Children and the internet

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Tuesday launched its report on the State of the World’s Children (SOWC) with specific reference to the effect of the digital world and the internet on the children of the world. This launch in Guyana was done at the National Centre for Educational Resource Development (NCERD) in Kingston and featured a live Smart Classroom session whereby schools from eight administrative regions were connected in the live session.

With the theme for the UNICEF report being ‘Children in a Digital World’ the setting of the Smart Classroom would have been a most appropriate one, and NCERD and the Ministry of Education must take credit for persevering with this initiative which has the ability to be a transformative agent in the education system, enhancing the current system by instantaneously providing the same level of information to children in both far flung and city schools.

But the report has a much wider import, and as seen in its title it considers the impact of the digital age and the internet on children, weighing the pros and cons of access against the pros and cons of none or limited access. Guyana, a country still struggling with the grasp of information and data as a commodity – data has been described as the new oil – would do well to extract the information on the report as it relates to this country and factor in the observations and recommendations into broad-based plans for education, given that successive administrations have touted information technology as critical to the country’s development.

Access to computers (including laptops, Smartphones, tablets) can be considered very high among the urban youth in Guyana, and while Smartphones and tablets might be the preferred vehicle for access to the internet by today’s youth, internet access itself has not been something easily achieved, even in the city. This is because the cost of internet access is still prohibitive to some in the city and towns, and the internet service provider is only now trying to deliver internet speeds which are taken for granted in more developed countries.

It stands to reason then, that internet availability in the rural areas will be a limiting factor in terms of access, although there have been advancements made. However, much more still needs to be done in order to deliver fast, reliable and cost-effective internet access in Guyana.

The UNICEF report highlighted the effects of missed opportunities for children who unfortunately have no access to the digital world and found that there is a persistent gender gap relating to internet access. Other factors limiting access to the digital world and the internet included poverty, race, disability and displacement (geographic isolation). Expanding access to include the disenfranchised children is the obvious approach, but it is recognised that the blessing of access usually carries the real possibility of a curse in the form of unregulated content which is a cause for much concern for many parents as well as for the education system.

Some of the more commonly known dangers of the internet include inappropriate content; identity and information theft; inappropriate contact made to minors by (un)known persons; and cyber bullying which has had deadly consequences as some victims have taken their own lives, overcome by the comprehensive reach and wide participation in an activity that the internet brings. Additional conduct such as the shaming of individuals by the publication of inappropriate personal content has also resulted in negative consequences.

Guyana would do well to have a careful refining of its laws in advance of its drive for the development of its Information Technology sector, paying special attention to matters relating to children, including internet crimes committed against children by adults, but also those committed by children against children. The sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children is unfortunately enhanced in this digital world, as the internet has consistently proven itself to be capable of being equally a force for evil as much as one for tremendous good.

With respect to the protection of children online, the UNICEF report writes, “Every time a child posts a photo on social media, browses for products or searches for something online, he or she generates data. Those data, in turn, feed into an industry that processes the child’s personal information, including identity, location, preferences and many other details.”

This above quote points to the potential danger children face from even legitimate online activity if their information gets into the wrong hands. The report adds that this places a greater burden on internet service providers to ensure data privacy. Parents, though, will have to become involved in educating their children as to what is sensible online activity, but this might be a challenge itself, as so many children are more computer literate than their parents, and also probably most of their teachers.

Nevertheless, this hurdle must be vaulted if the benefits of the digital world are to be achieved by the widest possible number of children. The report notes that there is little consensus by those in authority as to the rewards versus the risks of online activity by children. There really is no easy way to be absolutely certain as a parent or educator that all the necessary precautions have been taken to counterbalance the dark side of the internet.

In the end the focus on monitoring content accessed by the child is thought to be a superior monitoring mechanism, to simply limiting access by the child to the internet and the digital world.

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