Staying app-dated with your kids

PET cat Ciku making a funny face; having chocolate cake with mummy...

So your 11-year-old daughter is snapping every single minute of her life and sharing it on Instagram.

Then there are those selfies of her in that new tutu skirt you bought her.

You think she looks sweet in the skirt. The problem is, so might a stranger from one of the dark corners of the Internet.

With smartphone usage standing at over 51 per cent in Malaysia, Instagram, the social networking app made for sharing photos and videos, is rapidly growing ­popular here, especially among the young.

It will, reportedly, surpass Facebook as the preferred way for children and teens to broadcast their activities to others and get "likes" from their friends and peers.

Like on Facebook, a user who creates an account has his or her own profile. But unlike Facebook, most Instagram profiles are public and any photo or video you post on Instagram is available for everyone and anyone to watch, like and comment, including those who might not have the best of intentions.

Posting photos and videos on social network has become a normal part of today's life. However, the recent Malaysian student paedophile and ISIS scare has underscored the importance of being vigilant about the safety of children on social network.

Unfortunately, most parents don't have the time, or the tech savvy-ness, to thoroughly monitor their children's access and interaction on one social network, let alone three or four.

This is why the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry has made parents a main thrust of its plan of action on Child Online Protection (PTCOP).

Aimed at combating rampant crime and the exploitation of children in cyberspace, the Child Online Protection action plan is designed to keep children safe from cyber predators and other online threats like cyber bullying, identity theft, pornography and violent content.

It is a culmination of discussions between a specially appointed task force and various government agencies and stakeholders to review legislative initiatives, policies and programmes that have been conducted within and outside the country for the protection of children in cyberspace.

In the long term, the action plan seeks to restrict children's access to porn and other subversive online content, ensure that cybercafes follow the laws on child protection and for computer games to be classified.

It also aims to encourage Internet Service Providers, broadcasters and businesses to take part in the protection of children online.

Four main aspects have been identified in the PTCOP: advocacy, prevention, intervention and support service.

The main strategies, however, are increasing awareness and knowledge on child online protection among parents.

Women, Family and Commu­nity Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim says the plan gives more emphasis on guidelines for parents as they are most responsible when it comes to their children's safety.

"Everyone in the community needs to be vigilant but parents especially need to pay attention to the threats online because they are the ones who provide their children with the gadgets.

"Ultimately, protecting their children is their responsibility."

She stresses that the threats against children by cyber predators are real and serious.

"There is a dark side of the Internet where unscrupulous people target children as their victims for various crimes such as cyber pornography and prostitution," says Rohani.

"It is very worrying and I call on parents to keep an eye on what their children are doing in their privacy."

However, parents are faced with rising challenges as their children become more tech-savvy than them, making it difficult for many to teach their children Internet safety.

Controlling the use of digital devices and Internet access among children is also not the main solution.

As a parent and teacher who only wants to be known as Norma puts it, children will find ways to do it behind their parents' backs or outside the house.

"Preventing children from (using) the Internet will also make them lose out and they can end up being digitally backward."

This is why children themselves play an important role in online safety, says Phenny Kakama, ­senior child protection officer with UNICEF.

Although the onus lies with adults to put in place a framework that ensures a safer online environment, he says, children should be empowered to protect themselves and other children, while expressing their views on how to mitigate risks.

And with children making up roughly two billion of the world's population, they are a force to reckon with on social media and the Net.

"Globally, children and young people are the prime innovators on the Internet, and are often far ahead of their parents and other adults in terms of use, skills and understanding.

"Parental capacity to protect children is also increasingly ­limited by the fact that children are increasingly using mobile phones to access digital media, thus making it difficult for parents to monitor their children's activities.

"Plus, with the generation gap between parents and children, parents are less able to understand children's experiences online or to offer effective protection and support," he says.

What more as with each passing year, more and more children are born digital natives - as defined by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), under 24-year-olds with at least five years online experience.

According to ITU's Measuring the Information Society 2013 report, Malaysia has the fourth highest proportion of digital natives in the world.

As the numbers show, young people aged below 24 make up over 45 per cent of Malaysia's population of some 30 million; more than 10.6 million are under 19.

Statistics from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) show 50.5 per cent of young people spend four hours or more per week phoning, text­ing, social networking, playing games and using a variety of tools. Some 75 per cent have access to Internet at home and 7 per cent get access from cybercafes.

As Kakama points out, "These children are growing up in a world where global social media, crowdsourcing, open platform education and sharing are providing children and young people with unprecedented levels of access to information, culture, communication and entertainment."

With the World Telecommuni­cations Day celebrating the ­drivers of innovation last week, this right of young people to information is put under the spotlight.

A child's right to information and authentic participation is ensured by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), he stresses.

"Access to knowledge, participation, leisure and play are fundamental rights of all children, as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

"The Internet, mobile phones and other electronic and digital media offer opportunities for these rights to be fulfilled.

As an integral part of life, whether used to communicate, create or share, access to digital media provides tremendous benefits for children and young people, as well as giving them a chance for unpre­cedented engagement and civic influence, as agents of change in a changing world."

But as highlighted earlier, amidst the many opportunities that digital media offers children to learn, network, collaborate, produce and curate, there are also new or evolving risks - exposure to violence; access to inappro­priate content, goods and ­services; concerns about excessive use; issues of data protection and privacy.

This is why, protecting children as they exercise their rights to full online participation requires an approach that seeks a balance between the right to protection from all forms of violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, and the rights to information, freedom of expression and association, privacy and non-discrimination, Kakama notes.

"That balance must be anchored in the best interests of children as a primary consideration, the right to be heard and taken seriously, and recognition of the evolving capacities of children and young people.

Basically, we need to get more children engaged online; we need to ensure that children are cyber-savvy and digitally literate, and we need to support their ­digital freedom in safe and responsible ways," he says.

In other words for parents, it means, "Having chats with children on the dangers of cyber-crimes, malicious websites and other online threats, as well as keeping an eye on what their children are looking at and who they are befriending online, while letting them explore the Internet for their personal and future professional development," says Norma.

More importantly, parents need to keep up with the latest tech trends, especially new apps, adds Norma.

"Look up unknown apps on your child's phone - ask them questions about what they use the apps for and talk about their risks. Chances are they already know they need to be careful and not do anything stupid with it."