Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen
I was so very pleased to receive the invitation to speak at this conference, not only because I am looking forward to an interesting morning, but also because I consider the issue of children and internet extremely important. When I founded World Childhood Foundation 13 years ago, I did so because I had seen how many children all around us were at risk of being abused and exploited. And although there are many organizations around the world working with children, it just wasn´t enough. I strongly felt that there was a need for more good efforts. Childhood, thus, became an organization which focused on children at the edge of society, those who were not seen and who needed support to get on the right track and grow into happy and healthy adults. To do this we decided to work mainly with preventive methods, and more importantly we decided that we needed to be where the children are.
Some years back we realized that the children started developing new, less obvious arenas where they could socialize, learn about life and have new experiences. The internet became a place of interaction, information and new experiences. In addition, this was an arena where they could be anonymous and where few adults were present. For a teenager, this must be heaven! And for most teenagers, the internet has become a fantastic tool to make friends, stay in contact with friends far away, for academic purposes etc. But for some children, the internet has also become a place where the lack of protection and adult supervision may place them in great harm and danger. Which is why we strongly need guidance in how to protect our children on the internet without limiting the positive effects of the internet.
There are several rules and regulations in existence today with the purpose to protect and support our children. Our challenge is to ensure that these also apply to the internet. One example is The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is a key Convention. And it also applies in conjunction with the use of the Internet by children and young people.
The Convention assures children and young people the right to express their opinions and a right to information. However, it also prescribes that the child is entitled to a private life and to be protected from material that may be harmful. It seeks in general to provide protection from people who in various ways are malevolent towards children. Children and young people are spending an increasing amount of time on the Internet and using social media, and we therefore face the challenge of finding a good balance considering the best interests of the child.
A growing number of children in Europe use the Internet. For example, one in two three-year olds in Sweden currently uses the Internet. This is a challenge that both parents and educators have to deal with so that they can make children aware and enable them to become critical media users, competent to protect both their own privacy and the privacy of others. We must also of course protect children and young people who are for other reasons at manifest risk of running into ‘digital trouble´. These may be children without good adult role models. These may be children who for various reasons take greater risks than others, and consequently become more exposed and vulnerable on the Internet. These may be children with different forms of disability who need special support to interpret information and understand potential risks associated with people they meet while on the internet.
The Convention also stipulates that the countries that have acceded to it should assist parents to be good parents. We, as adults, must participate and support children and young people in their everyday use of digital media, just as we do in all other areas of their upbringing. We often participate in their leisure activities, taking them around for their sporting activities, and get involved with young people in various local activities; as adults we feel comfortable with this involvement and can see the benefit. However, the rapid growth and development of the Internet, with the constant change of social arenas and new ways of interaction, mean that many of us may sometimes feel uncertain about how best to support our children and young people.
The Internet and digital media plays a major part of the day-to-day lives of our children and young people. The problem is that we as adults do not have a sufficiently great insight into their ‘new´ day-to-day lives. We need knowledge and understanding in order to provide good support. The good news is that we can get this support from our children and young people. If we listen, they have a great deal to tell us. If we look, they have much to show us. If we make ourselves available, we can learn so much more from them.
I am a strong believer in physical meetings - that we can see and interact in real life with the people we meet, so that we can bring in more dimensions in the meeting. I was therefore very happy to learn that around 30 young people from the Nordic Countries have met, in real life, for a few days preceding this conference. They discussed the use of the Internet, looking at behaviour and standards, the things that it is important to be aware of, and the rules and principles concerning what should or should not apply. I am very happy that some of these delegates are here today. Let us ensure that we listen to what they have to say and use their message as a platform for further discussions. Let us ensure that we protect our children on the internet just as much as we try to protect our children in real life.