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Screening the screens

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that the rise in screen time among children as their worlds have shrunk to just their homes and the screens of their computers, laptops, mobile phones or other devices, has increased the threat of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

“The internet wasn’t built with children’s safety in mind,” UNICEF said over the weekend.

“At any one time, 750,000 individuals are estimated to be looking to connect with children online for sexual purposes, a challenge so large – and so complex – that no one entity can solve it alone,” the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children added.

For children already experiencing harm or hurt – online or offline – even before the Covid-19 pandemic, UNICEF warned that the rise in screen time may have exacerbated their anguish.

Although millions of boys and girls worldwide have relied on the internet to play, socialize and learn during the pandemic, time online can expose them to sexual exploitation, cyberbullying and other risks, said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

Additionally, UNICEF cited evidence which suggested that more time online is leading to less outdoor activity for children, reduced sleep quality, increased symptoms of anxiety, and unhealthy eating habits.

“School closures, physical distancing, decreased services, and increased strain on already vulnerable families have disrupted and reduced some of the protective measures available to them,” Fore said.

“For children and young people themselves, preparing for a kinder, more connected world post-Covid means helping strike a balance between their online and offline worlds, nurturing safe, positive relationships with those around them and having access to the support they need,” Fore noted.

We have long been aware of the potential dangers of unrestricted screen time and internet access to children. Although the pandemic shrunk their worlds over the past year as it forced everyone to depend more on the internet connectivity in order to have a semblance of normalcy, not enough gains have been made to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable members of society from abuse and predators.

This dependence on screens cannot be part of our post-Covid world. Families, schools, and communities must focus on building a future where screens are not as indispensable as they were for most of 2020 a significant part of any recovery roadmaps that are being crafted right now.*

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