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Digital environment vis-à-vis children’s rights

Opinion & Analysis
Digital space

JUNE 16 has become a significant day that we commemorate annually in Africa since the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa where black schoolchildren led a series of protests against the compulsory adoption of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools.

The Day of the African Child (DAC) is a day when we raise awareness about the rights and well-being of children in Africa, bring their concerns to the fore and recommit to addressing these.

Despite significant progress made since the adoption of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) in 1990 among other progressive children’s rights instruments nationally, regionally and globally, many challenges still exist in ensuring that children in Africa can fully enjoy their rights.

DAC 2023 theme

The theme for DAC 2023: The Rights of the Child in the digital environment. The focus is on children’s rights in the digital world, to identify challenges faced by children in the digital environment and possible solutions to those challenges.

Over the past decade or so, the world has changed, and life is no longer limited to physical face-to-face interactions. This provides limitless possibilities to what one can access and whom one can interact with. Since the advent of the internet and rapid growth of digital spaces and social media, a large part of our existence is now online.

People we have never met and may never know of have access to a piece of us. This is a rather scary thought, but it also opens up the possibilities of greater reach. Our reach is no longer bound by geography, distance, space or time. It can spread far and wide and within seconds we can touch the whole world.

Now this is a very delicate space to navigate particularly for children and young people. The exposure to the digital space brings the world to their fingertips but it also exposes them to untold risks that are often unknown to them.

According to a report by Unicef, over 70% of children in Africa have access to the internet, and this number is expected to increase in the coming years.

However, many children lack the necessary skills, knowledge, and support to navigate the digital world safely. Keeping children safe online is an important aspect of ensuring their overall well-being and development.

Benefits of the digital space

The digital environment can provide many benefits for children, including access to educational resources and tools, opportunities for socialisation and communication with peers from anywhere in the world, exposure to diverse cultures and perspectives and development of digital literacy skills. These benefits cannot be understated and in fact constitute some of the major motivations for ensuring that children and young people have access to digital spaces.

Risks and challenges of the digital space

However, with the increasing use of technology, the internet and social media, children are exposed to various online risks.

Cyberbullying is one of the most significant challenges faced by children of the present digital age. Cyberbullying refers to using technology to harass, embarrass, target and threaten another person.

It can take many forms such as sending mean messages or threats to a person's email or phone, spreading rumours online or through texts, posting hurtful or threatening messages on social media. It can also include sharing embarrassing photos or videos of someone without their consent. Cyberbullying can have several negative effects on children. Some of the effects include anxiety, fear, depression, low self-esteem, behavioural issues, and academic struggles. Bullying via text messaging or through pictures or videos on social media platforms has proven to be very harmful to adolescents.

Preventing cyberbullying requires a collective effort from parents, teachers and children. Some ways to prevent cyberbullying include educating children about cyberbullying and its effects, encouraging children to speak up if they are being bullied or if they see someone else being bullied, educating children about the danger of forwarding harmful messages and images of someone who is being bullied, monitoring children's online activities and social media accounts, teaching children how to use technology responsibly and safely and setting rules for technology use at home. It is important to teach children what to do when they are being bullied. This includes not responding to the bully, saving evidence of the bullying, blocking the bully, reporting the bullying to a trusted adult or authority figure and seeking support from friends and family.

Online predators have become commonplace and make use of online spaces to groom children. Online grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child online in order to gain their trust for the purpose of sexual abuse or exploitation. It is important to educate children about online grooming and how to stay safe online. Some ways to prevent online grooming include educating children about online grooming and the dangers of sharing personal information with strangers online, strong caution against meeting people from online spaces in real life without being accompanied by a trusted adult as some predatory adults pretend to be children online so that they can gain the trust of children to meet physically (catfishing), monitoring children's online activities and social media accounts.

Children may be exposed to inappropriate content and contacts including hate speech, violent content, substance abuse and/or pornographic or inappropriate sexual content when browsing the internet. Many websites have pop-up adverts that flash on the screen to get a person’s attention and children are no exception.

By nature, children are very curious and experimental thus exposure to harmful content could lead to behavioural issues such as fighting or general aggressive behaviour, risky behaviour such as experimental drinking or smoking, sleeping issues such as nightmares or insomnia and heightened anxiety.

While the risks vary by age, gender, online exposure and other factors, exposure to sexual content is the worst online risk as children may attempt certain behaviours seen online without proper information.

Children may also experience many different emotions when they see inappropriate, upsetting or distressing content online.

One of the critical challenges encountered by children of digital ages is socialisation issues. Children may become overly dependent on gadgets and online interactions that they struggle to establish and maintain real human connections and interactions. It is important to have the balance between online and real-life interactions.

Children can spend more time using digital platforms and tools, thereby affecting their physical and mental activities.

Social media platforms play a key role in the personality and character development of children as well. The naivety of youth that pushes one to trust in the good intentions of the person on the other side of the gadget may leave one vulnerable.

The conflict of adolescence with its constant desire for acceptance and belonging to a significant peer group, that is satisfied by likes and thumbs up from strangers may push one to do harmful things online like sharing pictures just for the sake of the approval of the online masses.

Some young people actually fall into pits of depression when they fail to get likes, follows, positive comments and heart emojis. Some 

have even committed suicide.

There is also the danger of addiction to social media that one fails to be productive because they are glued to TikTok or constantly obsessed with taking pictures for “the Gram”. It is, therefore, important to teach young people how to self-regulate emotions and handle their own and the reactions of others in the digital environment.

Parents and caregivers have a crucial role to play in keeping children safe online. They can monitor their children's online activities, set parental control measures, and establish clear rules and boundaries for internet use.

Additionally, parents and caregivers must foster open communication with their children, encouraging them to share any concerns or experiences they may have had online.

Digital divide

Having laid out the benefits and risks of the digital environment. It is important to consider the demographic that does not have access at all or whose access is so limited that they are disadvantaged and left behind.

 COVID-19 plunged the whole world into chaos when basic living was restricted to the home environment. School closures were a global strategy to curb the pandemic, first for weeks, then months and in some places for over a year. This meant that children were not in the classroom and therefore did not have access to learning. But the world innovated and utilised digital technology and the internet to deliver education.

Unfortunately, there were those who were left behind by the very real digital divide. The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. This gap can be caused by a variety of factors, including socio-economic status, geographic location and age.

The digital divide can have a significant impact on individuals and communities, including reduced access to educational and employment opportunities. The remotest communities in the rural areas with no electricity, no devices, no internet connectivity or data and also the urban poor could not continue their education online.

 This resulted in high levels of dropouts and poor outcomes for children such as child marriage, child labour and sexual exploitation. 

The digital divide has significant impact on education. While COVID-19 school closures are a thing of the past, online education has remained and will grow. Students who lack access to technology may have difficulty completing homework assignments or participating in online classes.

 In addition, many educational resources are now available only online, which can be difficult for those who lack access to technology or the internet.

This also has significant implications on employment opportunities. Individuals who lack access to technology may have difficulty finding jobs or advancing in their careers. To begin with, job opportunities and advertisements are mostly found online. Job application processes have digitised with some organisations even conducting virtual interviews for potential candidates.

In addition, many jobs now require digital literacy skills and meetings are held online, which can be difficult for those who lack access to technology or training. There are most certainly risks that come with the digital space but there is also the vulnerability that stems from not having any access at all to the digital space.

Clarion call

To ensure children’s rights in the digital environment, it is essential to provide them with the necessary skills, knowledge, and tools to navigate the internet safely.

This includes educating children on online risks and how to protect themselves, as well as providing them with age-appropriate content and safe online platforms. The digital divide can be closed by collaborative efforts by all stakeholders to increase access to technology in underserved communities, providing technology training and education to individuals who lack digital literacy skills, developing policies and programmes that promote digital inclusion, encouraging public-private partnerships to address the digital divide. Ensuring the safety of children online is crucial for their overall well-being and development.

It is essential to create a safer and more secure digital environment for children in Africa. We must not stop there, we must ensure that all children have equal access to the necessary digital space.

Governments, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders must work together to address these challenges and ensure the rights and well-being of children are at the forefront of development efforts.

Kudzai-Vimbiso Tseriwa is a social worker whose field of work focuses on children’s rights and protection.

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