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COVID-19 lockdown exposes millions of children to online risk

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Millions of children are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

This is according the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide, and its partners.

“The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented rise in screen time,” says Global Partnership to End Violence executive director Dr Howard Taylor. “School closures and strict containment measures mean more and more families are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world, but not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online.”

According to the UN agency, more than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide.

It says many of these students are now taking classes as well as socialising more online.

Spending more time on virtual platforms can leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and grooming, as predators look to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic, says UNICEF.

A lack of face-to-face contact with friends and partners may lead to heightened risk-taking, such as sending sexualised images, while increased and unstructured time online may expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as a greater risk of cyber bullying, it notes.

“Under the shadow of COVID-19, the lives of millions of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens. We must help them navigate this new reality,” says UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore.

“We call on governments and industry to join forces to keep children and young people safe online through enhanced safety features and new tools to help parents and educators teach their children how to use the Internet safely.”

In SA, UNICEF says the current lockdown may put children’s privacy in danger as they spend more time online.

It explains that they may be more likely to encounter online risks, including being exposed to child sexual abuse material, or child sexual abuse and exploitation. And while sharing images and stories of lockdown and its challenges through social media is a way to stay connected, children’s rights to privacy and protection should not be compromised, the agency says.

“This lockdown is a time for parents to be proactive in speaking to their children about online safety, how to change settings to “private, friends or contacts only”, or prevent spam or unwanted sexual content,” says chief of child protection at UNICEF South Africa Mayke Huijbregts.

“By paying attention to the different things that children do online – increased communication, game-playing, learning – we are better placed to manage the time that children spend online. Promoting positive online and recreational use, and building children’s skills to stay safe online, will serve them well after the lockdown is lifted,” she says.

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