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ICT Opportunities and Threats for Children

(by Katarzyna Pawelczyk, Project Manager, Voices of Youth Citizens, UNICEF)

© Flickr/Benjamin Chan

Kate Pawelczyk is the project manager for the Voices of Youth Citizens initiative in UNICEF, which explores the opportunities and risks for children and young people in a changing digital environment. She also supports UNICEF’s youth engagement through the Voices of Youth community, which gives adolescents and youth a platform to share their views, exchange ideas and connect globally. Kate has been with UNICEF for 7 years, spending 4 of those in the capacity of Communication Specialist at the Country Office in her home country South Africa. Kate did her undergraduate in journalism and media studies, and her postgraduate in development.

What is the current situation in regard to the digital realities of children and youth today?

For many children around the world today there are no artificial boundaries between being ‘offline’ and ‘online’. The environments that children find themselves in are increasingly digital, as much of their socializing, learning, civic engagement and entertainment happens online. In many countries, children and young people are among the greatest users of this technology. Even in countries where overall internet penetration is low, it is much higher among the 15-24 age group. ITU Statistics show that in countries like Madagascar or Bangladesh, even though the overall Internet penetration is very low, 2.1% and 6.3% respectively, amongst young people it is almost double that of the general population.

While this points to the fact that the digital know-how of children and young people is often vastly superior to that of the adults in their lives, we also know that this know-how doesn’t always translate into behavior that guarantees a rich experience online with minimal exposure to inappropriate or harmful content. Given the prominent role that digital tools are playing in the lives of children and young people, it is essential that those of us tasked with ensuring their well-being understand their digital habits to inform our policies, programmes, and other interventions.

What are some examples of engagement and empowerment of young people through digital?

Children and young people are the most active users of social media and other digital tools, but it is very important to remember that they are not just consumers, but the driving force of the developments and application of digital technology. They are not just finding entertainment or socializing; many young people are increasingly using the online world and tools to mobilize on important issues, to raise awareness and to have their voices heard. 

I see this regularly in my own work. Voices of Youth – UNICEF’s global online youth community – is a space for young people to engage in dialogue and debate, to find inspiration, and to try to understand how they can take action for positive change in their own communities. It is a blog where children and young people are the primary content contributors on a range of issues: from climate change, education, employment, gender. Each year we receive around 2,000 submissions.

Another example is our Voices of Youth Maps initiative, which we are using right now to empower young people to express themselves about climate change ahead of the Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015 (COP 21) later this year. Using a digital mapping tool, a group of UNICEF offices from around the world are working with young people to create maps that depict their social and environmental surroundings. Participants spend time learning how to identify issues and then go out into their communities and plot these on a map with photos and descriptions. More importantly, they learn how to use these maps as powerful advocacy tools.

Some more examples include:

·         The U-Report initiative, a simple SMS-based system to empower young people to monitor and report on conditions in their communities, and to inform youth on important social issues. Starting in Uganda is has been implemented in around 15 countries (and counting), and has well over 1 million users.

·         Platforms like Avaaz and have given millions of people around the world a simple way to speak out and to garner support from fellow citizens. has more than 100 million users in 196 countries.

Young people themselves are also creating many of the digital opportunities, and shaping the digital landscape. In Ghana, young tech entrepreneur Regina Agyare started Tech Needs Girls, a movement and a mentorship program to get more girls to create technology. In Brazil, Paulo Rogerio Nunes introduced - a mobile blogging platform that makes it easy for people to post stories from inexpensive mobile phones – to give minorities in his country a voice when they lack access to the Internet. Last year, Kartik Sawhney, a visually-impaired computer science student from India, spoke at UNICEF’s headquarters about how he created a computer program that used different musical notes to ‘describe’ scientific graphs.

What are the remaining challenges and considerations to keep in mind, and how can we ensure safe online experiences for young digital citizens?

Looking at these examples, one cannot help but get excited. But in our excitement we cannot forget that there are millions of children and young people who have no access to digital technology. According to data from the ITU, around 4 billion people from developing countries are not online. We also cannot forget that the lack of access is more likely to be much higher among vulnerable groups – young children, females, children living with disabilities, out-of-school children, unaccompanied migrant children, etc.  (ITU, 2015).

But the digital divide is not only about physical access. Ownership rates, usage patterns, quality, and cost implications vary hugely. Mobile only users have a significantly different user-experience than those who are using and accessing the Internet on laptops or tablets. There is a huge imbalance in the quantity and quality of content available in different languages on the Internet. We also need to consider and address the disparities in information on digital media and digital safety received by young people growing up in different environments.

If we’re ensuring young people have access to digital tools, equipping them with skills, and giving them opportunities, we also need to also ensure safe online experiences. What happens in the online environment is largely a reflection of society, of the dangers children face in their homes, schools, communities and institutions. According to research, higher use usually means greater exposure to risk – be it content, contact or conduct. But risk is not the same as harm, and we need a clear understanding of the risks that children and young people might be exposed to and who the most vulnerable children are in order to design responses that allow children to capitalizing on the opportunities while minimizing risks.

What do we need to do to promote and enhance digital safety and excellence among children and youth?

We need to understand digital use and safety from the perspective of children and young people before we design digital safety information programs, or larger responses, strategies, policies, etc. We need to understand and listen to young people, creating spaces where they can express themselves honestly about their digital use, habits and behaviors.

Next, we need to integrate digital into all areas of learning for children. In 2015 ICT cannot just be a subject that is taught once a week in school. We need to help children develop critical thinking skills to assess online media and information.

We also need to balance digital safety messages with an emphasis on the usefulness of the Internet as a resource for galvanizing positive action, social accountability, or reporting problems in communities. We need to use the full spectrum of traditional and digital media in online and offline digital safety campaigns, and empower them by fostering young digital safety champions.

We need to remember the different age groups and their particular needs – children are not a homogenous group, especially when talking about online safety and digital skills. Specifically talking about ICT related violence, abuse and exploitation, the strategies that we are working on have to be part of wider national strategies to address violence, exploitation and abuse. We need to strengthen national child protection systems and support norms, attitudes and behaviors that prevent exploitation. And everybody has a role to play here: governments, parliamentarians, civil society, youth, teachers, parents, media, academia, and the private sector.



EU Kids Online Interactive Report. (2014). Retrieved from

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ITU (International Telecommunication Union). (2015). ICT Facts & Figures. Retrieved from

Palfrey, J., Gasser, U., & Maclay, C. (n.d.). Digital natives and the three divides to bridge. Retrieved from

UNICEF’s U-Report social platform hits 1 million active users. (2015, July 16). UNICEF Press Centre. Retrieved from

Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre and UNICEF. (2014). Children’s Rights in the Digital Age: A Download from Children Around the World. Melbourne: Third, A., Bellerose, D., Dawkins, U., Keltie, E., & Pihl, K. Retrieved from


Contact info: Katarzyna Pawelczyk,


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