Child abuse is considered to be despicable. The prominent media coverage given to such crimes, the public outcry, the preventive training given provided in schools, the particular attention of parents etc. are clear signs that abuse is taken seriously. I heartily subscribe to all of this with one important caveat.

It is undoubtedly correct to say that physical and sexual abuse is not tolerated but do we have the same strong attitude against other possible forms of abuse? We are doing are best to make our streets, schools, homes etc. safer for children but are we attentive enough to make cyberspace safe for children?  Are the tools provided by the industry and which can then be used by children and parents adequate?

Unfortunately the answer is in the negative. A new report by the pan-European research group, EU Kids on Line project shows that existing reporting tools on the Internet aimed at helping children who face problems online do not work.

The report “Towards a better internet for children” surveys the strategies used by industry to protect young users from online risk and examines whether there is evidence that these strategies work and reduce the online risks and harm experienced by children based on interviews with 25,000 children and parents across 25 European countries.

The report shows that only 13% of children who were upset by material they came across while surfing on the internet felt confident enough to report their problem through an online reporting mechanism. The study also reveals that one in five children have seen potentially dangerous internet content such as websites which promote anorexia and suicide techniques.

This report was released on July 10 to coincide with the meeting that was hosted by the European Commission. In fact on July 11th the Internet industry presented a report about their efforts to keep children safe online. 

“Towards a better internet for children” researched parents as well as children. When parents were asked about what worried them a lot about their children, their  top five concerns were school achievement, road accidents, bullying (on or offline) and crime. Online risks – being contacted by strangers or seeing inappropriate content – come fourth and fifth in the list of nine worries. One in three parents say they worry about these risks a lot. Parents worried more about online risk than they were worried by alcohol, drugs, getting into trouble with the police and sexual activities.

“Towards a better internet for children” also showed that when children actually reported problems resulting from contacts met online they were generally dissatisfied with the help received from online services. Only two thirds of children who reported content or conduct risks found the response helpful, though one third did not. Those reporting sexual images were a little more positive about the help received than those reporting conduct risks (sexting, cyber-bullying).

The role of that parents play in their children’s internet use is very important.  Such parental mediation can take different forms, for example they can do activities on line with their children. They can  encourage their children to learn things on their own while remaining available if needed. These and other forms of help have been shown to  reduce the probability of children’s exposure to online risks at all ages, and it is also linked to decreased experiences of harm among 9 to 12 year olds without reducing their exposure to the positives of online activity.

The study clearly shows that the industry is not doing enough to help parents help their children and to empower children themselves against abuse. During the July 11 meeting with the industry it transpired that some progress had been registered but much more has to be done. A number of targets were set up in the hope that more progress will be achieved.

It is not only legitimate but also dutiful to put all possible pressure on the industry to fulfil its duty towards children. On the other hand, it is not acceptable for parents to use the industry’s failings as a justification for not doing their utmost to help their children.

Malta had not been invited to be part of the study referred to above. Fortunately we now are part of the project as we also need to discover more about what children are doing online and the best way to help them. Following the footsteps of these other European countries we can then refer to industry and policy makers to urgently address the best interest of our children.

 On a positive note it’s good to point out that parents who are interested in getting help on the subject can do so through Appogg or if more convenient from www.besmartonline.org.mt .

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