GENEVA (Reuters) – Children are accessing the internet at a younger age, spending longer online and are at greater risk of cyber bullying as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps them at home, a U.N. agency said on Tuesday.
The Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimated that 1.5 billion children are out of school due to lockdown measures to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, forcing them to go online for their schooling but also their social lives and hobbies.
“Many children are coming online earlier than their parents had intended, at much earlier ages, and without the necessary skills to protect themselves whether it is from online harassment or cyber bullying,” Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an ITU director, told an online briefing.
“The other thing is the length [of time] children are spending online whether simply for schooling or for entertainment, gaming, socialising… after their learning is completed,” she said.
The ITU, which develops standards and guidelines, is trying to accelerate the launch of recommendations for child protection online and release them over the next fortnight, Bogdan-Martin added.
Doctors and psychologists have already warned about the impact of the outbreak and said the anxiety-inducing spread of the virus may be traumatic for children.
The ITU noted, however, that the internet is a “vital digital lifeline”, and the pandemic has highlighted the so-called “digital divide” between those with and without internet access.
A lack of internet access can be devastating for children’s education, Bogdan-Martin said, adding the ITU was working with the U.N. children’s fund to communicate via 2G technology.
“If there’s one thing that the unprecedented events of the last few months have dramatically illustrated it is the vital and essential importance of connectivity,” she said.
A total of 3.6 billion people do not have access to the internet, the agency estimates, and many of those that do are paying too much or have poor connections.
Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Alexandra Hudson