What are developing countries doing to help keep kids safe online?

This page in:

you can only shield them so much
you can only shield them so much;
you also need to help them to assess
risks themselves when they are beyond
your protective canopy

While computers and other ICT tools offer much potential to impact learning, teaching, and educational service delivery in beneficial ways, the use of such technologies also carries with it a variety of risks -- especially for children. While most people are familiar with attention-grabbing headlines related to pornography, sexual harrassment, illegal downloading and 'inappropriate' or political speech, these are only a few of the issues related to keeping kids safe online.  In some places, for example, cyberbullying appears to be a more pervasive day-to-day threat for many students, and people are also increasingly understanding potential 'threats' to children related to things like privacy and data security.

To date, most of the internationally comparative work on issues related to child digital safety has taken place in 'developed' OECD countries, and the documentation and analysis of these risks in devellping country environmrnts, and their related policy responses, is largely unstudied. As noted in a recent publication from the Berkman Center at Harvard University and UNICEF,

"One of the next steps should identifying the problems children in developing nations are facing and map these issues in the respective technological, social, and economic context; from there, we will be better equipped to develop tangible, accessible targeted solutions and resources." 

Absent such work (and as has been discussed on a previous EduTech blog post on this topic), there is a potential for child digital policies and practices based on experiences from Europe and North America to be taken as de facto models for circumstances and actions in other places (this of course may not be a good thing). 

Building on the Berkman-UNICEF work, the World Bank and other like-minded institutions have contemplated building some sort of global repository of information detailing the key policies, initiatives and actors in this area as part of a larger landscape to help inform our dialogues with governments around the world on this topic.  Well, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) has come out with just such a tool! 

The FOSI Global Resource and Information Directory (GRID) is "designed to create a single, factual and up-to-date source for governments, industry, lawyers, academics, educationalists and all those dedicated to making the Internet a safer and better place". I have spent a few hours reading through the FOSI-GRID web site, and am impressed at the scale of what they have accomplished in this area. What a great resource!

An on-line safety profile for most countries is available, divided into sections detailing basic country profile data; an overview of online safety in the country; pointers to related research; the education system (this is actually a short profile of ICT use in education -- very useful!); legislation; organizations active in this area in the country; and a list of sources of information.

While the scope of what the FOSI-GRID aims to do is necessarily comprehensive, FOSI acknowledges that the resource is not (yet) complete, especially when it comes to documenting what is happening in developing countries.  Despite many large-scale initiatives to (for example) equip schools in developing countries with computers going back a decade (or more), it is clear from the FOSI-GRID website that we are still in the very 'early days' of work in scores of countries around the world when it comes to issues related to child digital safety.  Reading through the country profiles, one is left with the impression that, in many countries, the approach to date has been to treat this topic largely as a law enforcement enforcement issue (related to things like pornography and child trafficking).  In other cases, where laws or practices exist, they often seem designed to filter various types of online information.

Some regions of the world appear to be further along in this area; compared with Asia and Africa, for example, the developing countries of Latin America appear collectively to be more advanced in their consideration and treatment of this topic. Here are four excepts that look at countries which I consider to be more 'advanced' in the region in their consideration of ICT use in education:

Overall, there is little information available, with the exception of the Internet Sehat site, which deals with anything other than the risks to children associated with online pornography.

Internet safety does not appear to be taught as part of the ICT curriculum, although some basic information is available to students and teachers on the SEMA portal, an educational intranet providing learning materials for children.

Sri Lanka:
No information could be found on government-run online safety initiatives in Sri Lanka and the topic does not currently appear to be part of the curriculum in schools. The website for the country’s Computer Emergency Response Team (SLCERT) does contain an article with advice for parents in its Knowledge Base but other than that, advice is of a practical nature relating largely to security vulnerabilities and how to keep equipment free from viruses.

There is currently no information available regarding Internet safety lessons in schools.

Now, it is certainly possible that language issues may be complicating international efforts to document what is happening in these countries.  (FOSI states that about 25% of the information in this resource is being made available in English for the first time.) That said, the impression that I get when reading through the FOSI GRID profiles resonates with my own experience when speaking with many ministry of education officials on this topic in the region. And when speaking with academic researchers as well --> In many instances, the 'research' section of individual country profiles only contains the following note: Information currently unavailable. If you have content which you feel should be added to this section, please click the e-mail icon at the top of the page to notify our Editorial Team.

So: While the FOSI-GRID is undoubtedly useful to policymakers interested in learning more about how different countries treat child digital safety issues, it also lays bare the great gaps in our collective knowledge base in this area as well.

Judging by this video on YouTube, there are more useful information and tools to come in future iterations of the FOSI-GRID, including a comparative 'benchmarking' of country progress along various themse.  This will also be a great resource, which will doubt occasion much discussion and debate.


'Keeping kids safe online' is not just about insulating children from threats and vigorously prosecuting those who seek to do them harm.   Many people, for example, feel that schools are particularly well placed to help teach children to better identify and evaluate the various types of risks they may face when going online, and how to deal with them.  This is especially true in many developing countries, where computers are not available in homes, but are increasingly to be found in schools, connected to the Internet.  At the same time, the proliferation of mobile phones and Internet cafes mean that young people are increasingly operating in two separate digital worlds -- that of the controlled environment of (for example) a higher regimented school computer lab, where 'digital literacy' often means instruction in basic word processing applications, and the 'anything goes' context of private Internet kiosks and personal mobile phones, where the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to navigate through one's 'digital life' are much more difficult to acquire. Do education systems have a role to play here? Groups active on topics related to child digital safety increasingly are saying: Yes they do. 

For our part at the World Bank, we are considering helping to organizing a meeting in Asia region on this topic in 2011 with a fw partner organizations to share emerging experiences between government policymakers and key research and advocacy groups working on this topic. Any governments, established NGOs or other national stakeholder groups in the region active in this area are welcome to contact us using the comments section below, or the contact form for this blog. 

As a spokesman from FOSI notes in a recent article in the Guardian about the FOSI-GRID,

"Our thinking is that charities can, in this way, act as a convener to create a middle ground where industry, government, law enforcement and researchers can, without agenda, contribute to a factual environment."

Well said.  We look forward to using our convening power here at the World Bank to help to contribute, in our own modest way, to the important work being down by other groups active in this area. 

Note: The FOSI-GRID site is password-protected. You have register to use the site, but registration is free. 

(Hopefully this will not inhibit access to this great resource too much. With the content hidden behind a registration scheme, it doesn't appear that the content is being crawled by any of the major search engines.  This means, for example, that a search for 'online safety [insert country name]' does not list the associated country profile page on the FOSI GRID site.  This is a shame, as for most of the countries for which I searched, there was little relevant information available, and one presumes the FOSI GRID information would be at the top of the search results. Also, in my experience, many users in ministries of education may be reluctant to register on the site, for a variety of reasons, and this information will thus remain essentially inaccessible to them.) 

For more information on related topics

:  The image used at the top of this blog post ("you can only shield them so much -- you also need to help them to assess risks themselves when they are beyond your protective canopy") comes via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000