Child online safety in the developing world

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About the project

Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and UNICEF are in the beginning phases of a collaborative research project concerning the online safety risks to children in developing countries. The digital divide between developed and developing countries is narrowing, and while this brings many new opportunities and resources into the lives of young people, it also exposes new groups with less digital literacy to a range of cyber threats.

Many organizations are working to make information and communication technologies (ICT) available to children in developing countries to improve education and quality of life. While some of these groups acknowledge online safety as an issue that should be addressed in the future, this has not, as yet, been targeted as a priority. Because of basic resource constraints, the time and resources of the organizations are instead focused on increasing accessibility of ICT in these communities. We hope that this project will be an opportunity to provide the additional time and resources necessary to work towards solving the safety issues that have been identified but not yet addressed.

As of July 23rd, 2009, the community participation page is live and frequently updated (last update July 2010). An important part of our research relies on personal observations and experiences, and here you will find some questions designed to encourage this kind of dialogue that you can respond to. Read more about how you can contribute.

Literature review and findings

As a result of collaboration between the Berkman Center for and UNICEF, Berkman conducted a preliminary literature review of the existing body of research on these issues. The brief summary of our key findings have been published in the exploratory study Working Towards a Deeper Understanding of Digital Safety for Children and Young People in Developing Nations. The objectives of the exploratory study are threefold: First (and foremost), it seeks to raise awareness about issues related to digital safety for youth in developing nations. Second, it aims to provide a tentative map of these issues and give insights into the current state of the respective research based on an exploratory literature review. Third, the paper seeks to outline the contours of a research framework through a series of working hypotheses that might inform subsequent research efforts on these issues by connecting efforts in developing and industrialized nations.

Existing Research

There are few studies or recommendations specifically related to addressing technological safety issues for children in developing nations. Instead, we have approached the issue tangentially by looking to two main bodies of research: those related to technological safety for children in developed nations and those focusing on technological penetration and usage in developing nations. We have found a number of organizations, such as the ITU's Children and Youth Special Initiative, that have emphasized their commitment to ensuring a safe technological environment for children in the developing world, but have found only few organizations with education modules, policy recommendations, or explicit plans of action.

During our preliminary literature review, we found that studies in developed nations indicate that the biggest risks to children online are cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate or illegal material, and sexual or other abuse either over the Internet or in-person.


There seem to be three main approaches to protecting children online: technological measures, parental supervision, and digital literacy education.

Technological measures
This category includes any kind of hardware- or software-based tool used to make the browsing experience more secure, such as content filtering, virtual sandboxes, and age/identity verification software. With these methods, it is important to consider issues like scope creep, over- and under-blocking of content, reliability of ID verification, and cost.
Parental/Adult supervision
Much of the literature and existing curriculum for online safety education focuses on the importance of parental involvement, advising parents and guardians how to protect their children. We must consider that Internet access points for children in the developing world are much more likely to be in a school or Internet cafe instead of the home, where parents are less likely present.
The third approach centers on educating children about how they can take steps protect themselves online. Most existing digital literacy curricula aimed at children are not sufficiently comprehensive. However, this approach is promising because it helps reduce the reliance on a third party for protection, and can be adaptable from one country to the next based on individualized situations and needs.

Emerging issues

The mobile market has taken off in developing countries, and there are many indications that mobile Internet is soon to follow. This is predicted to be the easiest, most accessible and cost-efficient way to provide Internet access in areas where the information environment is often underdeveloped because of a barriers like lack of infrastructure for fixed-line broadband, lack of accessible computers and electricity, competition, literacy requirements, regulations, and high costs. If the trend develops as expected, this could be a good opportunity to take actions to ensure children use this medium safely as many of them encounter it for the first time, encouraging the spread of best practices.

Further questions and action

This overall problem encompasses many more specific issues, and it will be important to take a multi-pronged approach. One of the next steps should be identifying the problems children in developing nations are facing and map these issues in the respective technological, social, and economic context; from there, we will be better equipped to develop tangible, accessible targeted solutions and resources. Drawing upon ideas from the ITU's Child Online Protection initiative, we will need to engage all levels of players: children, parents/educators, industry, and government.

Strategic Framework (2011)

Phase one: 1) Determine policies in place or in the process of development 2) Determine big obvious issues that need new policy solutions (gap analysis) & pursue some of them 3) Start a research process that is translational in nature (and other forms of capacity-building) 4) Advocate on an ongoing basis for attention to digital child safety issues and education of policy-making community, teachers, kids 5) Development of a knowledge network: FB group, wiki 6) Publish a pamphlet-type one-pager as a primer to the issues involved 7) Develop an assessment framework and process for successful policy interventions

Phase two: 1) Develop and implement a process for sharing of best practices by region etc. 2) Develop and implement a process for sharing data across regions 3) Develop and implement a process for integrating data into policy approaches

How you can contribute

Because the body of formal academic research on these topics is fairly limited, the information we can gain from the thoughts, experiences and observations of individuals is going to be a critical part of this project. We've developed a list of questions that follow our line of inquiry to serve as a starting point for this process. You can access that list here and add your responses directly to the wiki page, or send your response to We encourage anyone who is interested to take a few moments to participate.

Additional resources

This section contains links to many of the articles, studies, initiatives and organizations that we referenced in our literature review. If you are aware of any additional sources or information - including academic research, education modules, initiatives, conferences, or firsthand reports - please add them below.

Articles and research

Initiatives and policy guidelines