It's vital to keep our children safe in cyberspace

It's vital to keep our children safe in cyberspace
Posed photo of a person crouching in a corner in desolation with a laptop in the foreground to illustrate cyber bullying.

LAST year, a nationwide survey in Malaysia found that one in four of all schoolchildren had been bullied through the Internet, while nearly three in every four kids taking part in the survey said that they had been called names or received improper messages or inappropriate photos while online.

Meanwhile, data from the Boston Consulting Group on Internet use among children in 13 countries shows that 8 per cent may have unknowingly subscribed to commercial services, one in 10 has potentially been subject to personal data misuse, and one in five potentially exposed to harmful content.

The Internet has had an undeniably profound positive impact in Asia, and will continue to do so as the expansion of infrastructure sees a digital future for all emerge in this region.

From financial inclusion, to access to knowledge, better health and resources, the Internet has been instrumental in empowering Asian populations that include some of the world's poorest and most disadvantaged people.

At the same time, cyberspace undoubtedly presents a double-edged sword.

Risks abound online, many of them particularly menacing to the most vulnerable among us, namely children.

These include cyberbullying, identity theft and fraud, danger from online predators, and exposure to pornography or other inappropriate images.

For these reasons, coupled with a lack of awareness as to the positive value of the Internet, some parents in Asia have exhibited a reluctance to embrace the technology.

While their caution is understandable, by limiting their children's exposure to cyberspace they also inadvertently restrict their access to the life-changing positive possibilities offered by the Internet.

With Safer Internet Day on Feb 10, now is the time for a region-wide discussion on how to keep kids safe on the Internet.

What do we recommend? Above all, building resilience rather than restricting access.

Children will access the Internet, with or without their parents, and it thus is of vital importance to create rules that acknowledge that children cannot be monitored online at all times.

This process can be facilitated by setting age limits on your children's smartphones, laptops, tablets and desktops.

Fundamentally, keeping kids safe online is about communication, and thus the importance of starting the conversation to discuss online risks cannot be overstated. Basic ground rules like protecting passwords should become second nature.

Also, get familiar with Internet etiquette.

One of the most worrying results of the Malaysian survey was that two-thirds of children surveyed felt that sending improper SMSes, posting inappropriate photos and pretending to be someone else was NOT cyberbullying.

Parents have a role in educating kids on the right way to behave online, and a major factor in that is knowing the right questions to ask.

Parents should familiarise themselves with the online landscape, and know what risks are presented by what platforms.

It is important for parents to keep their children safe in cyberspace.

With lower barriers to entry via mobile devices and pre-paid data plans, Internet penetration in Asia has exploded, and is only set to grow with the next generation of "digital natives".

We estimate that an overwhelming majority of an estimated 500 million children in its emerging Asian markets will be accessing the Internet for the first time via mobile in the coming decade.

Within the next three years alone, Telenor expects up to 85 million children will be introduced to the Internet via mobile in its global markets.

We firmly believe the opportunities presented by the Internet outweigh the dangers, but all stakeholders - including parents, educators, regulators and telecoms operators - must commit to ensuring that our children are safe online.

-Sigve Brekke is the executive vice-president and head of Asia Operations, Telenor Group, and chairman of Digi.Com Bhd. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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