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Commission shows digital dangers for kids from global connectivity

Internet users extend to half the world, including 1.15 billion children who can benefit only if they can safely navigate it.

A student-run college club helps home-schooled kids on computers
A student-run college club helps home-schooled kids on computers (AN/College of DuPage)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Half the world's 7.7 billion population uses the internet, including 1.15 billion children who can learn and benefit from it but only if they can safely navigate "a dangerous environment in which to grow up," an international commission concluded.

With children younger than the age of 18 accounting for more than 30% of all internet users globally, better safeguards are needed to protect them from sexual abuse, recruitment by extremist groups, online harassment and bullying and other threats, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development reported on Tuesday.

The commission said a fourth industrial revolution — driven by mass connectivity and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, virtual reality, cryptocurrencies and 3D printing — could make everyone richer, safer and happier, but also brings many potential harms, particularly for children.

More than half the world's 2.2 billion children are online, the report said, yet in just one year the Internet Watch Foundation, or IWF, found more than 105,000 websites that host child sexual abuse material. It recorded a 32% increase in such sites last year.

In 2018, tech companies reported finding over 45 million online images of children being sexually abused, double the amount reported just a year earlier. INHOPE, a global network of hotlines, confirmed more than 223,000 images and videos online depicting child sexual exploitation and abuse.

Almost a quarter of the material had images of rape and torture, the report said. Some 39% of the children depicted in that material were younger than 10 years; 55% were between 11 and 13 years; and 5% were 14 to 15 years old. Girls were pictured in 78% of the material. Boys were shown in 17%. About 4% had both.

"In the 21st century we have the experience, the technology and the data to help us understand and predict the benefits, but also the risks and harms associated with the ways in which our societies are changing," the 57-member commission co-chaired by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Mexican billionaire industrialist Carlos Slim Helú concluded.

"We have the opportunity to save millions of children from unnecessary suffering," it said, "and to prevent harms that will render our societies incapable of deriving the maximum benefit from the digital transformation that they are undergoing."

A #MeToo movement for children

The commission was created in May 2010 by two United Nations agencies — the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO — to encourage global development of broadband infrastructure and services.

It is made up of industry and government leaders and officials from international agencies and development organizations. Now, with an estimated 3.8 billion people still unconnected to the digital world, the commission is working towards accomplishing seven ambitious targets for 2025.

Among the targets are to get 75% of the world's population online; achieving gender equality among internet users; and ensuring that 60% of the children and adults that are online have at least a minimum level of proficiency in digital skills. The report recommends that governments adopt legislation and create agencies to oversee online safety for children.

Queen Silvia of Sweden, who has long campaigned against sexual abuse and exploitation of children, noted at the launch of the report that the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 call for ending all forms of violence against children, and only 11 years remain to accomplish that.

She said she wished there had been a #MeToo movement for children 25 years ago — around the time of the birth of the World Wide Web — when sexual abuse, violence and pornography were considered topics "too ugly" and "taboo" to discuss.

"Their dreams and childhoods have been stolen," she said in a keynote speech at a high-level meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. "Do we listen to them? Do we dare? How dare we not listen to them."

Her comments reflected the sentiments of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who told world leaders at the U.N. last week they had "stolen" her dreams and childhood.

As the wife of King Carl XVI Gustaf, Silvia became campaigning to prevent child abuse after the 1993 Swedish case of a young man selling child pornography on the internet.

"I wanted to help abused children heal — to give them back their childhood. But I also wanted to prevent abuse before it happens," she said. "It is difficult to comprehend that 50 years ago we were able to go to the Moon, but we are still struggling to make progress on ending violence and sexual abuse and exploitation of children."

She and the king plan to hold a roundtable meeting at the Royal Palace in Stockholm in November "to explore how we can use artificial intelligence as a catalyst for child safety online, inviting experts from both technology, business and child protection."

A 75-year-old mother of three, and a grandmother of seven, the queen was born as Silvia Renate Sommerlath in wartime Heidelberg, Germany. She met then-Swedish Crown Prince Carl Gustav at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich. He became king the next year, and they were married in 1976.

Now a co-founder of the World Childhood Foundation, Silvia pointed to World Health Organization estimates that 200 million children a year are sexually abused — and much of the violence occurs or is distributed online.

"Children's well-being is everybody's business. This is why we all have to come together and make children our priority," the queen said. "Child sexual abuse remains a hidden public health epidemic and leading to dire consequences later in life, including mental health problems, learning disabilities, increased risk of substance abuse and the perpetuation of violence."