Ensuring Online Safety for Children During Covid

By Ruth Atim

Corona Virus, also known as covid-19, has changed the various dynamics of life. It has put on hold many activities, companies are downsizing, businesses and airports shutting down, places of worship and institutions of learning, among others, are also closing. Ugandan Yoweri Kaguta Museveni ordered the closure of schools on 20th March 20, 2020. As a result of the lockdown many young people of school-going age are spending all their time at home.

Because schools were not operating, the ministry of education led by Janet Museveni, urged schools to roll out online classes. This led to an extraordinary digital migration; a transition online to maintain some form of normality in terms of social, economic, entertainment and learning.

Being able to connect online provides valuable opportunities to learn, play and socialize with friends and peers and access information and support. Therefore, the digital shift is extremely important for children and young people whose school time has been affected by covid-19. However, spending time online, alone and unsupervised has subjected many children to increased risk of exposure to inappropriate content and online predators. This has left many children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation as predators look to take advantage of the covid-19 pandemic. A lack of face-to-face interaction with friends may lead to an increased risk of sending and receiving sexualized images as well as cyberbullying.

Mrs. Kabagambe, a mother to 2 teenage girls, said she was in shock when she was going through her children’s work on their tablets. “I was very embarrassed when I saw that instead of studying my children were accessing adult content online, some were links sent to them by their friends”, she shares her experience with the pitfalls of online learning. She adds that parents need to supervise what the children do online and also restrict them from using gadgets all the time, otherwise we are losing our children to the world.

According to Ms. Christine Adero, the Program manager, Girl Child Network, the ministries of education, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) should consider incorporating internet safety as a topic in the school curriculum. She says this is because children are now advancing in the use of digital technological gadgets such as phones, tablets, computers and televisions for learning purposes which means they now have more access to the internet than before.

Adero adds that although digital technologies avail a number of advantages for children such as learning, creating content and connecting, they also expose them to risks such as inappropriate information, online strangers, cyberbullying, online sexual exploitation and abuse, stalking among others. “The Government should also start documenting cases of online violence against children. Not much data is available which means we cannot know the magnitude of the issue we are dealing with”, Adero recommends.

According to Patrick Muyinda, the ministry of education spokesperson, the ministry through the National Curriculum Development Centre is developing a guide for both parents and children that contains the details of the merits and dangers of online activity especially for children. He added that these materials will be broadly distributed to sensitize learners about their safety online as they go about with their studies.

“The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) has also issued guidelines for the use of Open Distance E-Learning (ODEL). These guidelines spell out the minimum requirements for institutions that are conducting online education and assessment”.

How Parents Can Enforce Cyber Safety

Much as this digital migration is here to stay, parents and guardians need to put in place measures in place to help keep their children safe online as they go about their studies. Parents need to discuss and agree on how much time their children spend online and how long they need to spend doing schoolwork. This will enable parents to monitor their children while studying online and notice any unusual behaviors. Online safety is an area that parents need to speak to their children about. Fagil Mande, an educationist says that the covid 19 pandemic presents a platform for parents to instill online learning etiquette into their children.

‘As a blessing in disguise, such times are an important opportunity to engage guide their children about what they are doing online. Parents should also install safe and age-appropriate apps children’.

Hitherto, digital learning in Uganda has been limited to higher institutions of learning and lower levels below tertiary are just being introduced to the practice. This transition thus offers an opportunity to talk to children about what is happening and how they can make the best use of the online world. Beyond online engagement parents should find some time to do offline activities with children, and encourage them to do things that they often don’t get a chance to do in this digital age like reading books or playing indoor games. B

Mande adds that most social media platforms and apps have built-in reporting tools that parents can make use of them if they suspect that their children might be at a risk of exposure to explicit sexual content online; a pre-disposing factor for sexual exploitation or deviation.

Leveraging the Benefits of the Internet

Abound are opportunities and benefits that the internet and technology in general can offer during the lockdown and beyond. However, these can be greatly enhanced when children are equipped with powers and the right emotional tools and knowledge, to make the most of them. Manuela Mulondo, a child development and education consultant urges parents to be proactive in speaking with their children during this period.

“Since parents are now spending more time with their children, orienting them on how to make the best use of the internet ought to be a major priority”, advises Manuela.

These simple steps can contribute to a healthy and happy relationship around the use of online technology between you and your children long beyond covid-19 pandemic.

Therefor. since it is now clear that covid-19 will have a lasting impact on children, particularly online, educationists argue that deliberate policies are needed to enable families to support children to cope with the ‘new normal’. Now is the time to step up safety measures for children and to lay the foundation for a deeper transformation of the way we nurture and invest in our young generation.

 Ruth Atim is a Ugandan based journalist and works with Refugee and Migration Media Network (Refugee Online News-RON)