Children are at higher risk online during the Covid-19 pandemic due to an unprecedented rise in screen time, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and its partners have revealed

“School closures and strict containment measures mean more and more families are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world, but not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online,” Global Partnership to End Violence’s executive director, Dr Howard Taylor, said.

According to UNICEF, increased time online could leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and grooming as predators look to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Under the shadow of Covid-19, the lives of millions of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens. We must help them navigate this new reality,” UNICEF’s executive director, Henrietta Fore, said.

Online safety

“We call on governments and industry to join forces to keep children and young people safe online through enhanced safety features and new tools to help parents and educators teach their children how to use the internet safely,” Fore added.

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South Africa has been on lockdown since midnight on 26 March, with some children being home-schooled online or by their parents.

“This lockdown is a time for parents to be proactive in speaking to their children about online safety, how to change settings to ‘private, friends or contacts only’, or prevent spam or unwanted sexual content,” the chief of child protection at UNICEF South Africa, Mayke Huijbregts, said.

“By paying attention to the different things that children do online – increased communication, game-playing, learning – we are better placed to manage the time that children spend online.

“Promoting positive online and recreational use, and building children’s skills to stay safe online, will serve them well after the lockdown is lifted,” she added.

News24 earlier reported that gender-based violence (GBV) dialogue aimed at addressing the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable groups such as women, children, the LGBTQIA+ community and persons with disabilities was, ironically, hijacked by hackers with graphic images proving that women and children were not even safe online.

Paedophiles are using the internet to access children – Childline counsellor

Childline counsellor Nokulunga Mnisi, who has nine years of experience in her field, is in agreement with UNICEF’s warning to parents, stating exposure to the internet could lead to exposing children to graphic images.

“It usually happens whether there is [a] lockdown or not, now that children are busier with the internet they are more exposed to pornography as paedophiles are using it to get hold of children and showing them graphic images. Exposing a child to any sexual act is not good at all,” she said.

With the lockdown still in place, parents are encouraged to be more proactive in their child’s internet use during this period.

“Children have more access to the internet, but if parents can play their role – who they are talking to, what social media they are using and what they share with one another, parents have the power to block these sites, that can be more useful,” Mnisi said.