The Internet and mobile technologies have made great inroads in the life of young people and Africa is no exception. The continent presents unique characteristics in terms of the understanding of these technologies, their deployment and the interventions (or the lack of) for making the online environment safe for children. Also the social norms, existing practices influence the uptake of these technologies and applications. Besides, the appeal of online platform being universal the trends and patterns of the online experience of children and young people in Africa bears remarkable resemblance with rest of the world.
Children and young people who have been actively involved in activities conducted in Africa focusing on their empowerment, education and development of codes of conduct and awareness raising initiatives for the private sector, will participate in the workshop enabling a direct access to testimonies and share of experiences and also to the issues they face every day while using the Internet (cyberbulling, privacy issues, exposure to inappropriate content (hateful, violent, discriminatory, pornographic, etc.), explicit or suggestive self-exposure, etc. The forum will also draw from the experience of a typical child both from the African continent and from other regions and allow us to explore how they witness the digital revolution around them to guide us in developing suitable measures for them.
The workshop aims to collect recommendations for the duty bearers coming directly from these young people in order to reach policy makers for developing appropriate protecting mechanisms while providing the channels to them for self expression, creativity and positive use of the Internet and guiding them towards becoming better digital citizens of the future. Additionally, it will examine the current set of strategies that exist within the ICT policies that can be enhanced for strengthening the protection of children.
The participation of expert representing the western countries is also expected to raise very interesting points marking the striking resemblance and contrasts with the experience of children in the those regions and the interventions that had been developed in that context.
Findings from a research paper that is expected to be commissioned soon, outlining the situation of children in Africa in terms of their protection in the online environment, analyzing the growth of ICTs and its social dimensions is also expected to be presented at the workshop.
ECPAT International supported by ITU and partnering with UNICEF organized a panel bringing in youth panelists from Costa Rica, Congo, Nigeria, Uganda and Ukraine. Also in the panel were representatives from Facebook and Connect Safely.org. ECPAT chaired this session.ITU COP initiative supported the participation of the young people in the panel.
This session was attended by more than 50 participants in the audience from global child protection agencies, government of Kenya and other representatives such as IT private sector, Mobile phone industry and independent experts.
The objective of the session was:
1) To get a better understand of the different forms of ICT that children and young people are using globally. What are the distinct features and variances across the globe in terms of accessibility and type of use
2) Understand the vulnerability that might arise during their exploration of online environment. Also to find out how young people aim to communicate with other young people, the challenges they face, how they overcome such issues and to understand the various conditions that are prevalent in developing countries which forces the children and young people to adopt or embrace particular form of ICTs
3) Revisit some of the advocacy models and messaging targeted towards youth and to see if those make sense for them. The young people chosen for the workshop panel were representative of the children and young people of their community and were expected to highlight trends and patterns that they observe among their peers.
4) Learn from Private sector (in this workshop, Facebook was the chosen representative of the IT sector and the social media segment) in terms of how do they see their role in protecting children online, what current mechanisms exist to make their services better for children and how their policies and practices varied across regions to address country legislations. The workshop provided a direct interface for children and young people to raise their concerns and issues to the private sector and to hear firsthand about the initiatives from their side and which concerns are being addressed with priorities.
The workshop had 5 young panelist from different backgrounds. Among the various things that were presented to the audience, some key ones involved :
1) Sharing the views on the importance of the Internet and online interactions : in the eye of a 14 year old girl from costa rica, who had won a prize for producing a video showcasing what online access means to a child and what could be done to safeguard such activities. The video emphasized on creative use of the Internet amongst children and young people and how they would like to see the online world provide a safer conduit for them to share information and connect with their peers. There was an open call to all the adults present at the meeting to work together to make the technologies safer for minors. Clearly there was a strong desire to use the Internet and it was seen as a very positive medium for expression and creativity.
2) ECPAT young representative from Ukraine shared the initiatives in her country to raise awareness amongst children and youth. Highlights of such activities were working with cyber-clubs , engaging youth in theatre style performance to educate their peers on online risks, through the Youth Partnership Project (YPP) reaching out to children and other young people and organizing competition with themes of Internet Safety. She also stressed the role of the recently created internet reporting hotline in Ukraine that is working together with the law enforcement and challenges regarding financial issues for the sustainability of such projects.
3) ECPAT young representative from Uganda, who is also a member of the board of ECPAT, shared some of the highlights of the study that ECPAT conducted in 5 countries of Africa among children, cyber cafes and teachers to assess the risks and vulnerabilities while navigating the online world through ICTs. He reaffirmed that the acceptance and usage of the Internet, particularly the social networks like Facebook is increasing and children are either using their mobile phones for accessing such networks (as in Uganda and Congo) where the social networks have started providing free access to mobile phone owners due to otherwise high data costs. It was also highlighted that level of awareness in African countries on the risks related to internet use is still quite low, as evident from the results obtained by surveying cybercafé managers and Teachers in schools. The quality of information available to children to safeguard their online interactions needs to be improved. Also there is a lack of framework among the ICT providers in the countries surveyed (including cybercafés and mobile operators) to secure the operating environments for children. This includes lack or reporting mechanisms, filtering solutions and awareness materials as well as operating schedules and times, guidelines for children and families and necessary resources to tackle exploitation of children online.
The presentation also highlighted some unique characteristics of African children while they surf online- Looking for dating partners from Western countries that could provide future opportunities to migrate as well as being receptive to calls from unknown contacts through chats, social medium knowingly that they are adults. These are definitely areas of concern when it comes to protecting them from sexual exploitation. It was highlighted that downloading of movies which are sometimes pornographic in nature is a common phenomenon in the cybercafés, and such materials are distributed through USB drives among the peers to save the Internet costs.
4) The young person from Congo (supported by UNICEF and ITU) shared his experience as coming from a country which has just emerged out of political conflict. Realising the fact that the electricity is interrupted for the most part of the day, youth are turning to mobile phones that are providing them with the connectivity options. They are using online applications like skype , msn and facebook to keep in touch with other young people in their country and the usage is growing at a steady pace. Considering the high data cost of the Internet through the ISPs and also from the cybercafés, the youth are turning to mobile phones to keep their communications alive. It was mentioned that the availability of facebook zero as free service provided through the mobile phones to Facebook users is a key driving force to allow these young people to go online.
5) The representative from Nigeria, gave a different perspective to the panel. He elaborated that the youth of Nigeria is trying their best to paint a different picture of the country which is tainted with the online frauds and scams and being the more computer savvy section of the community, the youth is working with the law enforcement to prevent such crimes and also to educate other peers to use the Internet positively. It was highlighted that the Nigerian youth needs support from the international community in their fight against crimes and through the efforts of the Nigerian crime watch, a youth led organization, efforts are made to sensitize community, particularly children and young people to direct their technical abilities and skills to empower the adults and other young people so that they can create a new society with digital skills that can be used in an ethical way.
6) The representative of Facebook was given some guiding questions by the chair of the panel (represented by ECPAT International) to share with the audience – about the importance paid by social networks like Facebook on protection of children, what are the guidelines they adhere to and how they plan to engage children and young people in their work. Responding to the questions , the Facebook representative (the policy director for EMEA region) said that they are very much focused on building communications between individuals but keeping certain policies observed. He explained that the user base constitutes only about 20% from the 13-18 year olds, among the 800 million registered user they have.
He said that Facebook has zero tolerance for nudity and pornography (did not mention child pornography separately) .They clearly have no space for children under 13 years of age (even though admitting that it is difficult to restrict individuals signing up with adults permission and faking their age. The content for 13-18 year olds are restricted in the sense that the privacy settings only allow them to link to friends of friends and for 18 year and above they are left open to communicate with anyone. Facebook uses photoDNA developed by Microsoft and used by NCMEC in the USA to flag child abuse images to identify when someone uploads known child abuse images onto the network and is taken down immediately. If they are notified of content that is illegal in nature not intercepted by photoDNA, then such materials are taken down in consultation with relevant law enforcement agencies. Face book also has paid importance to creating guidelines and help centres for providing help to children and parents if they need advice on safety and privacy settings. He also highlighted that the company works closely with a body of child protection agencies as a safety advisory group to guide their work and to help them in bringing the right messaging to children. In this context Facebook is eager to work with organizations like ECPAT International and to collaborate in regions such as CIS.
He admitted that by being in the panel and listening to the young people, he was reassured about the popularity of the social medium amongst children and young people, and excited to see the level of interaction among them in using it. This certainly had a very positive effect in enhancing some of the plans that they are already engaged in (such as strengthening the help centres, enhancing the privacy settings and creating better guidelines for children). Even though there are no immediate plans for the company to allow children below 13 officially into the social networking space, they recognize that there is a tremendous interest in that category. Relevant stakeholders( families, schools, NGOs etc.) must work together to make sure that relevant education is put in place so that such category of children are not harmed by having illegitimate entry into this space. Facebook will continue to strive to make their services better and work with the right people to ensure positive use of their service.
7) Connectsafely.org representative , the last speaker at the panel emphasized the need for empowerment of children and how to make them digital citizens, not creating a sense of moral panic. He mentioned that statistics and studies needs to balance the actual risks posed to children while using the technology tools and not being driven by scare tactics. We need to understand how children and young people think of their online situations, how they cope up with challenges and inspire those who do not have the right skills with training and capacity building. Stating the huge importance of the role of NGOs who provide care and rehabilitation for vicitims of child abuse images he added that those needs to be identified as special services that needs to be strengthened across the board. Through a very interesting analogy made through some pictures that he took at the Nairobi National park of different animals, he highlighted how children needs to be guided, nurtured and trained to use the Internet safely and that it is a collective duty of the society. Connect safely has educational materials for children and young people and also serve in the advisory panel of Facebook and creates guidelines and manuals for parents , teachers and young people to use the privacy settings of facebook which can be downloaded from their site.
The representative from UNICEP did the wrap up for the session thanking all the participants for their contribution and highlighting that the session managed to raise the understanding of the use of ICT and the vulnerabilities of young people from regions of whom we do not normally hear about.
The session had good participation from the audience who praised the group for putting a very informative session. They raised several questions to the panelist including the young people. The survey presented by ECPAT representative raised good interest both among the audience and international agencies such as UNICEF who showed keen interest in the study. The presentation from Nigeria and Congo also served to show how young people in Africa are overcoming traditional challenges in accessing ICTs and how they are currently engaged to make their involvement meaningful.
Young participant from the audience(from Finland) also commented that it was interesting for them to be part of session and to learn about other youth involvement at the IGF. He mentioned that the youth are already getting engaged in more systematic way through organizing workshops, forming coalitions and influencing the deliberations and discussions in various workshops at the forum.
A legal expert from germany enquired that watching this very successful session, what role would ITU play in sustaining such active participation in the future. This sentiment was echoed by others who felt that we need to keep the children and young people engaged in this type of gathering where their voice would be heard and acknowledged by the key people attending the forum from various disciplines such as governments, private sector industry and civil society including academicians and civil rights groups.
The chair highlighted that the opinions and views of the young people and their urge to have a more secure and safe environment would go beyond the session and will be very important takeaway for the more senior representatives who are in a decision making role at the IGF.
The session highlighted the following:
The need to engage young people in a meaningful way and have their voice heard.
Share some of the key activities that Child protection agencies undertakes globally and have the support and backing of a global experts. In this case the study with children in their use of ICT and exploring vulnerabilities and risks in African countries was shared and received very well. It also shows the conviction in carrying out such work.
Child and young people are increasingly using ICTs everywhere around the world and the services tailored for them need to incorporate their ideas and learn from them through effective consultation.
This type of forum is extremely helpful and should be repeated in future IGF and with increased child and youth participation that allows them to make meaningful contributions at the policy making forum.