Online Predators Putting Children at Risk During COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown

Self-isolation has driven more and more children to move online during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to an unprecedented rise in screen time and raising safety risks for millions of young people, according to Child Rights defenders.

More than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide. 1.5 million of these are in Uganda, where schools have been closed since March 18. Many of these are now online taking classes and socializing, a trend which is likely to continue for the next 21 days, after the extension of the lockdown. 

“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”, said Howard Taylor, Executive Director of the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children. 

She added that spending more time on virtual platforms can leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation as predators capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic. “We must help them navigate this new reality”, she added. 

Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) equally observed that the lives of millions of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens, “Under the shadow of COVID-19.”

She asked parents to ensure that their children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programmes, set new internet rules and speak to their children on how and with whom they are communicating online. The UN agency maintained that a lack of face-to-face contact with friends and partners may lead to heightened risk-taking, such as sending sexualized images. At the same time, increased and unstructured time online may also expose children to potentially harmful content as well as a greater risk of cyberbullying. 

They called on governments to keep child protection services open and active during the pandemic and to train health, education and social service workers on the impacts that COVID-19 may have on their well-being, including increased online risks. They are requested to step up awareness raising and educational initiatives on cyber safety and to provide local helplines and hotlines.

“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”, the UNICEF chief added. 

UNICEF and partners, including the Global Partnership, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), have released new guidance to mitigate potential risks. 

Meanwhile, the information technology industry, including social networking platforms, are requested to enhance online platforms with more safety measures, especially while using virtual learning tools. They are also invited to promote and facilitate child safety referral services and helplines, as well as help, connect disadvantaged children in low-income households. 

Schools are asked to update current safeguarding policies to reflect the new realities for children learning from home and ensure that they have continued access to school-based counselling services.

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