KUALA LUMPUR: The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online services and increased screen time among Internet users, including children, making it important to ensure they stay safe online.
The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) launched a report on Saturday (Sept 19) that found children in South-East Asia adopt the same strategies seen around the world to protect themselves online.
This includes keeping accounts and profiles private and blocking unsolicited messages and images from strangers.
However, there were also some disturbing discoveries, says the report titled "Our Lives Online: Use of Social Media by Children and Adolescents in East Asia – opportunities, risks and harms".
Both girls and boys reported being sent and being asked to send explicit pictures.
Two out of five children in the focus groups reported having bad experiences they would not want to tell anyone.
Much of this relates to bullying as many were reluctant to discuss the incidents due to social pressures.
More than half had met someone in real life whom they had first met online, most in hope of forming a romantic relationship. In most cases, they did not report experiencing harm, only disappointment because the person did not look like their photos.
The study focused on the views and experiences of 301 girls and boys, aged between 11 and18, from Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand. There were 127 Malaysian participants.
In all countries, many teens were found to have multiple Instagram and Facebook accounts.
Among the key questions asked were "how are children using social media apps?","what risks and benefits do they perceive?","how do children seek help when they encounter risks?" and "what measures do they take to protect themselves?".
The study found that the most popular apps used by children are Instagram, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, PlayerUnknown's Battleground (PUBG), Mobile Legends and YouTube.
Tik Tok, Telegram, Line, Spotify, Snapchat, and other gaming apps were also commonly used.
Among the study's recommendations is improved support for digital parenting, taking into account differing levels of digital literacy and access to technology amongst caregivers.
Another recommendation is to foster online and offline resilience in children.
The study found that children equipped with skills in areas such as communication, conflict resolution and self-efficacy are more likely to make appropriate choices when using social media, be better equipped to manage conflict and take better measures to keep themselves safe.
Greater emphasis must also be placed on evidence-based approaches within schools, and in homes, that equip children with these skills.
Technology companies have an important role to play, as well, the study said.
"Technology companies should make profiles private by default; the default options for new contacts is most commonly 'everyone'; this could be changed to 'friends of friends'; and finally, social media apps can relatively easily be designed to block photos being sent by people outside contact lists," said the report.
According to a previous Unicef study in 2017, one in three Internet users was a child and more than 175,000 children went online for the first time every day. Locally, a survey by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in 2018 found that nine in 10 children aged five to 17 were Internet users.
"In the new normal, our lives, and more so the lives of children, have gone more digital," said Dr Rashed Mustafa Sarwar, Unicef Representative for Malaysia.
He said the children were the most affected, and "we must listen to them".
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