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A double-edged sword

In the digital era, the Internet opens a world of possibilities for our children. Being connected enriches their lives and improves future prospects by widening horizons of knowledge. However, the Internet also poses a risk by exposing children and youngsters to cyber harms.

Last year, a survey done in seven States of India found that 30 per cent of Indian children accessing the Internet have experienced some kind of cyber harm including cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, hacking and defamation. The survey reveals that 34 per cent of children rarely speak to their parents about their online activities. Researching for school and project work, social networking, downloading music and movies rank highest in their list of online activities.

Meanwhile, data from the Boston Consulting Group on Internet use among children in 13 countries show that 8 per cent may have unknowingly subscribed to commercial services, one in 10 has potentially been subjected to personal data misuse, and one in five has been potentially exposed to harmful content.

The Internet has had an undeniably profound positive impact in Asia, and it will continue to do so as the expansion of infrastructure for a digital future for all emerges in this region. From financial inclusion, to access to knowledge, better health, and resources, the Internet has been instrumental in empowering Asian populations that include some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people.

At the same time, cyberspace presents a double-edged sword. Risks abound online, many of them particularly menacing to the most vulnerable among us, namely children. These include cyber-bullying, identity theft and fraud, danger from online predators, and exposure to pornography or other inappropriate images.

For these reasons, coupled with a lack of awareness as to the positive value of the Internet, some parents in Asia have exhibited a reluctance to embrace the technology. While their caution is understandable, by limiting their children’s exposure to cyberspace they inadvertently restrict their access to the life-changing positive possibilities offered by the Internet.

Above all, it suggests building resilience rather than restricting access. Children will access the Internet, with or without their parents, and it thus is of vital importance to create rules that acknowledge that children can’t be monitored online at all times. This process can be facilitated by setting age limits on your children’s smartphones, laptops, tablets and desktops.

Fundamentally, keeping kids safe online is about communication, and thus the importance of starting the conversation to discuss online risks cannot be overstated. Basic ground rules like protecting passwords should become second nature. Also, get familiar with Internet etiquette. One of the most worrying results of the survey done in Malaysia was that two-thirds of children surveyed felt that sending improper text messages, posting inappropriate photos, and pretending to be someone else was not cyber-bullying. Parents have a role in educating kids on the right way to behave online, and a major factor in that is knowing the right questions to ask. Parents should familiarise themselves with the online landscape, and know what risks are presented by what platforms.

With lower barriers to entry via mobile devices and pre-paid data plans, Internet penetration in Asia has exploded, and it is set to grow with the next generation of “digital natives”. An overwhelming majority of an estimated 500 million children in its emerging Asia markets will be accessing the Internet for the first time via mobile in the coming decade. Within the next three years alone, up to 85 million children are expected to be introduced to the Internet via mobile in its global markets.

Operators have a responsibility to ensure children’s safety on the Internet. A company like Telenor, for example, works with multiple stakeholders to deliver on that commitment. With other leading ICT players, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, it is a partner in the European Commission’s CEO Coalition to make the Internet a better place for kids.

Safer Internet Day was observed on February 10, 2015. Now is the time for a region-wide discussion on how to keep kids safe on the Internet.

The opportunities presented by the Internet outweigh the dangers, but all stakeholders – including parents, educators, regulators and telecoms operators – must commit to ensuring that our children are safe online.

(Sigve Brekke is executive vice-president and head of Asia operations, of the Telenor Group)

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 4:05:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-doubleedged-sword/article7050403.ece

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