Digital Learning needs to start with creating a safe online experience for children


The following piece is authored by Marija Manojlovic, Director, Safe Online Initiative, Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. 

Next week, world leaders, civil society organisations, experts and young people will gather in New York for the Transforming Education Summit (TES). Organised just a week before the 77th United Nations General Assembly, the Summit is an important one, centering attention on our children’s futures and the urgent need to rethink education although this may offer little consolation to the city’s beleaguered residents stuck in traffic snarls.  

As Safe Online we are especially interested in Action Track 4 of the Summit which focuses on ‘Digital Learning and Transformation’, an idea which may have seemed bold and radical a decade ago but the necessity of which was made painfully clear during the COVID-19 pandemic which abruptly pushed children’s daily lives online. With school closures in nearly 200 countries, more than 1.2 billion school-age learners had no internet at home and were left with little or no opportunity to continue their education. The ‘digital divide’ could not have been more stark, and it was clearer than ever before that we could not talk of digital learning and transforming education unless we address issues of access, equity gap, and digital literacy. 

But there is also another critical factor which is often ignored when we talk about digital learning - creating a safe internet for children.  As the internet’s reach expands, more children, and at an increasingly younger age, start to grow up in a digital world. Children are using the internet for a range of activities-to seek information and opportunities; networking with friends, families and others; and for entertainment. A UNICEF report says that even those (activities) typically seen as entertainment - are crucial for building digital skills. Children’s online activities support their overall social and mental development and prepare them to grow and thrive in an increasingly digital world. Therefore, when we speak of digital learning, we cannot limit ourselves to remote learning and educational platforms and tools but reimagine the internet as a whole for children. 

The internet, as it exists today, is not a very friendly or safe space for our children, exposing them to a wide range of adult content, experiences, threats and dangers such as online harassment and violence. The most critical of these is the alarming growth in online child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) including the creation and sharing of child sexual abuse images and videos (CSAM). Evidence from 13 countries across two regions shows that each year tens of thousands, or even millions, of children in each country are being subjected to online CSEA with younger children at higher risk. A decade ago, there were less than one million reports of child abuse material on the internet. Last year, that number climbed to 29 million, containing over 85 million pieces of suspected child abuse material. Digital technology and connectivity is impacting and facilitating existing and new forms of child abuse. 

Digital learning, therefore, needs to start with creating a safe online experience for children. Our global Safe to Learn Initiative is working to ensure that all children - including the most vulnerable - have access to safe and inclusive learning environments. We need to demand the same rights for children in digital environments.   

Our education system needs to transform accordingly to consider the digital environment and ensure that children can learn safely in both physical and online spaces. The education system can also be a good entry point in raising awareness and demand for safe digital spaces for children to learn, socialise and play. Safe Online is partnering with education systems and platforms in many countries to help children stay safe online. Many of our grantees work within the school system and with the relevant government ministries to integrate safe online in the curriculum and in school policies, train teachers and raise awareness among parents, students and communities. Our work with World Vision in Vietnam is an example of that. In Ghana, a Digital Literacy Package for schools was finalised in 2021 to equip children with digital literacy and resilience skills. Similarly, in Uganda, over 40,000 caregivers were reached through household visits and community gatherings with messages on parenting, counselling and mentoring on how to prevent and respond to online CSEA.  

Safe Online has invested in technology tools to take some of the solutions to scale including SnehAI, an AI-powered chatbot to empower and protect adolescents in India and an interactive digital game to help  children with disabilities stay safe online. Together with our partners, Safe Online launched a technical note and a resource pack to support governments, tech industry, educators and parents in mitigating online harms for children in the context of COVID and online learning platforms. Finally, through our Together to #ENDviolence campaign, Safe Online has put out an ambitious policy proposal for Government and industry on making the internet safe for children, asking for more action, accountability and investment to make this a reality.  

Technology can radically transform the way children learn. It can open new worlds for them and help them acquire knowledge and critical digital, entrepreneurial and other skills necessary to thrive. However, the internet today is not delivering for children-there are many issues including those around access, and for those fortunate enough to be connected, it is not always a safe and protective space. In recent times, governments have responded to this call and have taken positive steps in that direction e.g., the proposed new EU legislation; a set of ground-breaking commitments by G7 governments on tackling online CSEA, the U.K. Online Safety Bill and the most recent California Age-Appropriate Design Code. We need more action now-from Governments but also from technology companies. 

We need to act now to ensure that children are safe and protected online.  Not doing so could cost our children their future! 



Image: Compare Fibre / Unsplash