Sep 26, 2008, 6:18 AM
The experience of children and young people on the Internet and interactive technologies is largely positive - young people making the best of the new opportunities to connect, explore and learn. There is no doubt that these online and interactive technologies bring great benefits - enhancing the spread of information, education, creativity and entertainment.
Make-IT-Safe campaigners indicate that on a global scale, children and young people represent one of the largest groups of users of new information technologies - especially of the Internet, email, peer 2 peer communications, newsgroups, chat rooms, web cams and, of course, mobile phones. In Africa, mobile phones already outnumber fixed lines and constitute more than 80% of all African telephone subscribers - a higher ratio than on any other continent.
As in the physical world, in the virtual world, adults intent on contacting children enter into the places that children go and there they identify the potentially vulnerable, unsuspecting and trusting child.
As children spend increasing amounts of time in exploring new applications of technology and innovative forms of communication, this prolonged exposure to the virtual environment makes them increasingly susceptible to various forms of violence and harm, such as virtual bullying, grooming and sexual exploitation. The danger that this poses for children is evident in the large number of cases reported regarding sexual solicitation of children online. Child abuse images are further evidence of this violence that is committed against children in cyberspace.
It is evident that the positive and negative forces that operate in real life manifest themselves in this virtual space. Thus in order to better protect children it is important to know how young people interact and experience this realm. As technology evolves the nature of the involvement and its impacts will also change and thus these must be monitored to ensure appropriate responses. The work of organizations such as ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation has shown that the benefits of the Internet, mobile phones and interactive technologies are being off-set by the downside- the harmful, dangerous and often illegal exchanges made easier by these new technologies and which put children at great risk.
The arrival of the Internet and now the third generation (3G) mobile phones in the Gambia is certainly welcomed and should be able to provide the public with greater Internet access and access to relevant services that will help reduce the digital divide that exist. However, like every innovation and 'good' thing, we have to be prepared for its unintended and unforeseen consequences which expose children and young people to serious risks. Like in other countries where technology is mainstreamed after a few years of deployment and becoming readily available and affordable, the risks will be more widespread, not being restricted to the wealthy few who had access.
Children in The Gambia now do not need a computer or fixed telephone line to access the Internet. They can enter the virtual world through a well equipped mobile phone or smart phones. This evolving situation thus raises many issues for consideration with regard to protecting children everywhere against the potential risks posed by 3G technology. The 3G mobile phones will give us increased connectivity (at a much faster rate and with more Internet services such as streaming media and ability to download clips and movies, including the ability to do video conferencing through the built in camera of the mobile devices) and will blur the line between a simple telephone and Internet access. The technology will also allow an 'always on' functionality. However, these 'benefits' have the potential to be exploited by criminals who want to remain 'mobile' while uploading or downloading illegal content at the same time being undetected if such services do not require registration.
Adults use Internet chat rooms, dating boards and mobile phones to contact and 'groom' children and young people for sexual abuse. The existence of Web-cameras and digital cameras on mobile phones add new and harmful dimensions to instant communications across the globe. Sex exploiters can now provide 'real time' photos and moving images of the sexual exploitation of children - giving instant access to viewers around the world, who pay to take part in this live sexual abuse of the child.
Images of child pornography on the Internet or circulated by mobile phones and peer2peer systems never go away - they are infinitely replicable and indelible and live forever to confront the child, with devastating consequences. Thus, preventing and suppressing child pornography and other forms of online abuse through the misuse of these technologies is urgent because these images of abuse will accompany children for the rest of their life.
The ICT industry in this country needs to act now to ensure children and young people enjoy the benefits of new information technologies without risk of harm. This industry has an obligation to develop standards, protocols and working tools to help parents, teachers and children to stay safe online, to engage in a wide-ranging education and awareness campaign regarding child safety in cyberspace.
Our GSM operators, especially those who have or are contemplating introducing 3G, should think of introducing an age-verification system for all handsets connected to their networks. Adult content should not be made available to a child through the mobile services and one should provide credential to show that they are over 18 to remove the filters.
They can also take the following step: pre-install filtering and rating systems on all their network servers- block access to all known child pornography sites using blocking software (as being implemented by many global mobile operators such as in the UK); use 'Walled gardens' to restrict access to any material that has not specifically been endorsed by trained professionals; and establish a Code of Conduct for ensuring protection of children through their services,
The Government, for its part, should adopt policies to ensure that the ICT industry makes its products and services safe for children and young people and frame a Code of Conduct particularly for Internet Cafes which serves to provide the primary form of access to the Internet for a vast number of individuals in The Gambia.
Many children who do not own a mobile phone or computer still go online or play games through Internet cafes. Some prefer to use a cafe even if they have access to a computer at home or school. Concerns are rising in various locations about children looking for and downloading age-inappropriate, harmful or illegal materials while in these public places, as well as their unsupervised engagement in online interactions with unknown people. Internet cafes should be required to operate according to safety guidelines and to implement protection measures, including the use of software to filter and block pornographic and other offensive materials; set up user registries and put up signs that prohibit the viewing of pornography in the café. These should become cardinal operating procedures and standards to which Internet Café owners should abide by.
Schools, parents and the media (radio and television) should teach the children the Internet's positive and negative elements in today's world and how they can protect themselves while online.
Children should also know that mobile phones are not only about 'connecting people' but provides a much wider range of activities and social dynamics online including being subjected to online harassment or cyber bullying, 'sexting' and approached by perpetrators intending to harm a child sexually. In essence, the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, in collaboration with the Ministry of Informtion, Communication and Information Technology, PURA and Internet Service Providers in the country, should develop and introduce Internet safety programmes in schools and complement this with action to ensure the protection of children at home.
Children has the right to information and also rights to express their opinion, hence it is relevant that these new technologies like 3G have a special appeal for them and should be made available to them but with careful consideration and protection mechanism in place so that they are safeguarded from the risks that these technologies bring.
It is clear that children and young people are major and constant users of the Internet and form the bulk of mobile phone owners.
I agree with John Carr who wrote about this subject in a July 2004 ECPAT Newsletter that all stakeholders should "start thinking about the Internet as if it were a main street or town square, not a night club. Website home pages should be thought of as public spaces, rather like shop windows.
If we can gain acceptance for this idea, it has profound implications for global Internet policies and would mark the evolution of the Internet from wild frontier to civilization."
It is a truism that the Internet is not an actor in its own right. It is merely a technological tool, a conduit and so is not to blame for its wrong use. It has brought, and continues to bring huge benefits to society in general, and to children and young people in particular.
It is only through human agencies, through deliberate or accidental acts, that the Internet is being turned for harmful use.
Internet Serve Providers, GSM Operators and other ICT providers in The Gambia have a moral responsibility to ensure that their goods and services are safe for children and young people everywhere.
We want the "World Wide Web in the hand" to be safe. In view of the way young people use this new technology, it needs to be made even safer than the web accessed from a desk. Only by working together and seeing child protection as everyone's obligation will we succeed.