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We are all witnesses to the fourth industrial revolution. As we bear witness, so too do we begin to inhabit two worlds: the physical and the virtual. With our physical world curtailed by the global pandemic, we find ourselves becoming increasingly virtual citizens. In that digital world, we play out our second life through carefully chosen and curated avatars, posting to social media, participating in online classrooms, and exploring the world one click, tap, swipe and browser window at a time.
While it all sounds gloriously accessible, the virtual world has its barriers, and they are not insignificant. With data showing that South Asia – where I am from – faces one of the largest gender disparities in the connected world (women are 23% less likely to own a phone, and 51% less likely to connect to the mobile internet than men), the barrier to participation is high.
Even where there is access and opportunities, the same technology that enables work play and learning can also bring about risks and harm to its citizens. Our ‘new normal’, as this Covid-19 life is often referred to, retains many of its original sins. On the internet, just like the real world, children and young people continue to be exposed to vulnerable situations, with females especially susceptible.
The facts of the matter
If you don’t believe me, believe the stats. A survey commissioned by Telenor’s mobile operator in Thailand, dtac, found that 91% of children had experienced online bullying, while a recent UNICEF study recorded an increase in cyberbullying in Malaysia despite higher awareness of the issue and more activities in place to combat this.
Here’s other: a recent a one-week survey carried out by the Press Information Bureau among 1.6 million people showed that nearly 91% of female respondents feel unsafe in social media (Facebook), and nearly 53% of female respondents faced online harassment. More than 40% of respondents don’t know where and how to report online harassment. The danger here is two-fold: Firstly, the immediate impact on the individual’s emotional and mental health can be considerable, and secondly, if left unchecked in the longer term, the virtual environment becomes so insidious and unhealthy that it curtails online participation completely.
What is the way forward?
This is not an easy question to answer, but we need to start somewhere.
Let’s begin with potential solutions. As a student of anthropology, I see research as a first step towards addressing the issue. Understanding what drives the behaviour of the transgressors and then those who experience the abuse is essential in crafting any robust response.
Next stop, education. Let’s not forget that we don’t learn to be active, responsible citizens in the ‘real world’ by accident. Formal and informal structures such as our parents, grandparents, schools, culture guide us on how to behave and interact with our peers. In the virtual world, however, most of us are simply learning as we go; this doesn’t mean that appropriate social norms and behaviours from the ‘real world’ should change. Incorporating online safety education into school curriculum could begin to address this, yet one size will not fit all. Content customisation is essential so that modules targeted at children are not also served to older youths. Grameenphone’s “Be Smart Use Heart” programme is a tangible example of the potential of this approach and has already educated more than one million children in Bangladesh.
Governments and technology players also have a large part to play in any effective progress. Laws and policies targeting online harassment and regulating online behaviour need to be put in place. Companies running the virtual world have a responsibility to come together to collectively implement policies for the responsible use of social media.
A shared responsibility for a safer internet
It should be clear by now that the responsibility to enable a safer online world does not fall squarely on the shoulders on any one group, but requires a collective effort from governments, civil society, businesses, and the individual. For now, may this article serve as a call-to-action to all related actors to work together to build a safer internet.
Reneka Ahmed Antu is a student, activist and was part of a Girls Takeover initiative arranged by the Telenor/Plan global partnership on the International Day of the Girl last year. She is also part of Plan Bangladesh’s youth network, Brave Girls.
“Last year, we saw a big jump in the time children spent online, accompanied by increased incidences of cyberbullying and other online dangers. Over the past ten years that Telenor has worked with global partners to combat this issue, we have trained more than 4 million children in safely navigating the online world through various programmes like Digiworld. As gatekeepers to the digital world, the digital acceleration which has taken place in the past year has increased the urgency of our work with global partners on this ever-relevant topic.