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, writes Mark Kavanagh.

An Asian girl, about 10 years old, in a green jacket looks at her bright green smart phone. Internet access in Asia is being driven by cheap technology and even cheaper data, making it affordable for even poor communities.

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 15. There’s also a high chance that you are reading this on your phone – Aussies are averaging over 10 hours daily engaging with their devices. And in 2015, around one-fifth of the population only accessed the internet via their mobile phones.

While developing countries have yet to reach the same online coverage, connectedness is increasing rapidly. We know that in just the last six years, the number of people globally who have internet access has jumped from two 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 like 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.

But in Southeast Asia, internet access has arrived in one sudden technological leap. In many of the communities where ChildFund is working, families have gone from zero knowledge of the internet a few years ago to now 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 a massive 12,000 teenagers in thirty 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.

online security blog 2ChildFund’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.

The ChildFund Swipe Safe project will teach teens and parents a range of all important concepts to help them safely navigate the online world. Like understanding that anything posted online is permanent, that ‘privacy’ and ‘security settings’ don’t always mean 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 – for example, know how to fact check and uncover fake news, they 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 like YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Zalo, WeChat and SnapChat. ChildFund will also support star performers to help out their mates by setting up WhatsApp chat groups that participants can go to for online ‘helpdesk’ support.

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.


This blog first appeared on the ChildFund Australia website.

About ChildFund Australia

ChildFund Australia is an independent and non-religious international development organization that works to reduce poverty for children in the developing world. We work in partnership with children and their communities to create lasting change by supporting long-term community development, responding to humanitarian emergencies and promoting children’s rights.

We want every child to be able to say:

“I am safe. I am educated. I am heard. I can make a difference. I have a future.”