#SaferInternetDay calls for more vigilance as generative AI takes off

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 07 Feb 2024
Research shows 70% cyber-risk exposure rates are among 8-18-year-old children and youth.
Research shows 70% cyber-risk exposure rates are among 8-18-year-old children and youth.

The emergence of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) has shone a spotlight on online safety and social ills that might impact young people.

This comes as the world marked Safer Internet Day (SID) yesterday, with increased calls to put children’s rights at the heart of the development and regulation of new digital products.

Some key developments in recent years revolve around AI, with virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality (XR) applications emerging in all sectors of society, from leisure to learning.

Generative AI took the market by storm through the introduction of ChatGPT in November 2022. Tech companies are also racing to embed GenAI capabilities into the platforms, tools, apps, and products that consumers use every day.

Google last week announced the launch of Gemini Pro, its multimodal AI model, marking an upgrade to its Bard AI chatbot. One of the new features allows users to generate images in Bard.

Despite the many benefits of AI and virtual worlds, reports indicate potential downsides, such as the risk of bad actors behaving inappropriately.

Mama Fatima Singhateh, UN Special Rapporteur on sale and sexual exploitation of children, says the boom in generative AI and XR is constantly evolving, enabling the harmful production and distribution of child sexual abuse and exploitation in the digital realm.

“The internet and digital platforms can be a double-edged sword for children and young people. It can allow them to positively interact and further develop as autonomous human beings, claiming their own space. While also facilitate age-inappropriate content and online sexual harms of children by adults and peers.”

Singhateh highlights that the volume of reported child sexual abuse material has increased by 87% since 2019, according to WeProtect Global Alliance’s Global Threat Assessment 2023.

“A review of numerous studies, publications and reports has revealed the intensification of manifestations of harm and exposure of online child sexual abuse and exploitation, both in terms of scale and method.

“It includes the risk of child sexual abuse and exploitation material, grooming and soliciting children for sexual purposes, online sexual harassment, intimate image abuse, financial sexual extortion and the use of technology-assisted child sexual abuse and exploitation material.”

Child Online Safety Index

Research conducted by cyber security company Surfshark found that countries with an overall higher standard of digital life often display greater child online safety. Those ranking in the top tier of the Child Online Safety Index (COSI) average 0.6 out of 1 on the Digital Quality of Life (DQL) index scale, while countries with a low COSI average only 0.3 in DQL.

However, in some countries, a high quality of digital life does not ensure a high level of online protection for children. In total, 19 countries in the top two tiers of the DQL find themselves in the two lowest categories of the COSI index scale.

Dr Yuhyun Park, founder of the DQ Institute, comments: “We have witnessed seven years of consistently high, 70% cyber-risk exposure rates among 8-18-year-old children and youth. We now refer to this phenomenon as a ‘persistent cyber-pandemic’.

“Today, with the fast deployment of generative AI, the metaverse, and XR-like pervasive devices, digital technology is changing children’s lives even more, yet there is minimal discussion regarding their potential harmful effects. Global coordinated action, akin to addressing climate challenges, is imperative, and we can no longer delay.”

“In an age where our children leave their digital footprints before they can walk, ensuring their online journey is safe is not just a responsibility but also a crucial obligation. Systematic measures are essential to safeguard children in the digital space – not only in their immediate environments, such as family and school but also at national and global levels,” says Agneska Sablovskaja, lead researcher at Surfshark.

Safer internet

Celebrated annually on the second day of the second week of the second month, Safer Internet Day was started as an initiative of the EU SafeBorders project in 2004. Now it is celebrated in around 150 countries worldwide, including South Africa.

The annual campaign advocates for a safer and more positive internet for everyone, particularly children.It also encourages the coming together of different stakeholders – parents and carers, teachers and educators, researchers, industry, civil society, decision makers and law enforcement – and their role in creating a better internet.

Within the context of South Africa, digital skills organisation Digify Africa COO Qhakaza Mohare says SID is significant because of the reports of cyber bullying, in which, in some cases, the victims commit suicide.

“[The] day helps encourage good digital citizenship amongst internet users and build a better world for everyone. The internet has changed how people access information and interact with each other. However, some people tend to misuse the internet and abuse other users. The significance of this day is that it teaches people to educate themselves about the dangers of the internet, like cyber bullying, spam, fake news, and hacking, amongst others.”

Asked about the impact of the prevalence of generative AI in regards to online safety, Mohare notes that even though technology offers numerous benefits, it also poses challenges and risks that must be addressed.

“Some of the potential impacts on online safety include misinformation - generative AI can be used to create realistic fake videos and images, as such, spreading misinformation.

Cyber security concerns and fake content generation – addressing these challenges requires a collaborative effort from technology developers, policymakers, and organisations like Digify Africa to teach people.

“All the stakeholders should come together to ensure everyone is protected online against abuse. The laws in place are supposed to be implemented without fear and favour; this can assist in the productive use of the internet.”

For the ITU’s guidelines on child online protection, click here.