For many of the estimated 170,000 children who go online for the first time each day, the virtual universe will offer new possibilities to connect with the world — and access to unbounded knowledge and services.
But the virtual world can also present dangers. And kids who don't yet have the awareness to navigate the Web safely could fall prey to those threats.
Laurence Chandy, UNICEF's director of data, research and policy, says that while a third of all Internet users are kids, consumer protections don't always have children in mind.
"You never saw any mention of child or children at all in your standard regulation for safety on the Internet," he says.
This prompted Chandy and his team at UNICEF to publish a report on Dec. 11.
"We initially saw it as a child protection issue, and then also health and education and other areas, too," he says.
Goats & Soda spoke with Chandy about how the Internet creates hazards and benefits for children around the world — and the strategies UNICEF believes could help make the Internet work for its youngest denizens.
Here's what he said (edited for length and clarity):
Perhaps we're just optimistic, but the Internet always seemed like the great repository of human knowledge. Hasn't it done a lot of good for children around the world?
The benefits are quite varied. One is access to information, but it also extends to recreation and play and having children's voices heard. You also have the most marginalized children, like disabled children, who find the technology very transformative and unlocking access to community. I know of one Russian boy with cerebral palsy who had an electronic notepad [change] his ability to interact with the world.
We do talk about this technology being a great leveler, a great instrument for equity and enabling access to information at zero cost. But it's also really becoming a divider. It's a huge inequity between those who have access and those who do not. [We're] recognizing that poor people cannot afford to use the Internet. There is a gender gap that discourages girls from using the technology. And — this is unfamiliar for those of us brought up with English as a native tongue — the issue of relevant content. If you are living in a small country with its own language, there won't be much relevant information. We might be on the precipice of translation technology — things that could instantaneously and accurately translate from one language to another. That could be a game changer on its own.
The report discusses a lot of the dangers to children. What are some of these?
There's bullying, which we know. The most striking risk is the sexual abuse of children and how the Internet is being used to enable that industry. [In the report], there's the story of a 12-year-old girl in the Philippines who was coerced by her neighbor to undress online. On the website [where the neighbor posted video], there were men in the West from the U.S. and the U.K. who paid really small amounts of money [to see this]. One of the men who was paying to see these acts flew over to the Philippines and tried to rape her. The authorities managed to rescue this girl.
This is the extreme grotesque story which speaks to the risks. Certain online services for sharing materials and payment systems enable this abuse. It's, frankly, really harrowing, but thankfully that's a small minority of people.
This case also says something about the virtual becoming physical. Whenever we use the Internet or log in to an app, we leave traces of ourselves on the Web. Does this pose a security risk to children as well as adults?
In the developing world, the most likely way you access the Internet is via a smartphone or quasi-smartphone. You have some kind of app. The first screen asks: What's your name, gender, date of birth and some other personal information? How are corporations using that information — and is it safe and do children have the right to be forgotten and have their data erased?
We don't know much at all about how the data are used and shared. There's no effort to convey to a child what the risk is or the terms and conditions. There are some creative companies like Mozilla that are developing conditions that young people can understand, but we haven't had that conversation [in general].
What are some things UNICEF thinks should be done to protect and help children?
We're thinking about universal access, corporate stewardship and personal responsibility. We're trying to work with corporations and regulators and policymakers in an evidence-based way to think of children as users. We're not saying keep them off this exciting technology, because we want the benefits, too. It's a huge part of our lives now, and these are difficult issues with no clear answer.
Freelance science writer Angus Chen is on Twitter @angRchen