than control. Hopefully, the very first survey of its kind will open the eyes of policy makers to do just that.
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