What are the biggest challenges and risks in using technology to protect children?

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What are the biggest challenges and risks in using technology to protect children?

Consider and respond to the following questions to begin the conversation:

  • What are the specific challenges and risks that need special attention and exploration when designing programs or eco-systems that integrate ICTs to improve child protection?
  • What challenges and risks exist around security and privacy?
  • How have you dealt with challenges around internet connectivity?
  • What challenges have you faced around funding, sustainability and feasibility?
  • What challenges have communities faced in using these technologies?
  • What challenges have organizations faced in developing the tools?

Share your examples, experiences and ideas by adding a new comment to this discussion thread or by replying to existing comments.

Technologies and evaluation


The challenges field is of course enormous, also in the child helpline world. All considerations to safeguard security and confidentiality in all our different channels. All dependency on connectivity and technical systems' reliability. All funding and sustainability issues...

I could jump into any, but one especially interesting area, I think, is the challenge to keep track of the effects of your services, techniques or tools. Do you really produce and deliver something helpful? Do you do any good?

And one thing is the general evaluation that your service actually attracts people, is used, and in some way contributes and/ or leads to better child protection. The further is how children themselves, when they are the target group, percieve your efforts. And this is something potentially interesting in any effort in the area I guess.

I think you could dare to say that child helplines is in general a good idea, using ICTs to contribute to child protection. Starting mainly in the 80's and now spread to a majority of the worlds' states. Beginning with telephone lines and, following children and youth's lives and needs (depending on national context), developing into more and more webbased services. Today millions and millions of children contact child helplines every year (reminding you from Philippa's comment in the first thread about Child Helpline International's annual report Connecting to Children)

Of course we all still monitor and evaluate this, producing reports on numbers, issues etc, but in BRIS we were also interested in the effect of our contacts from the children contacters own view. In 2011 we conducted an effect study on our webbased services, for mail and chat asking the children a set of questions - fx about how they felt, the severeness of the reason to contact and their ability to handle the situation - just before and just after the contact and again ten days later. The children answering by scales gave significantly higher average ratings just after the contact compared to before, a bit lower ten days later but still higher than before the contact. The study gave BRIS the receipt that our services was considered helpful and that the children feel listened to and taken seriously. An executive summary of the study report was translated and can be found here.

Talking about concrete technical challenges, an interesting detail find in the study was that during a period of the data collection with technical difficulties in our chat, the ratings from the children clearly decreased. This telling us: ¤ (again!) a chat-service is technically demanding! and ¤ 'Message from the children': Keep your techniques in order, or you will not help us that well!

What info privacy risks exist in protection systems using ICTs?

When we use technology to collect and share information, we know that there's always a risk that this information could fall into unintended hands. In fact, we've had a New Tactics dialogue on how to mitigate these risks for human rights defenders - Staying Safe: Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders. What information privacy risks do practitioners need to keep in mind as they are developing programs that include information communication technology (or are integrating ICT into a program)? How do these risks impact the children for whom these programs are designed to protect?


In many of the places where we are introducing ICT (Ernst can tell you more about the details of what we are doing) the main concern expressed by parents and community members relates to download, in particular to children being exposed to pornographic images and videos.

There is very little awareness of the risks associated with upload. We know from the work done in places with a longer history of internet access that some may use ICT means to contact children and coerce/bribe/threaten them into submitting indecent pictures of themselves. From what I understand there has been an increase in such attempts from people based in the developed world targeting children in the developing world. This is probably due to the fact that police in the developing world is less equipped to discover and investigate such crimes and the fact that children there are less experienced in what goes on on the internet.

Another issue that is increasingly common in the western world is children (and adults) bullying other children to an extent that goes well beyond the normal (and still socially extremely powerful) schoolyard bullying. Presumably this is because of the relative anonymity of the internet and the absence of immediate physical confrontation. This is something that can have very bad consequences for the emotional and social well-being of the child and may interfere with academic progress.

How do we take these things into consideration when working in areas of the world where instant communication, mobile technology, social networks and the ability to connect with anyone at anytime is new? Do we properly anticipate how upload issues may affect children in those particular areas? Are our local authority partners ready and equipped to deal with these types of problems?


Cyber Safety Videos developed by and for indigenous cultures

We've recently added a new variable to our child helpline data collection screens that counsellors fill out about every contact to now record whether the issue has a cyber component - hopefully over the next few years we will have a better understanding of the impacts for children of living online as well as offline. In the meantime I wanted to share some brilliant videos some Tiwi Islanders (part of Australia's northern islands) have made to educate their local kids about the risks involved in sexting and cyber-bullying behaviours




Safer Internet

Your question is of course very relevant, Michael. Even if I think we're still slow even in the Western world to address the child protection issues on-line, there are a lot of succesful programs and initiatives whose ideas and outcomes might be useful for societies now developing more into the on-line era.

In Europe the European Commission has run a Safer Internet Program, now for some years. Under this program national Safer Internet Centers with Awareness centers, Helplines and Hotlines, raise awareness and respond to questions and need for help on safer internet issues in their countries, and cooperate on the European level. The coordinating bodies are Insafe (awareness & helplines) and Inhope (hotlines), and on their mutual website a lot of resources is gathered.

An ongoing discussion in the field is how you can balance your educational and awareness raising strategies on all levels, to be able to safeguard children from on-line risks without by fear stopping them from utilizing all the benefits that the Internet brings. Generally but also from a child protection perspective, I sense that the "fear side" easily takes the lead, with risk of delaying initiatives that strengthens all the empowering, learning, relations building, info access etc etc sides of it (of course not hereby reducing the importance of all good both prevention and support activities!). I wonder how this discussion is taken on in these areas of the world you wonder about...

Safer Internet

Hi Peter

Good point about finding the balance between the risks and the benefits. That part of the discussion does take place. In fact I am not sure that everyone thinks that the fear is taking the lead. I believe that we are erring too much on the side of enthusiasm, but there are certainly many who believe that we are too fearful.

I also think that the discussions need to be going further than that. I think we do too little proper analysis of both the benefits and the risks that are associated with the spread of internet access and mobile technologies. What is a risk in one place need not be so in another place. And likewise, what needs to be in place in order for the benefits to materialise. As an example, empowerment does not come with access to internet, unless the context to that access allows for empowerment to happen. In another thread I mentioned that increased access for children to report abuse does not necessarily lead to empowerment of children. As a minimum there needs to be system that can respond to a report, otherwise better access to reporting, faster reporting, etc. will not lead to better response for children.

I fear that we sometimes get excited about opportunities that come with technology but forget to check of the context is such that the technology will actually lead to better protection of children.

This is not an argument to not use technology. It is an argument for using it with caution, based on proper situation analysis and thinking through what else needs to be in place (other than technology) in order for the technology to have a positive effect. The social side of technology, the legal implications, the capacity for policing the technology and its use are all things that are very complicated to deal with.

As a small example; if you are as old as I am (?) you will remember when computers got introduced in primary and secondary schools. At that time a few teachers knew a tiny little bit about how to use them (basically how to turn them on and how to open a word processing programme) and were then put in charge of teaching children how to use computers. Within a very short time, the children they were meant to teach were far more skilled in the use of computers than the teachers. This led to quite substantial shifts in the authority of the teacher and the power balance between teachers and students. In many cases for the better, but my point is that this is just a small example of how the introduction of new technology inevitably will cause social changes and I am not sure that we always think it through. We are dealing with parents who have never learned to read and write and do not necessarily see any need for their children to learn to read and write. It takes a lot of community mobilisation to get parents on board with the idea of having their children learn to read and write, let alone going to school for more than a few years. The introduction of internet and mobile techonology is even further away.

So my point is that I believe it is easy to get excited about the opportunities techonology seems to afford, but also easy to forget about a lot of the preconditions for it to actually be of any benefit to the protection of children and easy to forget about the unintended negative effects.

Safer Internet

Hi Michael!

I can nothing but agree to your aspects, especially that these analyses need to be done differently in different contexts. The difference is of course enormous between a society where just a minimal minority of children have not got access to and daily use the Internet, to the one where the prime goal is to get children to some schooling at all. Maybe my fear that fear gets a too big role is more of a west world or European dilemma? I also appreciate your words on "thinking through what else needs to be in place (other than technology) in order for the technology to have a positive effect" and connect to the very interesting texts from Wait.. What? (Linda/ PLAN), mentioned in another thread.

I am also at least old enough ;-) to remember what happened in schools when computers was introduced (and/but I would say that we still see that same shifted power balance when it comes to Internet and ICT use, even if teachers et al are slowly cathing up). It's one good example of the impact of new technologies' introduction, no doubt we are liviing just in the middle of a societal paradigm shift. And maybe it implies something on the need for child participation, at many levels...

Child Participation

Hi Peter

I think your point about child participation is excellent. It is time-consuming and not at all easy to do, but it is very useful when it comes to understanding the effects our work will have on children. We understand so little about what may or may not happen when we do our interventions in contexts very different from the one we ourselves have grown up in. Children are very adept at analysing their own situations and anticipate reactions and consequences.

Adult participation is also important. It may sound self-evident, but we do sometimes forget that when we help children develop a strong voice, we also need to help adults develop ears that are ready to hear.

In one of our projects we are trying to use ICT to help young people develop skills that can be used to gain income. Part of the project is about involving the parents of the young people so that we ensure that there is support at home for what the young people are embarking on.

I think similar things are necessary when we introduce technology with the aim of developing better child protection.

Child participation

Hi Michael!

True. And Linda (in our "fourth" thread on resources) just gave another very helpful reference (to that Wait... What?-blog again ;-) on child participation, and getting it right when you engage children for giving their voices, as experts or representatives, at events or meetings.

Further on child participation you could of course state that the whole idea of running child helplines is child participation, at least if you get your advocacy work right. But children participating in different kinds of support services - peer-to-peer-support - can also be very powerful. The challenge, as in most efforts in the child participation field I guess, is to provide the right framework.

One of our services is the Discussion forum, offered in similar ways in many child helplines. It has proven to be very popular - the yearly number of posts to our forum have increased every year since we started in 2003; and appreciated - rated by the children as very helpful in the evaluation of our webbased services that I mentioned in an earlier comment.

The Discussion forum is offered within our child support community at www.bris.se and works very much like any, such as this, forum - with a log in to write posts, but publicly readable. BUT every single post, being it a main or head question or answers to that, is moderated by BRIS' helpline workers = read before it is published. This enables us to make the forum completely anonymous, safe and helpful, yet with the ambition not to border the children too much. A vast majority of posts sent in are published. Within this framework the children and young people give each other such tremendous support, from "someone who knows", direct and powerfully, leading one's peer to help and protection. And a rich complement to the services that mean a contact between the child and someone working at BRIS.

It's then a great way to get support, but also an appreciated way of giving support. An interesting detail from the above mentioned evaluation was that we asked children which parts of the Discussion forum they appreciated most. And the option to "write answers and help others" got second best rating, only fragments lower than for "getting answers on your own post".

Peer support and technology

Hi Peter

This sounds very interesting. I like this approach of having peer support incorporated in the discussion and feedback forum. This seems to be a good example of how technology can enhance and expand an already existing mechanism for the better. Children have of course always sought and given peer support (sibling to sibling, friend to friend, etc.) but here technology seems to take that normal social child to child support to another level.

This means that technology does not replace something good that already exists, it just makes it even better. When we introduce/expand/improve helplines and other forms of child protection enhanced by technology, I think it is very important that we are aware of this and make sure  that we do not replace already existing peer-to-peer support. In places where children do not necessarily have easy and private internet access we may have to think of other ways to do so, but your experiences point to an important aspect that we need to take into account.



Keeping children safe online

Michael Mahrt wrote:

How do we take these things into consideration when working in areas of the world where instant communication, mobile technology, social networks and the ability to connect with anyone at anytime is new? Do we properly anticipate how upload issues may affect children in those particular areas? Are our local authority partners ready and equipped to deal with these types of problems?

Keeping children safe online, while downloading or uploading is being discussed a lot.

This discussion is important, but a practical solution even more.

I would like to mention here that the organisation keeping children safe 2012 (with a working group consisting of World Vision, War Child Holland, Save the Children and Plan International) are recruiting a consultant to:

  • produce a guide that assists organisations to ensure, as much as possible, children are protected when using social media including; advice for parents, teachers, sponsors, individual donors of advice for children to stay safe online
  • produce a guide for children to stay safe when using social media tools. 

As soon as its finished we will upload it under the resource section of this dialogue! Any input would be helpful!

Keeping children safe on-line

 Hi everyone,

I would like to share a related publication that UNICEF's Innocenti Research Centre developed in 2011 called 'Child Safety Online' and accesible at: http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/650

Expanding Internet access for all children and young people without discrimination and exclusion in all parts of the world, together with promoting digital citizenship and responsibility, ought to be critical objectives for policymakers concerned with enhancing opportunities for children.

The study primarily addresses two issues: child sex abuse recorded in images; and the grooming of young people for sex. A third issue, cyberbullying, emerging from much research as an issue of particular significance to children, is also touched on in this report. There are many knowledge gaps about the protection challenges raised by the Internet, particularly in parts of the world where its penetration is so far more limited. There has been significant work undertaken to analyse children’s online behaviour and investments made in strategies to address and prevent abuse in parts of Asia, across Europe and the United States of America. But there has been less exploration of online child abuse and exploitation across many low- and middle-income countries.

Thought this may be of interest!

Child Safety Online Report

Thanks for the link to that report Pernilla- have a had a quick look through and will share with my team- among many great points it definitely flags the need for parents to be brought into the equation and helped to feel confident to have calm conversations with their children about their online lives. All research seems to be reflecting the fears of parents that they simply don't have the capacity to monitor their children's behaviour and keep them safe through their own lack of internet knowledge - I know our data reflects this......(Quick background: Our Kids Helpline website is  structured around 3 micro-websites - 1 for children under 14 years, 1 for those over 14 years and 1 for grown-ups/parents). Each of the the issues based "tip sheet" style "Hot Topics" we regularly produce  are tailored for each of these 3 audiences, and it is the tip sheet for Cyber-bullying written for the parents website which gets thousands more views per month than any other tip sheet on any other issue for any of these audiences.

A second point (amongst many many) I found particularly interesting, was on page 9: “As use of the Internet becomes more personalized, the role of parents or teachers becomes more difficult, which places even greater responsibility on industry to manage the risks that children may encounter. Failure to do this will expose the industry to risk of governmental or regional regulation that has a negative impact on the freedoms embodied in the Internet as it is today”. I guess I really wonder about what degree of corporate responsibility we will see emerging given the inevitable rights based debate around whose rights are greater - " an individual to their freedoms " or "a child's to being safe"...?

Hey Kristin A few thoughts on

Hey Kristin

A few thoughts on this as it pertains to mobile.

FrontlineSMS, our project, creates and distributes free, open-source software that lets you send, receive and manage SMS traffic in a professional and sophisticated way using only low-cost modems and phones, and paying only the standard cost per SMS that would apply to a standard subscriber.The software has been downloaded 32,000 since it was launched in 2005 and is in use in over 80 countries, helping community organizations and project managers to interact with communities and collect data using SMS where otherwise cost and complexity would prevent it.

It's easy to imagine youth workers all over the world setting up SMS-based interaction streams with the young people they work with, or more broadly for community support and education purposes - indeed Plan International has done just that.

A few reflections on our experiences of supporting users working on some of these types of programs

  • SMS is not a secure communications channel and vulnerability to SMS being intercepted exist at all points in the technical chain between you, as the service provider, and your end user. Our 2011 Data Integrity Guide is intended to help users think through and mitigate these risks.
  • When you're communicating with young people, particularly young women and girls, who owns the handset, and more importantly, who controls or monitors its use? It's important to think through whether your communications could inadvertantly put young people at risk.
  • Where literacy is an issue, you may want to steer clear of SMS, in favour of voice-based interventions. One tool you can use for this is Freedom Fone.
  • If you're collecting data or running surveys, and offering help, bear in mind the power relationship you're setting up. Who owns the data  you're collecting? If you're asking personal questions, is the person you're interacting with really giving informed consent to your interactions, particularly if you have something they badly need, like help and resources? What happens to their data after your project is concluded?
  • I think this has been raised elsewhere, but where you are collecting information for research or advocacy, how strong is the tie between asking people to tell you what they are experiencing and your ability to provide support? Is this understood by the people you're interacting with?

Just a few thoughts - enjoying the discussion, thanks everyone!


Some challenges we've faced

Hi All, 

So I thought I'd note some challenges in designing different programs that use ICTs. I'm copying and pasting from different blog posts I've written about programs we're involved in or things I've seen/heard from others, so there are some links also to longer posts



Risks related to the use of mobiles

Hi everyone, very interesting discussion going on here on the challenges and risks related to the use of ICT. I think the gender issues are important as well as equity considering that many of the most disadvantageous children do not have parents or teachers - or any responsible adults - to guide them in the use of technological devises they may get hold of. I'm wondering what kind of experiences (risks/opportunities) there are with street children, for instance, using mobiles or other technology?

Another point I wanted to raise is the risks related to the use of mobiles. Most of our legitimate concerns refer to the use of internet but how well have the risks of simple mobile phones have been examined? When used for violence reporting, for instance, the information can be tracked down to the used mobile device by the operator. This is a serious concern. What other risks have you identifed with simple mobiles? Would love to read from your experiences, as always!

Mirkka Mattila, UNICEF WCARO

Resources for understanding mobile risks

Great questions, Mirkka! I'm sure Laura and Heather know much more about mobile security than I do, but I wanted to share a few resources that have been made to help people like us understand these risks:

OnoRobot, a Tactical Tech initiative, has a bunch of great videos on digital security - risks and tips. Here's one specifically on mobile phones.

Another great resource created by Tactical Tech is the Me and my Shadow site. Under Trace My Shadow you can select the device you want to know more about - regarding risks. It's a great tool for understanding how your information is vulnerable on different devices, in different ways.

And finally, there's always the Security in a Box toolkit. This chapter is specifically on mobile phones - risks, tools and tips.

Resources for understanding mobile risks

Hey Mirkka

We gave some thought to this issue last year and came up with a guide to Data Integrity which you can find on our website and which I think I've mentioned elsewhere. I think there is less danger in terms of operators tracking children than there is with whistleblowing or violence reporting, but there can be risk if SMS are intercepted by a violent adult.

Hope helpful,


What challenges and risks exist around security and privacy?

The key challenges and risks that I encounter are levels of digital literacy and strict risk assessment/planning. I am frequently contacted by people who would like to use Ushahidi and /or other maps to track violence against children.

People can and should test with new technology, however, when I speak or correspond with them, I encourage them to start with very innucous items like (favourite food or tourist spots).The learning phase should not be the large project, but something less risk oriented. The key is to determine if the group's purpose and methodology work with the tools.

When I consider the various levels of digital literacy combined with the security/privacy questions, I respond with heavy caution.  Once a person has determined that they wish to use Ushahidi's tools, I also highly recommend that they have a strict regiment of training and security planning.  (eg. a firewall and password protected)  I will admit that I am slightly discouraged that people are sometimes putting the technology before the plan, especially when it involves children. This is why I am firm when contacted that they should have a strong plan and background knowledge before proceeding.

One gap that I am encountering is a guideline for researchers and data owners for anonymizing data. If this exists, I would be happy to adhere and share widely.

Here are some of the items I share:

1. Link contact to the work and research noted on Linda Raftree's blog.

2. Encourage them to review wiki pages on the Ushahidi Toolkits and Best Practices (including Security).

Thank you all for this open dialogue and resource sharing. This will become one additional resource that I will share if asked about this type of mapping.





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