The new normal has undoubtedly helped us to ensure children’s safety from the novel coronavirus, but as the primary caregivers and individuals in the position of protecting children, we need to ask ourselves some questions:
- Is the virtual world any safer than the physical world?
- Are there any risks online that we are unable to identify?
- What should we do to keep children around us safe online?
With the entire world using the internet to seek knowledge, pursue education, reach out to help others or to earn a livelihood, ensuring progress for individuals, there are also people who use it to abuse, harm and exploit others, especially children. Abusers and predators leverage technology to target vulnerable children and youth. According to an international law enforcement agency, there are an estimated 500,000 online predators active each day. Children between the ages of 12 and 15 are especially susceptible to be groomed or manipulated by adults they meet online.
Also read: Six reasons why schools should safeguard children from abuse and violence
Online abuse can refer to any abuse that happens through the internet on any platform like social media, e-mails, chat boxes, online games, etc. This can happen through devices like the smart phones, desktops, laptops or ipad. Predators take advantage of the anonymity behind the screen and use fake profiles to abuse and exploit children. They groom children by gaining their trust, treating them with gifts and manipulating them into activities that are harmful, violent and exploitative in nature.
Children and young adults often fall prey to online abuse as they are unaware of the risks to their safety and may not always think about the consequences of their online actions such as interacting with strangers, sharing too much information, posting personal images, engaging in arguments or sharing content that may be false.
Some of the threats to children and youth in the virtual world are:
- Cyber Bullying
- Cyber stalking
- Identity Theft
- Online Sexual Abuse/exploitation
- Online Trafficking
While these may seem overwhelming to any child or caring adult, the need of the hour is to become aware and ensure that we build children’s resilience and capacity to be safe online and be more vigilant towards their online engagement. Monitoring is one of the options but not one that is sustainable or viable as children are spending more and more time on screen than ever before. It is important that we acknowledge the challenges that come along with the benefits of the internet and try to minimize risks and potential harm. Here is how you can help children be safe online:
1. Explain and model the SMART rule-
S - Keep your personal information safe. Think before sharing anything online.
M - Never meet a stranger you have met online. They can be dangerous.
A – Do not accept suspicious requests, offers or emails.
R – Check for reliability. Always be careful of what you trust and who you believe online.
T - Tell someone who can help.
2. Promote healthy online behaviour – Encourage children to be kind and respectful in their online interactions. Help them recognize the content which is right and age appropriate for them.
3. Open communication – Have regular, honest, non-judgemental and open dialogues with children about their online engagements. Guide them to understand that any interaction that is unpleasant, mean, discriminatory, demeaning, inappropriate or makes them feel unsafe is never acceptable. Ensure them of your availability and support and encourage them to talk to you if they feel uneasy online.
4. Use technology that is protective - Stay informed about the latest software, anti-virus programs, parental controls, safe search and privacy settings. Such features help you create a positive online experience for children
5. Watch out for signs of risky online behaviour – Observe for sudden and drastic change in behaviour - if the child is being too secretive, talks about unknown friends, has new gifts, stays aloof.
6. Be aware of and share resources that can be reached out for help – Cybercrime portal www.cybercrime.gov.in and National Helpline 155260 for assistance in reporting cybercrimes.
Children fall upon us to ensure their safety. However, we often forget that virtual spaces are equally, if not more unsafe than the physical world. Awareness about the risks, vigilance and preventive behaviour can go a long way in creating safe online spaces for children.