This year marks ten years since the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development released its initial goals to push the importance of broadband to the international policy agenda. In previous years, the Commission would meet during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, but in unprecedented times, our meeting of 55 Commissioners took place online this year.
During the session, I was invited to say a few words about what the pandemic has taught us from the perspective of online safety and meaningful use of connectivity. As ever, my observations relate to children online.
There are two images that stand out to me from the last four months:
The first, was an incident of a horrendous Child Sex Abuse Video that was circulating in the local London schools of my area during lockdown. The video itself is not fit to describe, but I am struck by the admission of one of the teachers who said “we have stopped online learning because we are more frightened of what the children are seeing and doing online than we are of what they are missing.” This comment was a horrible reminder that the impact of harm is not reserved to the abused child or the child who witnesses abuse, but also that this impact ripples through communities of adults and children in ways that we do not ‘count’ or associate as part of the cost of connectivity.
The second, was in talking to the CEO of a large global private school network who had, from a standing start, managed to get 100% of the school timetable online in less than three weeks – an immensely impressive achievement. When I asked what they had done with respect to safeguarding, he looked a little pale and said, “nothing”.
All over the world as we hit a second wave of infection, the privileged – myself included– speak to each other from comfortable home offices with miraculous connectivity. Around the globe headlines blame the young as “narcissistic and invulnerable” for spreading the virus. Meanwhile, as we battle with rampant health misinformation, we look over the fact that the young disproportionality access their news online, they do not have money to go behind the pay wall, they do not buy physical newspapers, and so are, as a result, provided with conspiracy theories and half-truths – that do nothing less than kill.
What we knew before the pandemic has been brought into sharp relief.
That it is not only the connectivity, but the quality of that connectivity that we must attend to.
That the miracle that can and must connect us all has also the power to hurt.
That ‘invention’ of the world wide web 30 years ago is no longer a passive tool of connectivity – but is the gateway and mediator of all of human activity, including that of childhood.
1 billion children are online but 1.6 billion children have had their education interrupted as a result of the pandemic.
The lesson of the pandemic is even as we try to reach out to those 600 million children to get them online, we have an uphill struggle to make absolutely certain that the digital world we provide them does not hurt them.
Baroness Beeban Kidron is Chair of 5Rights Foundation and Commissioner on the Broadband Commission for the Sustainable Development Goals