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This is the list of research questions for the Berkman/UNICEF project about child online safety in the developing world. A first step of the project is to gather information about the existing research and work that has been done in this area. The following questions address those areas about which we are most interested; we encourage you to contribute to this wiki by adding your responses below. Alternatively, we would also welcome responses by email to ldyson@cyber.law.harvard.edu.

Please note: we remove any personally identifying information from this forum to keep responses anonymous. Any responses including information such as names, email addresses, etc. should be sent to the email address above. We may include some of your thoughts on this page, but we will ensure that all identifying factors are removed.


Existing Tools: research, education modules, studies

Are you aware of specific studies commissioned about Internet safety for children in developing nations, particularly those that aren't in English?

  • As you note, this is a very unexplored topic in the research community. It is something I am always asked about when I speak with Ministries of Education, however. Most of these questions related somehow to ‘keeping girls safe’. With this in mind, I wonder if some of the gender-related ICT studies looking at developing countries might contain some attention to these issues?
  • I haven’t read much on this myself. I will give you names and contact information of some people who might now about reports or policy positions in their regions/countries.

Are you aware of any additional information or resources relevant to this topic? This might include studies, education modules, initiatives, conferences, or anecdotal evidence.

  • In my experience, the best way to protect young people in the developing world is to incorporate existing structures of accountability into their online communities. Making sure that all participants feel as responsible for their contributions and interactions online as they do for their public behavior makes a big difference. Incorporating a few influential/powerful people into a given program to incentivize good behavior can go a long way.
  • The Brazilian Congress passed a special bill for child-protection, including online protection, which amended the Brazilian Child and Adolescents Protection Act (Law 8.069/1990) in November 2008.
  • There are schools and ministries that have simply shut down the connection instead of either allowing this risk or facing parental complaints. I heard this story during work in Jordan last year, a hacker had posted a link to pornographic site on the MOE’s website for schools. Many schools simply shut down the Internet and have kept it down, and the MOE now has an intranet connecting schools to key virtual resources and closely monitors access to the web itself. Another factor to keep in mind regarding filtering systems, is that many schools in developing countries do not have competent on-site tech support and are generally unable to make things like filters and anti-virus software function optimally and not slow their systems or block out all content. So responses that require more complex technical knowledge may not be effective in practice.
  • You should look at The International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth and Media (http://www.nordicom.gu.se/clearinghouse.php) as well as those involved in the World Summit on Media for Children and Youth. The next one will be held in Sweden (http://www.wskarlstad2010.se/). The clearinghouse has a number of reports and publications that might be of interest. EDC has online training modules for school administrators (in developed countries) about cyber security etc. But, we would need to look at them in more detail to see if they might be relevant for developing country schools

Is this issue a perceived threat or is the focus of most organizations simply on getting children access to technology, without an included safety component?

  • Most groups are focused on access, yes.
  • The threat is real. Many organizations are being incredibly reckless.
  • [A recently proposed bill in Brazil (approved by the Senate and currently under consideration by the Congress), called Lei Azeredo] was not really about child-protection. However, it was incorrectly presented to the Senate and Congress as such, demonstrating the political strength of online child-protection in Brazil. That was actually one side of the criticism against the bill, the fact that it was leveraging on child-protection issues, in order to approve an unrelated (and unbalanced) cybercrime bill.
  • In my experience this is something most groups have thought about, but their main focus is still on providing access for kids first.
  • Among the poor population, access to the Internet among children is a negligible phenomenon. Poor children in developing countries have effectively zero access to the Internet, in spite of very high-profile projects such as OLPC and the “Hole in the Wall”. But, those projects impact a tiny percentage of the total population of children in the world (I would be surprised if it amounts to 0.1% of world’s child population). And, even where children are actually exposed to these projects, most of the PCs struggle to maintain a working Internet connection, or they’re housed in institutions such as schools, where there is decent supervision, and again, online safety is a non-issue. And of course, there are the 4+ billion mobile accounts out there, but they belong to the N billion richest adults in the world, and the M hundred million children of a subset of OECD families. Mobile phones are not in the hands of poor children by a far margin, and if they are, the phones handle only voice and text, not Internet. Finally, in many poor contexts, it’s so easy to commit non-online, physical child abuses of various kinds, that anyone interested in such nefarious activities gains nothing by going online.
  • [For the middle-class and richer segments of developing countries], I believe that the problems are similar to issues in the developed world, though perhaps with some lag in time. Parents and children of families exposed to the Internet in India, for example, are still largely unaware of the dangers lurking online; but, at the same time, potential Internet predators are similarly unaware of the potential online. Mobile exchange of video is an issue: There are prominent stories in India, for example, where middle-class university students spread MMS videos of sexual acts featuring female students. But, this is no different from what happens in the United States. No doubt you’ve followed the recent stories in China about keeping PCs safe for children, and if anyone really needed protecting, it’s only children of relatively rich kids; the children of poor farmers aren’t Twittering with child molesters.

High-risk groups and online threats

Much of the research on developed nations identifies certain children as high-risk for being harmed by Internet-related content or contact, though we have not found any analogous studies for risk factors in developing countries. Are you aware of any reports on what would constitute risk factors for Internet safety in developing nations?

  • How would it not be age, gender, socio-economic status and strength of family structure?

To your knowledge, to what extent do the factors that increase risk for children in the developed world also apply to those children in the developing world?

  • I think there may be some reasons to believe that [children in developing countries] are at higher risk because: a) Their first experience of using ICTs is less likely to be at school because of the generally lower level of ICT use in education. Therefore, they miss out on the caveats about, say, internet use that kids in developed countries might be taught, and their access is less likely to be "filtered" by responsible adults; b) Their usage of ICTs is more likely to be on a personal communication device, like a mobile phone, rather than a PC. This they may be more at risk from being contacted directly by strangers, in a very specific way. c) Developing country kids might be more at risk from price gouging, for instance, being lured on to premium rate telephone numbers without the knowledge or what rates they are being charged. d) One interesting case to look at in more detail would be MXit in South Africa (www.mxit.com). MXit offers instant messaging over SMS and generates some 250 million messages per day among its mainly school-age user base. However, it has been criticised for being used for grooming kids by pedophiles as well as for distracting them from school work. This is very much a local application (though it is in use outside South Africa) and is much discussed locally as the imminent cause of the downfall of western civilisation ....

If access to technologies is particularly low in certain nations or if use is distinctly different (for example, if children only have access to computers in schools rather than at home), children may not face all of the dangers that exist in developed nations or may face new potentially problematic situations. How are issues that have been documented in the developed world, like bullying and sexual predation, experienced differently, or similarly, in the developing world? Are there significant differences (cultural or practical), or are they the same problems in a new space?

  • Another big question! One very relevant issue is different conceptions of what ‘privacy’ means, especially as it relates to young people. In countries with more authoritarian governments, the possibility of children facing threats from their own government as a result of their Internet/mobile phone use is perhaps greater than in OECD countries.
  • The two other issues I see raised time and again in Asia are cyber-isolation and Internet addiction. For what it’s worth, both cyberbullying and cyber-isolation are topics of much research in Korea and Japan. I was at an international conference where these topics were mentioned prominently in *every* presentation from every researcher from these countries (and not once from researchers from any other country). The governments of these two countries have made tackling issues of cyberbullying and cyber-isolation (think of the stereotypical otaku hidden away in his room in Japan). China has made a big deal of dealing with ‘Internet addiction’, and has even set up high-profile ‘camps’ to ‘treat’ youngsters with this affliction. (This is something that Western media like to report on, it should be easy to find references.
  • Given the high frequency of sexual predation on students by teachers, I’d guess that giving teachers yet another way to leverage their power—often in a locked, private room that they control—will lead to more abuses of that power. Also, the potential to create exploitative pornography of impoverished young women is quite high.
  • I would think there might be some differences given the overall social context – especially cyber bullying issues like racism, sexism and homophobia. The Cyber bullying literature in the developed world tends to assume that the bullying is sending a message that is counter to what the “teachers or the responsible adults” believe and the victim can find support and redress. However, this is not always true in the developed world and in many developing countries have the same issues.

How does cultural relativism affect how people perceive risks online (for example, parental pressure for youth to participate in online sexual activities for money)? Do you know of any regionally unique issues (for example, the use of mobile technologies by Caribbean youth to arrange to meet on buses to have sexual intercourse)?

  • I think it will not take people in poor countries long to realize that the easiest way to monetize their new technology is by exploiting their young people with different sorts of web and digital cameras.
  • There was an interesting chapter on the use of mobile phones among youth in West Africa for this sort of thing in a book a few years ago edited by James Katz of Rutgers. In many African countries, the seemingly intractable problem of teachers demanding sex from girls in exchange for better marks is bound to have its online/SMS equivalents.
  • I don’t have any anecdotes about this, but I was also wondering if countries like the Philippines with a large outmigration of young people for jobs like maids, have problems with deceptive online activities aimed at tricking young people in slavery. This is not really culture, but I would also think there may be problems for young people in authoritarian countries where there is no free speech, but young people may say things online that latter get them in trouble with the authorities. There have been cases of adult bloggers in Egypt and Iran who have been arrested, and I would think this is a risk for younger people who may not know what is tolerated or not.

Technology access and the future

We are interested in exploring questions of current and future access to technology. Have you observed any trends in technological usage and behavior amongst young people in developing countries?

  • More and more internet cafes. More and more young Africans on social networking sites.
  • Mobile use among youth in the Middle East is particularly interesting, especially the use of bluetooth to enable young people to be in contact with each other outside of parental supervision.

What kind of risks may emerge, or recede, as ICTs become available to a wider group of people?

  • Indeed, I think that what happens over the mobile phone (whether it will be the mobile web or SMS or something else entirely) will be most important for youth in developing countries. The explosion in broadband connectivity in Eastern and Southern Africa that we are on the cusp of experiencing might be a good ‘hook’ for some of your research. I note that the use of things like Facebook among university students in Kenya has been very strong even though connectivity has been so poor and expensive – I imagine that this use will explode once access is opened up to broader groups of young people, as we are going to see shortly.
  • I would say the risks of children falling victim to other types of crimes (fraud, theft, etc.) will increase.
  • There is a lot of recent research that shows that in South Africa most children will only ever access the internet via their cell phones and that access is more widespread than we realise. This is especially the case as more powerful phones are entering the second hand phone market. The online safety aspect is exacerbated by the fact that as soon as you can access the internet via your cell phone, not only are there no content-filtering facilities available (that we know of), but because the device is mobile, there are no traditional gatekeepers (e.g. teachers or parents). Many teachers and parents have no idea what the capabilities of cell phones are in connecting to the information society. In South Africa there is a mobile instant messaging company called MXit which allows text-based chatting at a fraction of the cost of an SMS - it's been in operation now for more than 2 years and has taken the teenagers of the country by storm (probably now more than 12 million subscribers - more popular than Facebook and Twitter combined). They've had a lot of problems with sexual predators, stalking, etc - there have even been kidnappings, etc. Our approach has been to try to inform and educate parents, teachers, children about the "dangers" of the online/mobile world, without being too alarmist. Its an issue of trying to instill the right values as well.

Your work

Have you done any work that directly intersects with any of these issues? If so, what were relevant issues and what were the outputs from the work?

Have any of your colleagues or peers worked on projects that directly intersect with any of these issues?

Your thoughts

What are the most pressing issues and problems in this area?

  • I fear the use of cheap donated laptops (with inbuilt webcams) for the creation of exploitative pornographic material. I also fear the easiness with which adults and children can arrange to meet one another for sexual activities when they are brought into a site with unmoderated/unsupervised intra mail and chat.
  • I guess I come to this topic as both a parent and as someone who has specialised in the area of ICTs from a professional viewpoint. I think that ICTs have far more to offer kids than to threaten them and it would be tragic if kids access to ICTs was somehow curtailed due to scare stories of what might happen to them. I think we need to build up the general ability of kids to deal with a confusing, multimedia world and how to distinguish between genuine and fake. Insofar as we try to impart a moral sense to our kids, we need to pass on principles that work in all media, not just the online world.

What do you think would work best? (e. g. Would a curricular intervention work - if so, what might it look like? Are there any feasible technical interventions?)

  • I think it is essential to prepare young people for the sort of predation that they may be subjected to. Teen Angels and Icouldbe.org are both working on material of this variety.
  • Although, I don’t think any one option will be the best choice in all situations and countries, I tend to think a technical intervention will be the least effective. My fear is that it will introduce a level of complexity that will bring the system down, or it will give authorities too much control and they will censor too much.

Who are the key players that should be engaged in this process? Do you have any recommendations for people or organizations with whom we should be in contact?

Most of all, we want to gather real reports and observations about these issues from people who have firsthand experience. Have you, personally, observed any instances of online risks affecting children in developing countries?

  • I moderate a site where I see somewhat off-color remarks from teachers to students. I delete these remarks and reprimand teachers. So far so good.
  • I don’t think there will be many reports, your best option may be to interview appropriate stakeholders about government or organizational policies on the issue.

What is the dominant narrative of online or mobile risk in the country in which you work (for example, boys pressuring girls for sexual favors vs. predatory threats)?