Building a safe Internet: a challenge and a possibility

As head of Communications for UNICEF Argentina, the challenge of promoting Internet access to all children has been one of my main motivations. Perhaps because, although I do not belong to the digital generation, I was aware from a very young age of the enormous possibilities that technological innovation can offer children and teenagers: in the 1980s, my mother was part of the first group of teachers in Argentina to incorporate computers in their classrooms for primary education.

The current generation of teenagers is quite different from that of the ‘80s, having been born with access to new information technologies, the ability to use various communication media simultaneously and constant interaction with multiple computer screens, which we have shown in a number of studies conducted by our team, such as Encuesta a Adolescentes sobre Consumo de Medios (Teen Survey on Media Consumption).

Moreover, in Argentina, household access to computers and the Internet have grown considerably in the last five years, reaching more than 6 in 10 households, while nearly every household in the country has a television and access to a mobile phone.

Both the Internet and social media networks can be wonderful tools for young people to exercise their rights. For adults, they represent both an opportunity and a challenge: to accompany young boys and girls on this journey of learning. The people best positioned to safeguard young people from bad experiences online are those who are responsible for their care and development. And our team at UNICEF is working to support and promote this situation.

In this sense, we at UNICEF not only carry out studies to gather up-to-date, valid data in order to guide public policy, but we also forge partnerships with both the public and private sectors to raise awareness among children, families, educators and society about digital citizenship. From Argentina, we have joined global partnerships such as Digitally Connected together with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Global Kids On-Line in order to establish collective and participatory working networks to create and disseminate knowledge.

These activities are particularly relevant, considering that, according to our studies – of 1,100 young people from urban centres throughout the entire country – some 93.4 per cent said they use the Internet, and more than 60 per cent said that they are online every day. Facebook is the most widely used social network, with children spending a significant part of their day using it; from two to eight hours or, as some put it, “all of my free time.” Moreover, nearly 7 in 10 said that they use new communication media in order to have “better” contact with their friends, who number, on average, from 600 to 1,000. This is to say that an important part of their socialisation is taking place through digital media.

It is also important to note that the perception of teens regarding parental involvement shows, on the one hand, a lack of family support and, on the other, the challenge for adults to provide guidance without being invasive. The data show that 6 in 10 children use the Internet without adult supervision and that, of those who are supervised, only 4.3 per cent of carry out online activities together with adults. Considering that half of the boys and girls surveyed made new “friends” online and of those, 3 in 5 had met personally, and that 23.4 per cent said that they had experienced discrimination, insults or harassment on a social network, this makes it clear that there is a need for more profound action to promote adult supervision in the digital world.

The Internet offers an endless range of possibilities—communication, socialisation, education — but it requires that both schools and families provide direction, supervision and guidance for teens in terms of responsible, proactive, respectful and safe use of new technologies.

Today, as we mark Safer Internet Day, we know that we have learned a great deal since our first contact with computer screens in the 1980s, but there is still a long way to go before every child and teen can enjoy digital citizenship to the fullest.

María José Ravalli is Chief of Communication at UNICEF Argentina

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