Safeguarding children online is a new and growing challenge

Published 12.10.2017 02:10

While growing internet access has brought about a number of benefits for children in terms of socialization, receiving and imparting information, exploring information and other areas, it does also present a number of safety issues in terms of encountering harmful content, unsafe adults and identity theft among many other issues. Given children's interest in digital devices from very young ages, in the event of a lack of parental supervision and effective local and global safeguarding mechanisms and filtering systems, they are at risk of being exposed to a range of online risks which could a have significant impact on their present and future life and well-being.

In the last two centuries there have been a significant number of developments, both at the legal and political level, aimed at protecting children and promoting their welfare across the world. Nevertheless, the range of issues affecting children have not diminished, on the contrary, there has been an emergence of new complex issues affecting children in light of the advances made in technology, media and communication. Children's online safety is one of these issues which is presenting as an ever-growing challenge that all countries and safeguarding bodies around the world are facing on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, both regulatory and advisory bodies in this field are constantly exploring and reviewing effective and up to date ways of keeping children safe online considering the very fast development of online opportunities and risks.

Unfortunately, due to the constant and very fast evolvement of the e-world and associated risks, this is not an easy area that countries and child protection authorities can easily keep up with in terms of timely development of strategies, policies or laws to tackle concerns in this area and produce timely protective measures.

What are the current measures?Despite the shortfalls in this area, there are a number of regulatory treaties and bodies which outlines the basic expectations and standards when it comes to the safeguarding of children from all sorts of harm and promotion of their rights across the world. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is a crucial milestone in this regard. The convention, which was introduced and signed in 1989 at the U.N. General Council and came into effect on Sept. 2, 1999, is significant because it does not only set out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children but it also requires that states act in the best interests of the child and ensure that they are safeguarded from all sorts of harm. Currently, 196 countries are party to this treaty, including every member of the United Nations except the United States.

Subsequently, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, which is a protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and requires parties to prohibit the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. The protocol came into force on Jan. 18, 2002 and currently 171 states are party to this protocol and another nine have signed but not ratified it. This protocol is significant in terms of specifically addressing certain issues which have been affecting children increasingly in recent years and putting the party states under the responsibility to take appropriate measures to safeguard children in these areas. Turkey ratified the UNCRC on April 4, 1995. Turkey is also a party to the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography by ratifying it on Feb. 20, 2009 and Aug. 19, 2002, respectively.

Furthermore, there is extensive work undertaken by the Council of Europe, which was founded in 1949 to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law in its member states. The organization has also been functional in safeguarding and the promotion of children rights. The Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse is a significant treaty in line with which states agree to criminalize certain forms of sexual abuse against children. The convention, which is the first international treaty that addresses child sexual abuse occurring within the home or family, was signed on Oct. 25, 2007, and has been signed by all of the 47 member states, but ratified by only 39 states so far. Turkey has ratified this treaty.

As another significant step, the first works around the safe use of internet were developed by the Council of Europe with Safer Internet Programme. Since 1999, the Safer Internet Programme finances projects that aim to develop strategies that will promote safer internet use. The main aims of this program are to ensure safe use of the internet and other communication technologies by children, to educate children, parents, trainers and other users as part of the program and to combat illegal content and harmful communications channels. In line with this, INHOPE, which is active and collaborative network of 51 hotlines in 45 countries, dealing with illegal content online and committed to stamping out child sexual abuse from the internet. Also, INSAFE is also co-funded by this program acting as the European network of Awareness Centres to promote safe, responsible use of the internet and mobile devices to young people. Currently, the network has awareness centers in 30 countries. While Turkey is a member of INHOPE it does not appear to be a member of INSAFE.

In addition, the Convention on Cybercrime provides another solid base to member countries to tackle online offences against children. The convention is significant for being the first international treaty to tackle crimes committed via the internet and other computer networks, including child pornography and hate crimes. Turkey is a party to this convention.

Lack of specific attention to online risksThere are a number of other protocols and conventions aimed at indirectly promoting the protection of children from significant harm, however, from doing some review in this area, there does not seem to be a specific protocol or treaty that solely addresses the risks to children and measures that needs to be undertaken to respond to these risks. Similarly, the Council of Europe Strategy for the Rights of the Child 2016-2021 report reveals how guidelines are yet to be developed in this area to ensure that member states are provided with documents to use in school settings to maximize children's safe time online. Outlining how the digital world offers children boundless learning and connectivity opportunities as well as challenges of real concerns due to a lack of effective monitoring on the information and material accessible to children and unsafe connections that children may encounter, the report reiterates the responsibilities of member states in line with the Council of Europe Internet Governance Strategy 2016-2019. The report also makes references to how the internet and social media are used contemporarily to feed hate speech, radicalization and terrorism among young people and how the Council is updating its work to put measures in place in the educational field to address the issues.

Although the Council of Europe Conventions and Protocols as well as U.N. conventions and protocols provide a solid basis for the protection of children from a risk of significant harm both in real life and in the digital world, the number of online crimes and range of online risks affecting children remains a significant area of concern across the world.

* Ph.D. candidate in media studies at Westminster University

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter