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Keeping kids safe online in Australia and beyond

Digital technology is changing childhoods, with one in three internet users now under the age 18.

The worldwide web brings new opportunities for young people to learn and connect, but it also represents new threats to their well being. Fortunately a new program from ChildFund Australia is helping to keep children safe from harm online.

In Australia, most of us are online. More than 86% of Australian households have a home internet connection and this rises to 97% of households with children under the age of 15. There’s also a high chance you are reading this on your phone; Aussies are averaging more than 10 hours daily engaging with their devices. And in 2015, around one-fifth of the population accessed the internet via their mobile phones.

While developing countries have yet to reach the same online coverage, connectedness is increasing rapidly. We know in just the past six years, the number of people globally who have internet access has jumped from 2 billion to 3.4 billion, and many of those coming online have been in Asia.

Australia has long been grappling with the new risks to children that come with our increased digital connectedness. Training and awareness raising, as well as strong national mechanisms such as the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, have now been established and the online world is increasingly a part of public and political conversations.

But the developing world, without the resources, education frameworks and governance systems of Australia, is struggling to keep up. Aussie parents have had the luxury of being able to adapt gradually to technology, gaining experience with the online world first through home dial-up then broadband and now the introduction of smart phones.

Internet access in Asia is being driven by cheap technology and even cheaper data, making it affordable for even poor communities.

But in southeast Asia, internet access has arrived in a sudden technological leap. In many of the communities where ChildFund is working, families have gone from no knowledge of the internet a few years ago to connecting online via a cheap handheld device – skipping altogether landlines for phone and cable for web.

But just like in Australia, teens in developing countries are the most enthusiastic and early adopters of new tech. Like us, their parents are struggling to learn what they are up to online, and have the same concerns and worries about how to keep them safe.

In Vietnam, ChildFund Australia is helping with this transition. With the support of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, the ChildFund Swipe Safe project will target 12,000 teenagers in 30 Vietnamese high schools, as well as their parents and teachers, to help them make the most of the online world. ChildFund will also partner with local businesses in Vietnam, encouraging internet cafes and online gaming shops to sign on to child safety codes of conduct.

The ChildFund Swipe Safe project will teach teens and parents a range of important concepts to help them safely navigate the online world, such as understanding that anything posted online is permanent, that “privacy” and “security settings” don’t always keep you as hidden as you might think, and that the anonymity of the web can weirdly change the ways humans behave.

We are also going to work with them on issues of media literacy such as how to fact-check and uncover fake news, the type that a certain guy has made so well-known this year ;).

Participants will use cheap smartphones throughout the training to complete tasks using apps such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Zalo, WeChat and SnapChat. ChildFund will also support star performers to help their mates by setting up WhatsApp chat groups that participants can go to for online “helpdesk” support.

ChildFund’s Swipe Safe program is giving young people in Vietnam the tools they need to navigate the online world safely, and make the most of the opportunities it represents.

In Australia, we know that many of the problems children experience in real life play out online as well – sometimes with greater impact. Bullying in the playground can certainly be damaging, but remains contained to the present moment. Many Aussie parents know that when bullying happens on social media, it is permanent and can be shared widely – harming kids more deeply and in more damaging ways. So ways to cope with bullying are a major part of ChildFund Swipe Safe too.

But this project isn’t just about the things that can go wrong. We also want to help young people make the most of the online world and what it has to offer, particularly in terms of accessing supportive, online communities and connecting to their peers in other locations of their country, their region and beyond.

If the training I ran in Hanoi last month is anything to go by, ChildFund’s program is on the right track. Our project manager, Thanh, and an office intern – both in their twenties – solved a task I set in less than 30 seconds while it took the rest of the (older) group up to five minutes. Thanh later went on to school me in a far better way to solve the problem than even I was aware of.

Navigating the online world and keeping children safe from harm can feel both overwhelming and scary. But, if we create a safe space in which young people can learn and explore this new media, and give a bit of guidance, I’m confident the kids have a strong chance of working it out for themselves.

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