On the 3rd July 1995 the reputable Time Magazine ran a front cover that warned about the dangers of online pornography and the effects on children. Inside it ran a feature which warned how pornography was taking over Internet in terms of content at a time when the popularity of Internet was increasing fast.
Back to the present day, the latest survey show that online pornography has far from taken over Internet. Indeed it’s social media, news, information, entertainment and communication that account for the vast majority of content. Though online porn is easily accessible, it is not what interests people most.
Though it transpired it was a knee-jerk reaction, there was some truth in that cover of Time magazine and authorities, educators and parents realised that they could not allow children to access adult-oriented content that easily. They started to scratch their heads and find ways how to allow children to enjoy the benefits of accessing Internet for education and fun without them being exposed to content which is not suited for them.
By coincidence, Time’s cover was published at the same time what Internet was introduced in Malta. It did not stop the launch of Internet in Malta in its tracks. However it would take a few years before Internet were introduced in primary and secondary schools and not without strong protection for children accessing it.
Since then government has taken important steps to safeguard our children when accessing Internet at schools and to promote good practice at home. Around 9 years ago a national multi-stakeholder task force came up with a report that made important suggestions to this effect. This was possible with the support of international agencies like Childnet International of the UK who shared with us their expertise and experience.
The BeSmartOnline Project, part-financed by the European Union, is coming to an end in May and for the past couple of years it has been an important point of reference for parents, educators and children with its outreach and resources.
Nevertheless, an EU Kids Online report last year confirmed that 23% of children surveyed in Europe had come across sexual content intended for adults during the previous twelve months.
There’s a lot still to be done as it has been confirmed by a Malta Communications Authority survey that 97% of Maltese children have Internet access.
Unfortunately Aġenzija Appoġġ continues to issue worrying statistics about increasing online child abuse in Malta. A study commissioned by the European Commission last year revealed that there is little content filtering and little protection of privacy on social networks and on mobile devices, which are the latest trends in the access of Internet.
iLearn, the new e-learning platform being rolled-out in Maltese primary and secondary schools will contain important child-protection features, but the issues remains: what happens when our kids go back home from school and get Internet access over there? Survey after survey have confirmed that it’s only the minority of parents who install software to filter Internet access for their children or supervise regularly their children while online.
The BeSmartOnline Project tried to address this but surely there’s still more to be done. And it’s not only a question of unsuitable material being access by children. There’s also the issue of cyber-bullying, which is increasing dramatically abroad and is also hitting Maltese children.
As much as has been done in the past, there needs to be a renewed effort from the Maltese authorities and the stakeholders, especially educators and parents/guardians, to face the new issues and new trends in online child safety.
These are some tips which software-giant Microsoft suggests for keeping our children safe online:
· The first rule of internet safety is: keep passwords secret. Encourage your children to treat their passwords with as much care as the information that they protect.
· Never provide your password over e-mail or in response to an e-mail request.
· Do not type passwords on computers that you do not control.
· Help your kids use social networking safely
· Communicate with kids about their experiences.
· Establish internet rules.
· Educate yourself.
· Teach your children never meet anyone in person that they’ve communicated with online only. Encourage your children to communicate with people they already know.
· Ensure your kids don’t use full names.
· Be wary of identifiable information in your child’s profile.
· Teach your children about cyber-bullying.
· Establish rules for online use and be diligent.
· Screen what your kids plan to post before they post it.
· Ask yourself (and instruct your kids to do the same) if you are you comfortable showing any of the content to a stranger.
· Beware of online fraud.
· Never share personal information.
· Log off in public.
· Use only secure sites.
· Recognise and report fraud.