PROTECTING CHILDREN IN CYBERSPACE

TARIQ AHMED SAEEDI (tariqsaeedi@hotmail.com)
May 18 - 24, 2009

Always glued to before computer screen is an oft repeated complains of parents of today's digital world about their young children. They are worried to exclaim what the heck their children are this much indulgent in that they seldom show to their school works. This is a world of cyberspace indeed, for which making one sluing out of routine works is ordinary as it is a feeling arousal box where all that play second fiddle to real life experiences are packed in the forms of chat box, online gaming, unrestricted and unrestrained contents bombardments, and new devices such as mobile internet access and peer to peer file sharing.

All that are benefits of information and communication technologies are overpowered by vulnerabilities of children and young people in the cyberspace citadel. Contrary to the western world, developing countries have not caught the social and economic wonders of increasing access to electronic world. While that is an irony of fate, parents on their parts can keep an eye on children activities on internet in order to save them from what is described on the eve of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day as 'predators'.

World Telecommunication and Information Society Day was celebrated on Sunday, May 17 and declared by the United Nations General Assembly, to focus on importance of ICT, marking the signing of first International Telegraph Convention in 1865. Considering the role of information and communication technologies in development of budding personalities of children and young people and essentialities of actions to shield them against abuses on cyberspace, the theme of this year's celebration was 'Protecting Children in Cyberspace'.

Increasing exposure of children to internet is suggestive of formation of knowledge-based society, but ubiquitous access to cyberspace poses risk to their physical and psychological health. There are spur-of-the-moment appearances of portals on internet, rising needs of flittering contents hazardous to personality development. Since young mind inclines towards attractions given by the contents, it is of usual making internet purposeful for purposes other than education and healthy entertainment. The other interlinked outlets that enhance interaction of cyberspace learning in developed economies bring in to action information and education dissemination purposes of internet. However, it is said that developing countries lag behind in integrating its youth in the mainstream of information society because of lack of it.

World over, children abuse in cyberspace has become a challenging issue. Flashy pornography, cyber stalking, and other related activities are affecting underage users of internet. International Telecommunication Union referring to surveys says by early 2009 total numbers of internet users had crossed the 1.5 billion mark worldwide while a decade ago this figure was hovering around 182 million. This exponential growth has increased the exposure of people to online world and it sees dangers of misuse of technology by the children. The proportion of internet users tend to be high in Asia where the internet users are no less than 600 million, followed by Latin America and Caribbean 130 million, and then Africa 50 million. Over 60 percent children blistering on chat rooms are ready to share personal data about themselves and their families in exchange of goods and services.

The rapidly declining costs of computers and internet technology have expanded the penetration of online world on to many desktops. Following the global pattern of dynamics in communication infrastructure building, Pakistan has also witnessed an unprecedented growth of new technology. The price of ordinary computer now ranges in between Rs8,000 to 12,000 while internet connections are spreading fast in urban localities with the expansion of internet enabled new devices such as mobile phone as well as telecommunication service providers offering broadband and other internet services. With having supportive telecommunication infrastructure, even far-flung rural areas are also not out of the ambit of online connectivity, notwithstanding the limitation of usage to educated class and non-marginalized sections of the society.

Young people tend to be early adopter of information and communication technology. Pakistan with relatively significant population of young people is facing the challenge of persuading youth to utilize positive aspects of information society. Without cooperation of policymakers and private sectors, it will be difficult to carry forward this task. Government should enforce strict regulations to contain virtual violence against children by websites, which are corrupting youth minds. The enforcement of regulations to control exploitation of young mindsets is not easy as the gate keeping in electronic world is untraceable. That increases the importance of realization of ill effects on future generation of unsafe internet portals by stakeholders of the industry. Many non-government organizations in developed and developing countries have taken up the issue seriously and are providing internet portals that are specially designed to give children safe links to legitimate websites.

Through software, access to certain online contents can also be blocked. Keeping in to consideration carefully large digital divide in Pakistan and high numbers of marginalized people whose accessibility to ICT is low, laws are designed in a way that do not inhibit progress of information society. A mishandling of the issue may lead to backfire. That does not mean oversight of susceptibility of children to danger of unabated cyberspace grazing. Realistically, filtering out online content for children leads to the development of information society. While on one hand web portals are meting out devastations on the building blocks of society, it gives a master key to enter in to the world of economic and social wellbeing on the other. Expansion of ICT outreach guarantees getting hold of the key, so does the children protection against unsafe online contents.