On-line safety for students in developing countries

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just how safe and secure?
just how safe and secure?

When participating in discussions with officials planning for the use of computers and the Internet in schools in many developing countries, I am struck by how child Internet safety issues are often only considered as an afterthought -- if indeed they are considered at all.  Yet these issues almost *always* present themselves during implementation, and schools (and education systems) then scramble to figure out what to do.

What do we know about child Internet saftey issues in developing countries?

Preliminary work done by the Berkman Center up at Harvard, in partnership with UNICEF, suggests: Not much.

The first response, when a student or teacher runs into a problem as a result of her Internet surfing at school, is typically technical: We need to install filters to block access to [insert problem here].  (Sometimes officials just lock the computer room and/or turn off the Internet altogether.)  This is perhaps not such a  surprising response: When you are confronted with what appears at first to be a technical problem, it is only natural to search for a technical solution.  But do these responses really work? What are the actual dangers of life on-line for students in developing countries?  Are they the same as those of young people in, say, Australia or the United States? Should the responses to on-line threats -- real, perceived, and potential -- be the same in Nairobi as they are in New York?

A comparison between Nairobi and New York may actually be instructive here. At one point not too long ago, it was famously observed (by Thabo Mbeki at a G7 meeting in 1995) that there were more telephone lines in Manhattan than there were in all of sub-Saharan Africa (this is, thankfully, no longer true, if indeed it was at that time: here's an interesting discussion of this topic). Whatever the case, it is undeniably true that, until recently, Internet connectivity in Kenya, as throughout East Africa, has been slow, expensive, and not terribly reliable.  Witht the landing of Seacom and TEAMS, and with other submarine cables not far behind, this situation is due to change rapidly, and discussions about providing Internet connectivity to large numbers of Kenyan schools have greatly accelerated (here's one example). 

What do we know about the dangers students in Kenya will face when broadband connections come to their schools?  Should we be worried?  Are they the same as those faced by children in the United States who go online? It is these sorts of questions that the folks at Berkman and UNICEF are investigating.

This work builds on a recent study that Berkman led for the Internet Safety Technical Task Force on "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies", focusing on the United States.  (The report had its genesis in the legal and law enforcement issues faced by companies like MySpace.)  The report generated controversy in some quarters, as it asserted, among other conclusions, that "Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.  (The point here is not to debate or comment on the findings, which are too complex to be quickly summarized here; if you are interested in them, it is best to read the report and/oror watch the authors discuss the findings on YouTube.)

While many people have taken this report as representative of the dangers of children face in other places, the folks at Berkman are a bit more circumspect.   The Berkman researchers should be releasing the results of a preliminary literature review of the existing body of research on these issues in the not too distant future. While they note that "studies in developed nations indicate that the biggest risks to children online are cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate or illegal material, and sexual or other abuse either over the Internet or in-person", their literature review of the situation for students in developing countries does not permit them to make similar conclusions -- at least not yet.  Noting the difference contexts for students (compare, if you will, New York versus Nairobi),  the Berkman researchers assert that "One of the next steps should be identifying 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."

This sounds reasonable enough: Absent such work, there is a potential for internet safety 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. Berkman, UNICEF and their partners are looking for help in exploring these issues.  More information on this project, and how people and organizations can get involved, is available on the related project wiki.

Preliminarily, the researchers have flagged one issue of particular emerging interest going forward:

The mobile market has taken off in developing countries, and there are many indications that mobile Internet is soon to follow. This is predicted to be the easiest, most accessible and cost-efficient way to provide Internet access in areas where the information environment is often underdeveloped because of a barriers like lack of infrastructure for fixed-line broadband, lack of accessible computers and electricity, competition, literacy requirements, regulations, and high costs. If the trend develops as expected, this could be a good opportunity to take actions to ensure children use this medium safely as many of them encounter it for the first time, encouraging the spread of best practices.


Another question: Do measures taken in response to protecting children on-line actually make children safer -- and what are the related costs and trade-offs?

Given Berkman's on-going work related to Internet filtering around the world, I would expect that this topic will receive considerable attention in upcoming iterations of its work. To paraphrase von Clausewitz, (in some places at least) 'internet safety is censorship by other means'.  Security, and perceptions of security, always involve trade-offs. To what extent might policies and actions taken under the guise of 'protecting kids online' erode academic (and other) freedoms -- and will such erosions of academic freedom actually make kids any safer? With the explosive spread of ICTs in many education systems around the world, these are questions that are quickly becoming very relevant to policymakers.  Hopefully projects like the one started by Berkman and UNICEF will help provide an evidence base that will help us answer such questions in thoughtful, informed ways.

For more information:

: The public domain image used at the top of this blog post comes courtesy of Membeth at the German Wikipedia project via Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Trucano

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

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