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Keep children safe online - Stakeholders urged

BY: Ama Amankwah Baafi
Mrs Jacqueline Hanson Kotei,Senior Manager, Enterprise Information Security at MTN
Mrs Jacqueline Hanson Kotei, Senior Manager, Enterprise Information Security at MTN

The Executive Director of Child Online Africa, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Ms Awo Aidam Amenyah, has said to fully protect children from online harm or exposure to unacceptable online risk, all relevant stakeholders must be informed, empowered and engaged.

In particular, she said the COVID-19 pandemic had underscored the urgent need for action because children and young people spent more time online, and so did online predators.

Therefore, it was important for parents and family caregivers to endeavour to understand the online environment to be able to monitor children’s activities.

“Monitor your child’s acclivities online, limit their access and implement parental control,” she advised during a virtual cybersecurity awareness engagement.

Ms Amenya also noted that many children did not have the means to connect with the outside world or benefited from the opportunities the internet offered.

She said the digital divide went beyond issues of connectivity to being strongly linked to digital skills and digital literacy of children and families.

“Children must be granted access, skills, education and protection online. They need to be equipped and engaged in digital skills and digital literacy programmes which include safety and protection measures,” she said.

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The engagement

The media engagement was part of MTN’s bright conversation on cybersecurity. It was organised by the Network of Communication Reporters (NCR) in collaboration with the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA).

The engagement, which was supported by MTN Ghana, brought together media practitioners to discuss the safety of children on the internet.

Ms Amenyah explained that the engagement was expected to promote an Africa-wide education and awareness on the importance of child online safety; raise awareness with governments, industry, educators, children and parents to ensure the African child is safe and secure online while online; and to design strategies to empower and support the African child's resilience building.

“Other objectives are to develop, share or contextualise available resources to support children’s learning and education,” she said.

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Ensuring safer internet

The Senior Manager, Enterprise Information Security at MTN, Mrs Jacqueline Hanson Kotei, said cyberattacks and the COVID-19 pandemic had a lot in common as they were both essentially pandemics.

She said just like the COVID-19 outbreak, cybersecurity attacks also took place on a global scale and happened every few seconds.

“Just like the coronavirus spreads from person to person, cybersecurity malware too can spread rapidly from computer to computer and network to network. Cyberattacks have the potential to put you out of business, just like the current coronavirus pandemic is doing to businesses everywhere,” she said.

Consequently, to stay safe online, she said users needed to stayup-to-date- and not ignore those important update notifications.

“Keep your operating system, anti-virus software, and other applications updated so that you don't miss out on critical security enhancements.” “Think before you click- be wary of strange links and email attachments. If you don’t know where the email is coming from, be extra wary before you open it,” she advised.

She added it was important for internet users to create strong passwords by choosing long, complex passwords and also change them often.


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Child Online Protection

Meanwhile, a new feature has been added to an internet policing mechanism adopted by countries around the globe to help promote the safety of children and young people while they surf the internet.

Known as the Child Online Protection (COP) initiative, a multistakeholder expert working-group that took into consideration the special situation of children with disabilities and issues around new technological developments, introduced the new feature, a mascot.

The mascot, was introduced to the system after 10 years of analysing the first publication of the COP.

According to Ms Amenyah, the COP initiative has a vision to create a world where children can be connected and are able to fully benefit from the opportunities of a trusted and safe online environment.


Risks and harms

A recent study found that 17 per cent of parents disclosed their children had been a victim of cyberbullying.

Indeed, in some countries, that figure was as high as 37 per cent.

The 2017 DQ Impact Report states that 56 per cent of eight to 12 years across 29 countries have at least one cyber-risk on average, including cyberbullying, video-game addiction, sexual behaviours, and offline meetings.

One in five children aged between nine and 17 see unwanted sexual material online and 25 per cent of them reported experiencing extreme fear or distress.

Also, a 2019 study found that 99 per cent of online terms and conditions were written in language too complex for children to understand and the number of illegal images and videos confirmed by INHOPE’s Internet Hotlines increased by 83 per cent from 2016 to 2018.

Ms Amenyah cited the use of software programmes to edit for abuse, use of file transfer software to share it and the use of internet platforms and online image stores to distribute as some of the devices used to inflict abuse on children.

“A group of people create the demand. Another group meets the supply. We all have a duty to stop this content and protect the African child,” she said.


Pillars for COP implementation

The five strategic pillars to implement the guidelines are based on legal measures, technical and procedural measures, organisational structures, capacity building and international cooperation.

“A strong and comprehensive child protection legislative framework in place at national level to address issues of Internet safety.”

“The fact that children and young people are communicating using several platforms, their protection is made paramount by default,” the initiative states.

It states that good organisational structures need to be in place at national level to facilitate the infrastructure for safe and trustworthy digital space.

Also, there is need for an effective awareness raising strategy to be in place at national level taking into consideration a country’s peculiar needs.

Again, since the internet knows no boundaries, the COP initiative posits that online child abuse is a global crime that requires international collaboration.

Among identified key stakeholders for the COP are children and young people, parents, guardians and educators, government ministries, industry and connectivity providers and research and academia.

The rest are non-governmental organisations, law enforcement agencies and health and social services, among per country needs.