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4Cs of Online Risks for Children Using Educational Technology

By Guest Writer on May 10, 2023

unicef digital protection children

Digital learning brings opportunities but also introduces risks that need to be managed effectively. The Committee on the Rights of the Child explicitly recognizes this in General comment No. 25:

States parties should ensure the operation of effective child protection mechanisms online and safeguarding policies, while also respecting children’s other rights, in all settings where children access the digital environment, which includes the home, educational settings, cybercafés, youth centres, libraries and health and alternative care settings.

The introduction of digital technologies into learning, as in children’s lives overall, brings with it new risks and new pathways to familiar risks. Risks may be introduced simply because the EdTech products and their terms and conditions have not been designed with children’s rights in mind.

UNCIEF’s Child Protection in Digital Education Technical Note seeks to ensure that the introduction and use of digital learning tools in schools promote equal and accessible education for all children and ensure the protection of children from the risks that the technology may introduce or amplify.

4Cs of Online Risks for Children

Online risks can be broadly classified according to the ‘4Cs’ – contact, content, conduct and contract:

  • Content: The child engages with or is exposed to potentially harmful content, e.g., not appropriate for their age, pornographic, violent, discriminatory or hateful.
  • Contact: The child experiences or is targeted by contact in a potentially harmful interaction, often but not always with an adult.These risks can lead to sexual exploitation, grooming, harassment, stalking, blackmail and other harms to children.
  • Conduct: The child witnesses, participates in or is a victim of potentially harmful conduct, e.g., bullying, sexting, image-based abuse, trolling, threats and intimidation, or is exposed to potentially harmful user communities such as those that promote self-harm or eating disorders.
  • Contract: The child is party to and/or exploited by a potentially harmful contract such as one that includes hidden costs or loss of control over personal data, or promotes commercial interests, e.g., targeted advertising, excessive use, gambling.These and other factors can be linked to insecure digital services that leave the child at risk of identity theft, fraud and scams, as well as poorly designed services that enable contracts between other parties to perpetrate child trafficking or sexual abuse.

Educational Technology Risks for Children

In the context of EdTech, there has been increasing attention to the misuse of children’s data. While schools generally take steps to safeguard learners offline, they may be less likely to consider safeguards relating to the use of EdTech and other technologies that routinely collect children’s data. However, as technology is introduced into schools, efforts to protect children can only be effective if it takes into account these new technologies, services and platforms.

The introduction of EdTech may lead to the misuse of children’s personal data, commercial exploitation or other infringements of children’s rights. This can involve, for example, the use of digital technologies to document a child’s activity and share it with others who do not have any need to see or use these data without the child’s or parent’s knowledge. Some EdTech platforms, including those often recommended by governments and sometimes required by schools, routinely collect unnecessary data and sell data to third parties without their knowledge or consent.

Although the right to privacy is increasingly protected in laws and regulations in many countries, and is covered broadly in the GDPR and in COPPA, the EdTech legal documents governing how children’s education data are processed may contradict data protection regulations and may not provide sufficient transparency. Complicated and multilayered terms and conditions can appear to be like a ‘jigsaw puzzle’ for the governments, schools, teachers, parents and children that are trying to understand them.

Children may also be at increased risk of experiencing technology-facilitated child sexual abuse and exploitation, cyberbullying or self- harm with the introduction of EdTech, resulting in part from the increased time spent online, and the opportunities that these platforms can introduce for perpetration of abuse when not appropriately managed. There is also frequent concern about the impact of digital technology on children’s mental health.

As children spend more time online, and technology becomes ever more central to their lives and their futures, they will be exposed to more risks. Equally, though, evidence indicates that as children become more digitally literate, they are more likely to successfully navigate some risks online without experiencing harm.

Distinction Between Risk and Harm is Significant

Not all risks will translate into actual harm for children, and encountering some level of risks – appropriate to their age and development – are important for children to learn how to successfully navigate difficult situations online, and develop resilience in the face of online risks. However, this is contingent on children being supported by parents and caregivers, educators and other responsible adults in their lives. It also does not take away from the crucial responsibility of identifying and mitigating those risks that cause harm to children.10

A lightly edited synopsis of UNCIEF’s Child Protection in Digital Education Technical Note

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2 Comments to “4Cs of Online Risks for Children Using Educational Technology”

  1. This is a good article, and it’s a must read for all stake holders in digital learning.

  2. Aly Vandy Yansane says:

    Very interesting grant for empowerment in ICT especially for women and children. I’m interested