We live in an era where children can skillfully operate smartphones and tablets even before they can walk, proving that our children are growing up in a digital environment unlike any other. Indeed, with each passing year, technology’s impact on their life grows more powerful, and as parents and educators, we must face a harsh reality: the Internet world is both their playground and battleground.
Admittedly, the Internet is an extraordinary resource, offering our children numerous opportunities for learning, communication, and creativity. However, it has also resulted in a worrying rise in the Internet threats that our children experience on a daily basis, including cyberbullying, online harassment, the spread of misinformation, and concerns regarding privacy.
Indeed, recent research and case studies have given insight into the prevalence and gravity of these issues.
According to Disrupting Harm in Kenya, a collaborative study project conducted by the End Child Prostitution and Trafficking Network, INTERPOL, and UNICEF, 67% of Kenyan children aged 12 to 17 use the Internet and are exposed to various types of online abuse and exploitations. Furthermore, privacy violations and online predator threats exist since children frequently unwittingly divulge personal information.
As such, there is an urgent need to implement digital literacy education into the school curriculum to provide students with the information and abilities to detect and respond to these threats appropriately.
Digital literacy, defined as the ability to utilise information and communication technology effectively to access, analyse, produce, and convey information in our interconnected world, is essential for the technologically driven future our children will inherit.
Schools play a critical role in shaping students’ digital literacy, well beyond the scope of parental responsibility, given that children spend most of their time in these institutions. They provide established spaces for complete digital literacy education, standardised training that equips pupils with the necessary information and abilities for safe Internet navigation.
Children who acquire an in-depth digital literacy education are not only better positioned for success, but also well-prepared to manage the complexity of the online landscape. This education provides them with the skills and knowledge they need to effectively utilise technology, analyse digital content, and protect themselves from online threats.
It goes beyond the classroom, enabling a joint effort between parents and teachers in guiding children through the digital world. This collaboration guarantees that skills learned in school are repeated at home, resulting in a unified approach to digital safety and responsible conduct.
There are various approaches that learning institutions can implement to realise digital literacy in their curricula. Technology-enhanced learning is one such option, which entails integrating digital tools and educational software into the classroom to educate students on how to utilise technology successfully. Internet safety programmes also teach pupils about potential risks associated with the Internet and ethical online conduct. Coding and computer science programs teach coding languages and problem-solving abilities, which help students gain a better knowledge of technology.
The Kenyan Government has been a key player in promoting child online safety in the country. In 2015, the Communications Authority launched the ‘Be the Cop’ campaign to provide consumers, particularly children and young people, with the information and skills they need to practice safe internet use, lowering their exposure to online hazards and crimes. Google Kenya also started an online safety programme to promote responsible and good internet usage among young learners. While the country still has a long way to go regarding promoting Child Online safety, especially in rural and marginalised communities, these initiatives represent positive steps towards enhancing online safety.
With Safaricom as a key player, the private sector has also been engaged in partnerships that promote safety for children online. In 2021, Safaricom, UNICEF and the Directorate of Children Services launched Spot It! Stop It!, a campaign that promotes awareness about all forms of violence against children and advocates for change. Additionally, Safaricom and UNICEF partnered and pledged to work to ensure children – especially the poorest and most marginalised – can access the Internet at school, are protected from violence and abuse and receive life-saving information during droughts, floods and disease outbreaks such as COVID-19.
The digital age demands that we provide our children with the necessary information and skills to navigate the online world safely and responsibly. It is a shared obligation to which policymakers must commit resources and support. Educators must incorporate digital literacy into their curriculum, and parents must actively repeat these teachings at home. The time to act is now, and we need to ensure that our children are protected as they navigate the digital landscape.
The author is the Director, Sustainable Business, Social Impact & the Foundations, Safaricom PLC