Angeline Chong was, like millions of other teenagers around the world, pretty comfortable using the internet to chat with friends and do her homework after coming home from school in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia.
That is, until the boy she was talking about her homework with online decided to use the internet to pick on her, and posted cruel things about her on sites her friends could see. At 14, Chong became ostracized by her friends online and offline following a devastating case of digital bullying, according to UNICEF.
According to a new report from UNICEF, 70% of kids in Malaysia have been harassed online, and one-quarter have been bullied. In the United States, one-third of kids report having been bullied online, and 15% say they have bullied.
UNICEF’s annual State of the World's Children report, released today, examines the digital experience among children worldwide, highlighting the benefits, challenges and disparities in online access. The report, which focuses on a different topic each year, also makes recommendations about how the international community can ensure that all children have safe, equal access to the digital world.
The web offers several digital benefits to kids, especially marginalized individuals — like children with disabilities — for whom the internet can be a level playing field. As the report says, “digital technology and innovation can open a door to a better future.”
Young people around the world understand that power. They say they want to use the internet and digital technology to improve their lives and the lives of others.
“I will use technology to change the world,” a 17-year-old boy from Fiji told the report’s authors. “Use it to design better stuff, create new things, and make education more interesting through technology.”
But there’s a dark side to the web. The internet forces children to face new challenges, like protecting their privacy, and exacerbates some existing problems, like inequality, bullying, and even sexual exploitation.
Global Citizen campaigns on safe, sustainable and equal opportunities for children around the world. You can take action here.
That commitment to safety and equality means overcoming these five digital problems that kids face around the world.
The online world certainly embraces a lot of young people, but it remains out of reach to millions.
According to the State of The World’s Children, one-in-three internet users are under 18. Worldwide, about 71% of all people aged 15-24 are using the internet compared to less than half of the globe’s overall population.
That may sound like an impressive proportion of web users, but it also means that 29% of adolescents and young adults — roughly 350 million people — still lack access to the internet.
For all the digital world’s egalitarian potential, actual access to the internet reflects existing disparities across income level, gender, race, and region. The report warns that digital divides can further drive inequality.
In Europe, for example, just 4% of adolescents and young adults lack internet access, but in Africa, it’s 60%. Worldwide, 12% more men use internet than women.
The way kids access the internet also contributes to disparities. Those who use smartphones to go online have a subpar experience compared to children searching the web on computers, the report says.
The State of the World’s Children advocates for universal online access. It’s a mission that governments, NGOs and corporations are working to make a reality.
This Fall, Google parent company Alphabet launched Project Loon — giant balloons carrying wireless routers — to provide online access to Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s infrastructure. Earlier this year, Project Loon helped tens of thousands of Peruvians go online after floods interrupted their internet access.
Alphabet says it wants to ultimately provide billions of people in developing countries with the opportunity to get internet access.
Gone are the days when AOL or MSN chat rooms were one of the few ways for online predators to connect with children. Now creeps have seemingly countless avenues for reaching kids via unprotected social media accounts and gaming platforms.
The internet plays a disturbing role in the exploitation, abuse, and trafficking of children worldwide. These practices are made chillingly efficient by predators’ ability to stream live child pornography over the Dark Web and to even pay human-trafficking fees using anonymous cryptocurrencies.
In the Philippines, thousands of children are forced into online sex tourism and the Internet Watch Foundation reports that 92% of of all child sexual abuse URLs identified in 2017 are hosted in just five countries — The Netherlands, US, Canada, France and Russia.
Parents aren’t always able to monitor their children’s internet behavior, especially since smartphones allow kids to go online wherever and whenever they want. That means governments and private companies must continue monitoring for predation to ensure children aren’t exploited.
NGOs, like actor Ashton Kutcher’s Thorn, are also working to identify online sexual predators and reach out to victims of sexual exploitation.
UNICEF’s report advocates for all countries to join the WePROTECT Global Alliance, a coordinated international program for shutting down sexual exploitation and preserving “child dignity in the digital world.”
Fast forward to 2017, and trolls abound online. Nefarious internet users and bots are planting conspiracy theories, promoting propaganda, and stoking anger around the world.
While the internet has allowed children to connect with one another and learn exciting new information, it has also upended traditional protections against bullying.
“The front door was once a barrier to schoolyard bullies,” the reports states. “Now, social media allows them to follow their victims into their homes.”
In the US, more than a third of children say they have experienced cyberbullying. Another 15% say they have bullied another kid online. The problem exists around the world, as a quarter of parents responding to the first ever cyberbullying survey said they knew a child who had experienced cyberbullying.
That’s why the report urges countries to “support the people who can support children” by guiding parents, guardians, and other influential adults on how to mediate difficult online issues.
Though pedestrians slaloming through a parade of kids with their noses pointed at their smartphone screens on subway station steps, in grocery store aisles, or even in crosswalks may complain about “digital addiction,” the reality is more complicated.
“Using addiction terminology in relation to children’s everyday tech use – including in media coverage of these issues – is unhelpful and at times harmful,” the report states.
Online behavior relates to a variety of other experiences, such as family dynamics and physical activity, the report continues. Singling out out internet use can ignores the broader context of a child’s life. Plus, scientific research into digital consumption is still evolving.
The online services that many internet users consider free actually come at a steep price — their privacy.
Websites and apps compile troves of data from users and often sell the information to companies or other entities. Children unaware of these business realities are even more vulnerable to privacy breaches.
The report urges governments to implement protections on “children’s privacy, personal information and reputation.” UNICEF also aims to enlist businesses and schools in protecting children’s information.
Some of these solutions are simple, like making maximum privacy protections the default setting and ensuring encryption of children’s data, and they’re catching on around the world.
For example, lawmakers in the UK recently introduced legislation to protect children’s privacy online, with MP Dido Harding noting that internet safety regulations are similar to standards for toys and TV shows.
“I know the positive power of the digital world – but there are downsides as well as the upsides,” Harding told The Guardian. “You can’t make people completely safe but you can provide a seatbelt.”