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TOUCHING LIVES

Harnessing ICT opportunities in a safe environment

Mohammed Hassan and Ossamah Mahmoud, both aged 13, are pupils at Al Oroubah School in Aswan city, southern Egypt. Like many children their age around the world they are also avid players of internet games. On weekends, Hassan and Mahmoud can be found on their home computers or on their parents' smartphones playing Internet games with each other or sometimes with other 'friends' they find online.

"I play several games and the more difficult a game is, the better it is", said Hassan. "I love winning and sometimes I win against some of the people I play with online. They think I am cool."

Hassan and Mahmoud were among over 70 students aged between 11 and 13 who took part in a Child Online Protection event organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in cooperation with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the Ministry of Education of Egypt, and in close coordination with the Egyptian National Committee for Child Online Safety made up of various entities.

The event, whose theme was "Let's create a better internet together" was aimed at enlightening children not only about the risks they face while online but also responsible use of ICTs. It was held as part of the events marking the Safer Internet Day (SID) which is observed across the world during the month of February each year.

It was the first time that Hassan and Mahmoud attended an event about being safe while online. "I always thought that since I am playing with people who are not sitting next to me, I was not at risk of any danger," observed Mahmoud.  

During the event, the ITU Arab Regional Office provided simulated games and activities that highlighted ways in which children can be safe online. The children were advised on the need to always consult with a parent before going online to ensure that the internet sites they wish to visit are child friendly.

There was also emphasis on not sharing personal or family data including names, addresses or photographs.  

In addition, children were shown how to apply the SMART rules which are contained in the Guidelines for Children on Child Online Protection published by ITU and its partners in 2008 as part of a four-part set of guidelines for parents, guardians and educators, industry and policy makers. The rules encourage children to set limits on how and when to be online: what to do when making contacts or arranging to meet with friends; accepting invitations or 'friendships' from strangers, as well as how to protect themselves from upsetting or distressing content, and the need to seek help from parents or relevant authorities such as the police about their safety concerns.

"ICTs give children and young people unparalleled opportunities to explore new frontiers," said Mr Brahima Sanou, Director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau. "Technologies are fuelling new business opportunities allowing individuals to apply their creative energies and become entrepreneurs in record numbers." He added, "However, children and young people also need to be aware of the risks that come with using the internet. ITU already has in place a Child Online Protection Initiative which is a multi-stakeholder effort to create awareness, identify risks and vulnerabilities to children in cyberspace, and develop practical tools to help minimize risks and share knowledge and experience."

Mr Ebrahim Alhaddad, ITU's Regional Director for the Arab States observed that, "We are delighted at the positive outcome of the close collaboration between ITU, regional ministries in charge of ICT, schools and parents to ensure children and young people can reap maximum benefits of the digital economy in a safe environment." He added, "our experience during the event  in Aswan not only benefited the children, teachers and parents, but was an eye-opener to what can be done in Child Online Protection activities, by adopting a more decentralized perspective attentive to the needs of youth and their families everywhere "

Each of the children participating in the event was given a passport with the title "Internet Safety Ambassador" and was encouraged to educate their family, and friends in school, on how to be safe online. The children will receive a stamp on their passports from their schools for every effort they make to raise online safety awareness among their peers.

A special Internet awareness session was held for parents attending the event, where they were shown various measures they can undertake to ensure their children are safe while using the internet. The measures included how to access child-safe internet sites, and how to stop children from sharing personal or family information with strangers while online. Furthermore, an Arabic language YouTube channel with videos highlighting various aspects of Internet safety was launched. The videos are divided into several categories targeting different segments of the population including: children; adolescents; parents; educators; and people with special needs.  

"Today was a great day for me. I played new internet games and made new friends," said Hassan. "But most importantly, I have learnt that although the Internet is a good thing, I have to be very careful, not to share information including pictures about myself or my family."

Mahmoud added, "I have really gained from this event and my friends can count on me to show them to have fun on the internet but at the same time how to be safe while online. The information about the safe use of the Internet has been delivered through games and entertainment and this is the right way for me."

The young people attending the event actively and passionately engaged in games, discussions and class sessions which are also indicators of the need to empower children to be able to access relevant information from the Internet, have fun online, but be sure to keep themselves safe.  A song highlighting the importance of Internet safety was composed by the students.

Several sponsors supported the event including Microsoft, Mobinil, Oracle, TEData and Vodafone.

ITU launched the Child Online Protection Initiative in 2008 as a multi-stakeholder effort. During the World Telecommunication Development Conference 2014 held in Dubai, enhancing confidence and security in the use of telecommunication/ICTs was endorsed as an Objective of the ITU's Telecommunication Development Sector.