As you read this, do you know where your child is? Do you know what he/she is doing right now…. at home, in school or elsewhere? He might just be only 13 years old. Or she might even be much older, say 16, 17 or 20 years old. At such age, because of filial sentiments, you might just assume you know all about your child. You might presume you know all her friends, his associates and even role models and mentors. Again, you can even go to the extent of testifying that ‘my daughter cannot do a thing like that’ in response to an allegation that borders on the morally bizarre.
Truth is, you just might be wrong. Your daughter may have been doing more horrible things than that. Your 12-year-old boy may have been inducted into the wildly weird ways of gangster land right under your nose and you still take him to be that good-natured minor that can’t hurt a fly. Yes, you had better believed it. It is possible to have a monster in your home wise in the ways of the underworld but still passes off as an innocent minor.
Here’s how. Your child might be among the 90 percent of teens and young adults around the world who use the internet; she might be among the privileged 60 percent of children and teenagers who have found a new way to share thoughts: chat on the internet with all manner of persons most of whom they have never met before. He might even be among the three in every four internet savvy kids who are willing to share personal information including family secrets with online ‘peers and mentors’ sometimes for cash.
More global statistics: one in every five children online is a target for paedophiles each year; and this, while 30 percent of teenage girls say they have been sexually harassed in a chat room, only 7 percent tell their parents. Most online-savvy children have pictures of the wrong role models in their heads. These are not role models mum and dad would be proud of; some have fallen into the hands of mentors that are at best weird and wacky. They share thoughts, fantasies and ideas some of which do not edify but defile. I ask again, do you really know your child? In this age of increased knowledge and increasing internet access, can you still vouch for your child?
Yes, many parents would bang on the table to underscore their confidence in the moral chastity of their children. But there is the probability that this might just be misplaced confidence. Today, the internet, the global ‘network of networks’ has attracted billion of users (Netizens) and Africa, nay Nigeria, is no exception. Between 2000 and 2008, Nigeria has amassed about 11 million internet users, most of them youths. The blooming of e-learning and e-transactions have compelled more children to embrace the internet fad. Registration for JAMB, WAEC, NECO and sundry examinations and confirmation of results of same are now internet-based.
This means more internet exposure for more children. This in itself is good. It is a mark of advancement. Exposure to internet early in life will sharpen the cognitive quotient of children, expand their knowledge bandwidth, build heir leadership skills as well as improve their self-confidence.
But it is not all goodness in the internet. The virtual world is laced with landmines and booby traps some packaged and passed off as innocuous eye-catching prompts. This is why the child needs online protection. Child Online Protection (COP) has become a global concern with many countries using the instrumentality of legislation to protect the child. Other technical therapies like software filters and firewalls had been deployed but with little success. This has prompted governments and civil society organisations to look to legislation to save the child from the depraving and sometimes opiating effect of the internet. But legislation is failing in some places. The US Child Online Protection Act (COPA) passed by the US parliament in 1998 has remained dead on arrival. The Act was meant to restrict harmful sites from children but the US courts including the Supreme Court shot it down as infringing on the constitutional right to free speech.
So, what is the way out? The Acting Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, Dr Bashir Gwandu, has advocated a collaborative framework that would promote online protection for the Nigerian child by providing guidelines for safe online behaviour. Such collaboration, he said, would integrate service providers, law enforcement agencies, advocacy groups, policy makers, educators/parents/guardians, social welfare, religious groups, industry players, other agencies and partners. Gwandu spoke at a child online protection stakeholders’ consultative forum organised by the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the Commission.
The Nigerian Communications Act 2003 empowers the NCC to protect the telecom consumer including the child consumer. The Child Rights Act 2003 also stipulates punishment for exposing children to pornographic materials, trafficking of children, their use of narcotic drugs, etc. Good legislation. But we would need more than good laws to tame the monster of online child abuse. We need to keep talking about it and create a national consciousness akin to a national movement. Discussions at the forum underscored the reality that there is a clear and present danger in not addressing the matter. The NCC has taken the initiative by convoking a stakeholders’ conference. It should sustain the momentum by rallying all stakeholders especially service providers, schools and guardians. Child online exploitation thrives in an environment of ignorance. This is why awareness is key.
The commission should increase its public enlightenment drive on this matter. We must save the Nigerian child from picking up unwholesome habits including how to make bombs. I agree with Gwandu that it is not a challenge for the NCC alone. It is everybody’s business especially parents. As parents, we must find the boldness to confront our children and find out the nature of their online content, peers and associates. The world is talking about it; let’s not keep silence. More of such forums please!