Children In ‘Cyberia’: How To Keep Them Safe

by Anand Parthasarathy - Nov 14, 2022 02:09 PM +05:30 IST
Children In ‘Cyberia’: How To Keep Them SafeChildren in cyberspace. (UNESCO /Broadband Forum)
  • Indian children are among the youngest worldwide, to reach 'mobile maturity' — and  among highest to face online risk,  say studies.

    Their experience of cyber bullying exceeds the global average.

    Only half of all parents ensure their children protect their phones with a password.

    70 per cent of parents in India are at peace if security camera keeps watch on children at home.

The increasing use of digital devices and online resources by children is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, educators applaud the enrichment this can bring to schooling and community life. On the other hand, is the more alarming dangers to which young minds are exposed at an age when they cannot tell good from bad in the cyber world. 

A 10 November 2022 report in Forbes says: “The average age of children owning and using digital devices continues to drop at an alarming rate, while their daily screen-use steadily increases”.

It adds that while these trends were noticeable earlier, “the pandemic clearly accelerated the concerning situation as, in many cases, it made children’s physical reality so isolated and unpleasant that escaping to the virtual world has become even more attractive  now.”

Six months ago, the India-specific findings of a 10-nation study by Net security specialists, McAfee, on “The Global Connected Family”, found: Indian children are among the youngest worldwide, to reach 'mobile maturity': their smartphone usage  at the age of 10 to 14 is  83 per cent, which is  7 per cent above the international average of 76 per cent.  

While the concern is relatively low amongst parents, 22 per cent of Indian children experienced cyberbullying at some time which is 5 per cent higher than the global average of 17 per cent.

Said Sachin Puri, vice-president of marketing, McAfee: “Children in India report among the highest exposure to online risks.”

The study reveals that parents take more precautions, such as installing antivirus software, using password protection, or sticking to reputable online stores when shopping, on their own devices than they do on their children’s connected devices.

For instance, while 56 per cent  of parents globally said that they protect their smartphone with a password or passcode, only 42 per cent said they do the same for their child’s smartphone. The message is clear: do for your children what you do to protect yourself.

Parents appear to see boys and girls differently when it comes to protecting them online. An apparent gender bias finds girls more protected than boys, yet it’s boys who encounter more issues online.

Globally, 23 per cent of parents say they will check the browsing and email history on the PCs of their daughters aged 10 to 14, and for boys, it’s only 16 per cent.

So, what can ‘Connected Families’ in India do?

All the  family online, but are the kids safe? Photo Credit: McAfee Connected Family Study 2022.
All the family online, but are the kids safe? Photo Credit: McAfee Connected Family Study 2022.

— Create an environment for open and transparent conversations about online activity. Understanding the habits and behaviours of family members online will help guide how best to approach and protect family units — whether that be limiting time on gaming devices or installing software.

— Educate children about dangerous online behaviours such as clearing chat history or visiting unsafe sites.

Read the full McAfee Global Connected Family report here.

Not Enough Is Being Done

A more recent study by the Boston Consulting Group in September 2022 found that the safety of children in cyberspace cannot be tackled by any one nation: The risks children face online are growing, and the current responses aren’t nearly enough. Fixing the problem will require a comprehensive global strategy.”

It adds: “With online access virtually ubiquitous on computers, smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices, almost all children under 12 are now internet users. The potential risks are magnified by the fact that 81% of children go online daily — with almost 45% of them more than three hours per day.  As these children spend more and more time online — a trend that has only accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic began — the cyber risks they face, such as online bullying, inappropriate content, and digital addiction, are worsening.”

“Child protection in cyberspace is an urgent issue that needs immediate attention and more targeted responses than we have seen to date.”

Current global initiatives include:

— UNICEF’s two multi-partner projects, Global Kids Online (Childrens’ Rights in a Digital Age)  and Disrupting Harm (End Violence against Children) , which assess the risks of child abuse online and potential measures to combat it.

— The International Telecommunication Union ‘Child Online Protection’ launched an initiative in 2008, a multi-stakeholder effort which brings together international partners from all sectors of the child protection ecosystem to create a safe and empowering online experience for children around the world.

It has published a Child Online Safety guide.

The study goes on to suggest how law enforcement, tech companies, private sector, schools, and parents can all contribute to make 'cyberia' a safe place for our children. The conclusion:

“It may seem like a lot to take on — and, in fact, it is. But the repercussions of not taking cyber threats against children seriously enough or failing to face those threats effectively — measured by the toll on children’s safety, quality of life, development, and health — would be harder still to accept.”
Read the BCG study, Why Children are Unsafe in Cyberspace and recommendations here.

Safety At Home

A somewhat different parental concern has been highlighted  last week by a Godrej Security Solutions study titled "Decoding Safe and Sound: in the Indian Context" .

The study conducted in seven Indian cities compared parental attitudes this year versus the last year when Covid was still widely prevalent. It finds: For staying connected with their children when people are away from home, only 38 per cent of the respondents depend on their own parents compared to 49 per cent respondents last year.

Whereas, only 15 per cent of the respondents depend on their house help compared to 26 per cent respondents last year.

The survey also indicated more reliability on neighbours this year while being away from home, with 17 per cent respondents depending on their neighbours, compared to only 9 per cent respondents last year.

The study's key finding was that there is a critical need for ‘phygital’ — physical plus digital solutions. With people being away for work and their children at home, home surveillance cameras are a non-intrusive way of staying connected to them. 

About 70 per cent Indians admit to feel mentally at peace with a security product enabling them to see their child at home while they were away at work.  The market for home cameras in India is estimated to be worth Rs 300 crore today.

Whether concerned with physical or virtual security, online or offline, parents in India are grappling with the challenge of keeping their young ones safe. The good news is: help is at hand.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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