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Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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The rapid advance in digital technology is changing childhoods around the globe, with research showing that around one in three internet users is under the age of 18.

Last week the United Nations Children’s Committee recognised that the rights of young people apply online as well as offline. This is a welcome and important development in child rights.

Online connectivity can have many benefits for young people. It brings access to information and knowledge. It offers an environment in which to build peer connections and social networks, at home and around the world.

For children seeking support, the online world can provide guidance, and advice. And, as we have witnessed during the pandemic, online education resources can provide a valuable alternative learning platform when face-to-face classes are unavailable.

When accompanied by low levels of media literacy, however, access to the worldwide web can also present new threats to children’s safety. Without the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the digital world, young people’s exposure to potential abuse and exploitation increases.

The digital generation

In Vietnam, internet penetration is now at 70%, with almost 70 million people online. This includes 65 million social media users. It is estimated that in the country, more than one-third of Facebook accounts belong to young people, aged between 15 and 24.

In response to this increased connectivity, in 2017 ChildFund Vietnam launched Swipe Safe, an innovative online safety program which has now helped more than 12,000 children safely navigate the world wide web more safely.

This project will enter its second phase in Vietnam, and is currently being implemented in the Solomon Islands, Cambodia, and Myanmar with plans to expand this initiative in the Pacific.

Online fears and concerns

Recently, ChildFund Australia, Plan International Australia and the Young & Resilient Research Centre of Western Sydney University launched a new study – Online Safety in the Pacific – in order to fill the research gap and map the challenges and opportunities for children in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea.

Among the children surveyed, 77% said the risk of accessing inappropriate content, such as horror movies and pornography, was their greatest fear, followed by cyber-bullying (38%).

Parents and carers also identified a lack of control over what children were accessing as their greatest concern.

Safely navigating the worldwide web

Swipe Safe training workshops assists young people to understand the risks of using the internet, and how they can better protect themselves.

The program aims to empower young people to make the most of the digital world and provides valuable information about online safety to parents and teachers.

ChildFund also works with internet cafes to build safer environments and works closely with schools to develop and promote online safety policies and guidelines.

Fifteen-year-old Ngoc created her Facebook account when she was in Grade 6. She found that on Facebook she was able to make many new “friends” from around the world.

The number of people she connected with reached the thousands. “I did not know most of the people on my friend list in real life,” Ngoc says.

Ngoc shared a lot of information on her Facebook page, and the time spent on social media began affecting her schoolwork. She also started to have some concerns about her online interactions.

Ngoc explains: “If we did not accept an invitation to go out from friends on Facebook, we received threats and other bad words,” Ngoc says. “We felt frightened.”

Taking protective measures

A recent survey of Swipe Safe participants in Vietnam found that, after completing the program, 100% of young people said that they knew at least one method to protect themselves when online.

In addition, 85% can identify where to go for assistance if they are experiencing any difficulties when interacting online.

CEO of ChildFund Australia Margaret Sheehan says: “The opportunities that online connectivity provides is paramount for children and young people across the Asia-Pacific.

“However, we must be vigilant in taking adequate measures to keep them safe. A single response will not combat the far-reaching risks and impacts of the online world.

“A whole of community approach, which empowers children and their families to safely navigate the online world is crucial.”

Twenty-five years ago, ChildFund began its work in Vietnam; implementing child-focused development programs in the remote district of Ky Son, located in the country’s mountainous northern region.

Working in partnership with just four communes, home to around 200 children and families struggling with high levels of deprivation, ChildFund Vietnam focused its efforts on improving access to basic – and essential – needs.

Our earliest initiatives in these rural villages sought to reduce widespread child malnutrition; increase access to healthcare, safe water and sanitation; generate new livelihood opportunities for the low-income families; and improve the startling low school attendance rates.

Access to quality education has always been a pillar of ChildFund Vietnam’s programming. In a region of significant ethnic diversity, and where few children speak Vietnamese at home, it is vital that children and young people be given the opportunity to learn, and to overcome potential language barriers which can prevent them from accessing opportunities in the future.

Creating child-friendly, supportive, and engaging learning environments was key. Our team successfully worked in partnership with education staff, local authorities, parents, and young people to achieve this.

Today, teacher training programs, classroom and playground construction, new educational resources, and the creation of School Boards of Management mean that in Ky Son district 100 per cent of children now complete their primary education. This is a remarkable achievement.

Since those early days, ChildFund Vietnam has expanded its reach in the north of the country, and today works in 36 communes, in 12 districts, across three rural provinces – Hoa Binh, Cao Bang, Bac Kan – as well as the urban Hanoi Municipality.

In the last year alone, our projects reached almost 90,000 individuals, around half of whom were children and young people.

As the world for children has changed, so have ChildFund’s initiatives. We are now responding to the new threats to children’s wellbeing, with a focus on keep children safe from harm. This supports global efforts to progress target 16.2 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: to end all forms of violence against children.

Increasing, and affordable, internet availability is increasing children’s exposure to online abuse and exploitation. ChildFund’s Swipe Safe program is supporting young people to take advantage of digital technologies, while also ensuring they can take active steps to keep safe online.

Building safer environments is also a feature of our new partnership with the Vietnam Government’s Department of Child Affairs and Microsoft. Together, we have launched a new child protection application, which can be used by young people to report incidents of abuse and seek support.

ChildFund Pass It Back, a unique sport for development program, is giving young people in rural areas the opportunity to learn valuable life skills through organised community sport. With a focus on inclusion, over half of all players and coaches are girls and young women.

In the early 2000s, I spent several years working and living in Vietnam with my own daughter. It holds a special place in both of our hearts, and I am incredibly proud of our staff who show such dedication and commitment to changing the lives of vulnerable children.

Our achievements in Vietnam are also due to the strong collaboration with the Vietnamese government, civil society groups, individual and institutional donors, and the communities and the young people at the centre of our mission.

Together we are stronger. And together, we will continue to ensure more children in Vietnam can say: “I am safe. I am educated. I contribute. I have a future.”