For many of us, everything we do - from banking to shopping to learning and even socialising - is dependent on the Internet. Digital technology has, quite seamlessly, become an integral part of our lives. This is particularly true for youth and children who were born into the digital world. The Internet and all the technology related to it has enabled children to be creative and has also connected them to the larger world.
But with such access also comes huge risks. Internet and mobile technologies may have transformed the way children learn, but there has to be strategies to help children and young people keep safe, said Dr Sangeet Bhullar, founder and executive director of Wise Kids, a British non-profit company that promotes innovative, positive and safe Internet use.
Dr Bhullar was recently in Kuala Lumpur to train representatives from the Royal Malaysian Police, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry as well as the Attorney-General's Chambers online safety for children. Apart from sharing trends and risks that are present online, she also shared global best practices and solutions that can safeguard children and youth.
Ensuring we are safe online is a shared responsibility. Internet service providers need to shore up the security of their networks and payments systems, governments and enforcement agencies need to educate the public and come up with and enforce clear and effective cyber crime laws while parents need to be aware and teach their children about making sure they are protected all the time.
The programme was organised by Digi Telecommunications Sdn Bhd and child protection non-government organisation, Protect & Save the Children (PS the Children) and will be ongoing in line with the government's plan to set up a national Master Plan for Cyber Security Awareness by 2018.
"The programme aims to work with the police, NGOs and the other stakeholders on how technology is changing and what the issues are.
"Everyone has a specific specialisation and we focus on our own areas but to find real solutions we need to understand the global trends in terms of how technology is being used, what the risk factors are and how to reach youth. We need to know what the (online) habits of our youth are so that even we are dealing with our own specific areas, we all have a deeper understanding of the issues," explained Dr Bhullar.
The issues of internet safety, she added, are extremely broad-based and in order to effectively create a safe environment and safeguards, stakeholders need to know the larger issues at hand.
One of the goals of the programme is also to build and strengthen existing collaborations between the relevant agencies to increase online safety for children and youth.
"To do this effectively, we need evidence-based knowledge on what children and young people do online - how they learn with digital technologies and how they socialise with digital technology," said Dr Bhullar.
To date, the most comprehensive study on children and online safety in Malaysia was done by Digi in collaboration with CyberSecurity Malaysia,
Childline Malaysia, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission and the Education Ministry under the Internet Service Provider's CyberSAFE programme. The survey reached more than 13,000 school children nationwide and examined various areas on Internet-related behaviours of children including online safety, cyber-bullying, support networks as well as the personal concerns of the children.
This year, Digi is going deeper with a larger survey targeted at some 100,000 children.
"We want to find out what the new threats online are. And to do this, we need to go on the ground. We are getting feedback that sexting and revenge porn are among the newer threats facing children and youth and we want to find out more," explained Philip Ling, Digi's Programme Manager for Sustainability to is heading the CyberSAFE programme.
As an Internet service provider, Ling said Digi bears some responsibility in protecting children and equipping them with the skills to understand and deal with cyber risks.
"This is what the CyberSAFE programme in schools is about. So far we have reached 1000 schools and 80,000 students and we hope that by teaching them about Internet safety, we not only build citizens who are more resilient to online risks but also who are more responsible when online.
"We will also be able to see where the gaps lie in Malaysia when it comes to online safety and provide this vital information to the various stakeholders. In Malaysia, we have many plans underway but they don't come together. We need to build collaborations and are therefore working with a whole range of agencies including the ministries, non-government agencies, CyberSecurity Malaysia and others," said Ling.
Among the concerns raised by the participants attending the programme were the gaps in the existing laws and the ways to fill these gaps.
"There needs to be more clarity on the laws as well as who will handle cases of, for example, cyber bullying. In Britain, we haven't created new cyber bullying or sexting laws as it is understood that existing laws covers online behaviour. My understanding that in Malaysia there is a lack of clarity about this.
"Do existing laws cover everything online? So there is work to be done but it not only in Malaysia. All country's are catching up to these digital threats. The fact that we are talking about it and identifying the need for collaboration to fill the gaps is a positive step," she says.
The programme urged participants to look at the laws in other countries and determine if and how they are suitable to be implemented in Malaysia and test it out.
"But you have to make sure that all stakeholders, the judges, the police, everyone go through the training as well," she cautioned.
Bhullar will be back to follow-up with the participants of the programme on the progress they have made later this year.
In the meantime, said Ling, Digi will continue its efforts of gathering data and increasing public awareness on online safety among children, children and parents.
"At the moment, the only way the government gets data is from cases that are reported. But many go unreported because people don't know who to report cases to. Where do you go to report a case of sexting or cyber bullying?" PS the Children executive director Madeline Yong pointed out."If we can't handle child protection and abuse offline, how can we handle it online? If we can't prosecute offline, how to we prosecute pedophiles online, for example. We need to come together and build a framework for this," said Yong.