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ITU seeks to counter online pandemic risks with new guidelines

The U.N. telecom agency says the pandemic raised the risks to countless kids who spend hours glued to tablets or computers.

A U.S. class in beginning computer coding for school kids in California
A U.S. class in beginning computer coding for school kids in California (AN/San José Public Library)

GENEVA (AN) — New guidelines from the U.N. telecom agency aim to fend off cybercriminals, traffickers and other online abusers as the pandemic raises the risks to children confined at home with more screen time.

The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, said on Tuesday that its new 2020 Guidelines on Child Online Protection offer safety recommendations for children, parents and educators, industry and policymakers.

The risks have been around for some time, but the pandemic has upped the ante as countless kids spend hours glued to tablets or computers, either for school or entertainment, while their parents try to work from home.

On the one hand, the internet offers children new ways of learning, watching videos, listening to music, playing games and communicating with each other. Conversely, predators, bullies and the like abound.

“The question of how to ensure children's online safety in the age of COVID-19 is now more pressing than ever before," ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao said in a statement, adding that the new guidelines "are a very timely tool to safeguard the well-being, integrity, and safety of our children, our most precious gift."

Need to 'evolve' faster

The Geneva-based ITU, which has been part of the United Nations system since 1949, describes the guidelines as a way for children to safely find their way around digitial offerings such as online gaming, connected toys, robotics, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.

They also are meant to help protect children with disabilities who rely on online tools for social participation, ITU says, and facilitate the special needs of migrant children and other vulnerable groups.

“The behavior of offenders and criminal networks is constantly evolving, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, with offenders taking advantage of the new reality of many children being online far more than usual," said Moroccan diplomat and pediatrician Dr. Najat Maalla M'jid, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for eliminating violence against children.

"It is therefore imperative that child protection systems evolve as fast or even faster," she said.

There are four parts to the guidelines:

  • A child-friendly story book for kids younger than nine; a workbook for children ages nine to 11; and a social media campaign and micro-site for youth ages 12 to 18.
  • Practical tools for parents and educators to support kids in the online world and sensitize families to openly discussing the risks and threats.
  • Recommendations for industry policies in key areas such as children's rights; processes to handle child sexual abuse material; creating a safer and age-appropriate online environment; educating children, carers and educators; and promoting digital technology to raise civic engagement.
  • Ways for policymakers to develop inclusive national strategies that take into consideration the needs and views of children, based on legal requirements and goals established under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the U.N.'s 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.