There could be no better year-end wrap-up or gift for stakeholders in youth online safety worldwide than Unicef’s just-released “State of the World’s Children…in a Digital World.” In it are the latest research, stories and commentaries from multiple international perspectives, including, to its credit, those of young people in 26 countries.
In addition to their views and practices, the report looks at safety for all children, including the most vulnerable – those “on the move” from places of conflict, “girls, children from poor households, children in communities with a limited understanding of different forms of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, children who are out of school, children with disabilities, children who suffer…mental health problems and children from marginalized groups” – in the context of their lives, opportunities and rights.
As a 17-year-old participant in Peru put it, “It is good to know that there are people who wish to listen to what adolescents have to say.”
The authors don’t only “wish to listen” or see participation as one of children’s human rights, they see listening to children as necessary to making policy that’s relevant and useful to them. And there is a sense of urgency in this:
“We must act quickly, and in collaboration with children of all walks of life,” wrote the authors of “Young and Online: Children’s Perspectives on Life in a Digital Age,” the companion report also released this week. “We must abandon both technophobic and techno-utopian orientations and acknowledge that the digital world is here to stay [and youth constitute a third of the world’s Internet users, they note elsewhere]. We must centre, and seek to balance, children’s provision, protection and participation rights in a world that often elides the needs and aspirations of children.”
Here are just 12 takeaways from this planet-size report:
- The global digital divide. “Nearly one third [29%] of all youth worldwide – around 346 million 15–24 year-olds – are not online,” and 60% of African youth are not (compared to 4% in Europe). In developed countries, we often take for granted and even fear and vilify connected tech, so it provides healthy perspective to hear that, “to be unconnected in a digital world is to be deprived of new opportunities to learn, communicate and develop skills for the 21st century workplace.” And consider what connection means to them: “In stark contrast to claims that today’s adolescents are disengaged, participants in the study are concerned about issues in their communities ranging from the need to reduce violence to tackling climate change,” the Young and Online” authors write. “Even in communities with limited access, adolescents believe digital technology has an important role to play in enabling them to seek and generate information, to contribute to awareness-raising, and to work with others to respond to real-world challenges.”
- Risk in context: The report in no way minces words about “digital dangers,” the title of Chap. 3, but it doesn’t start with or over-focus on them. It urges us to consider the context. “All children who go online face some level of risk, but not all face the same level of risk…. For most children, underlying issues – such as depression or problems at home – have a greater impact on health and happiness than screen time…. Understanding why risk translates into actual harm for certain children, and not for others, is crucial. It opens our eyes to the underlying vulnerabilities in the child’s life that can place him or her at greater risk in the digital age. By better understanding and addressing these vulnerabilities, we can better protect children both online and offline.” This reinforces our findings in the comprehensive lit review of a 2008 national task force that not all youth are equally at risk online, those most vulnerable online are those most so offline, and a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk than any technology they use. It also reminds me of a 2013 essay by Prof. Sonia Livingstone about the difference between online risk and offline risk – and how online risk is refers to “the risk of the risk that might result in harm.”
- Believing is seeing: Online risks “are not always a function of the behaviour itself but are in some cases a reflection of how society perceives that behaviour…. Adult perceptions of excessive use tend to drive the debate.”