In Liberia, and the world over, many parents do not pay attention to their children’s access and use of the Internet; whether it is via their phone or on a computer. A lot of parents in Liberia are not cognizant of the fact that their children have social network (Facebook) accounts which they use for inappropriate activities. They (parents) also are not aware of the possibility of their children/teens being enticed (both men and women) into inappropriate activities (soliciting sex online) on the Internet. In my opinion, this may be the result of illiteracy, the lack of computer or internet knowledge, or the fact there has not been a reported case involving child abuse on the internet in Liberia. But if there has not been one, should we wait for one to occur before we act? Is it not time that we develop and enforce policies that protect our children while they are online?
For the past decade, Liberia has made progress in the area of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). The creation of a national regulator (Liberia Telecommunications Authority); a liberal market; the advent of mobile operators; the development of a national ICT policy; an e-government strategy; Universal Access Program with its policy directives; connection to the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) optical Fiber Cable; the development of a national web portal; and most recently, the installation and dedication of the Internet exchange point. These are just a few of the developments in the ICT sector that have occurred in the past ten (10) years. The result of all the achievements that I have just mentioned is increased access to telecommunications and the Internet. The latter is the crux of today’s article.
No doubt the expansion of the Internet and its accompanying technologies has brought both increased efficiency and new methods of communication. However, the Internet also makes it easier for bad actors to offend others. One form of online is online child abuse. Children and teenagers constitute a large portion of Internet.
Indeed, children are exposed to the Internet at the very young ages. The increasing number of teens who are online emphasizes the need to educate children about how to navigate the online world in a safe and moral manner.
The Internet can be an exciting place for children and teenagers because they are able to adopt different identities and interact away from adult supervision. Yet this same autonomy also makes the Internet dangerous. Just as teenagers can create personas that are different from their real world identity, so too can sexual predators, other cyber-criminals, molesters, abusers, et al.
In Liberia, and perhaps other parts of the world, people take advantage of children and teens over the Internet. Many adults sign up for accounts on Facebook and other social networks to gain access to teens who they can “mesmerize” or tempt with a few dollars or other material things to get them in bed. Oftentimes, the parents are totally oblivious to this. It is no secret that our authorities (Ministry of Gender and the Liberia National Police) lack the capacity to down on these inappropriate online activities, hence, they endure. The result of this inability to arrest these inappropriate online activities is increased prostitution, increased teen pregnancy, but worst of all an irreversible destruction of the future of this country.
We may all differ over the over the question of whether the risk of harm to children from the Internet comes from people or from the technology itself. Yet in the context of protecting children from exposure to potentially disturbing, harmful and age inappropriate materials, it may, in fact, be necessary to see the Internet itself as posing a risk to children.
The extraordinary opportunities offered by the Internet for enhancing our lives do not come without risks. Although materials that may be unsuitable for children may constitute, relative to information that is useful, educational and entertaining, a small percentage of overall Internet-accessible content, the ease with which children may stumble across disturbing, harmful and age inappropriate materials are too disturbing and real to ignore. The constitutional obligation to act in the best interests of the child imposes a duty on Government, the Liberian ICT sector and civil society to develop mechanisms to protect children from exposure to materials which pose a risk of harm to their emotional and psychological well-being.
When I discuss risk in this article, I am not only referring to materials which may be illegal, such as child pornography, but also from materials which are legal but intended for adults. A child using the Internet for useful information can be drawn or strong-armed into viewing unsuitable and illegal materials by being directed to sites containing harmful materials, or through “pop-ups” and “mouse trapping”.
While we must be concerned with the representation of children in pornography (child pornography), which involves the abuse and sexual exploitation of children, we should also be concerned about their exposure to solicitation of sex by adults, sexually-explicit materials, online sale of drugs and the consequential harm to their emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Note that the fact that the Internet itself poses a risk of harm to children is not intended to suggest that the Internet should be “banned” for children. It is an opinion intended to highlight the need to ensure that children’s use of the Internet is regulated to minimize risks to their well-being. But be that as it may, we should continue to pressure our authorities to develop and put in place the regulatory, social and economic frameworks that will shape future contexts and consequences of Internet use by children in Liberia.
Ostensibly the Internet has become an increasingly indispensable source of information, eventually replacing traditional libraries in schools; more and more children will be exposed to risk of exposure to objectionable materials. In addition, the ensuing decade or so, will see the internet taken for granted within our homes, meaningfully embedded in the routines of children’s daily lives. How the technology – and its economic, political and cultural dimensions – will have changed, and in what ways the Internet is judged beneficial or harmful, remains to be seen.
Finally, parents go through a lot to raise their children to be good citizens and to live a good life. To see all this effort go to waste because of the perverted behavior of an adult who simply cares about his/her selfish desire is just disheartening. It is for this reason, we MUST now begin to develop policies that will be enforced for the protection of the future of Liberia.