An expert explains: the digital risks facing our children during COVID-19

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • More than 1 billion children globally have been affected by school closures.
  • Online learning has filled a lot of the gaps, meaning screen time has increased for many children.
  • Around 60% of 8- to 12-year-olds are exposed to cyber risk, including cyberbullying, according to the Child Online Safety Index.
  • Founder of DQ Institute Yuhyun Park explains how to help your child stay safe online – and how we need to teach the world about digital citizenship.

This summer, Yuhyun Park’s 13-year-old son will be getting his first smartphone.

It’s not a decision the mother-of-two took lightly, but he earned his right to have the device by passing a digital citizenship test, with a score of 115 in eight core digital skills.

Park is very familiar with the test – because she created it.

A trained statistician and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Park pioneered the term “digital intelligence” or DQ. She runs the DQ Institute, which measures child online safety around the world through the Child Online Safety Index.

“It started from a very personal thing,” she says. “I wanted my children to be wise people in this time of AI. Machines are smarter than us, they can be kinder than us, but I want my children to be wiser than machines and being wise means making the right decision as a human with values.”

She also developed the global movement #DQEveryChild to empower 8- to 12-year-olds online with digital citizenship – a set of abilities to use technology wisely – to minimize cyber risks and maximize the potential of technology.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
The core 8 DQ citizenship skills children need.
Image: DQ Institute

To this end, Park has set up the online educational platform DQ World – with modules on skills from critical thinking and screen time to cyberbullying and privacy.

In this time of coronavirus, though, with lockdowns closing schools around the world, keeping children safe online has never been more critical.

On 16 May, 69.3% of total enrolled learners were affected by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to UNESCO, with 158 countrywide closures.

Park has set up a COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, to provide a free Child Digital Readiness Kit for families and schools around the world during the school shut-down and to help countries keep children safe online during the pandemic and beyond.

Here, Yuhyun Park explains the risks children are facing during lockdown, and how the world would benefit from digital citizenship.

What is the situation like in lockdown?

We published the Child Online Safety Index (COSI) in February, based on data from the past three years we’d gathered through the #DQ Every Child movement, together with the World Economic Forum. Lack of connectivity is a huge issue globally, of course. But COSI is about the children who have access to the internet but don’t know how to use it in a safe, responsible and ethical way.

In 30 countries, 60% of children have experienced at least one cyber risk: cyberbullying, gaming disorder, online sexual behaviour or reputational risk, fake news and others. Risk doesn’t mean harm, but it’s a huge number of children having a negative experience online.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Children are facing a cyber pandemic.
Image: DQ Institute.

That was before coronavirus, so can you imagine what’s happening now? UNESCO reports that 50% of children around the world whose schools have closed do not have access to a computer, so of course there is a huge digital divide. But among those who do, we see an extreme spike of unregulated screen time among children. And there’s a lack of support from the teachers as well as the parents.

In terms of online learning, how big a problem is digital inequality?

Singapore is one of a few places that has been developing online learning platforms with government support in an extensive way, but not every country is able to do this. The schools that can cope best are often private and international schools that have previously invested in online learning. But many schools, largely public schools in the Global South, were not prepared for this crisis. It is a game-changer in education – and there’s a gap in terms of the preparedness of the system.

The other area of concern is that budgets have been cut and teachers are not trained to cope with online learning, so they are open to more EdTech which hasn’t been proven. In this type of situation, it seems like technology drives, but actually the people drive – and empowering individual teachers and also the parents is so important when it comes to education as well as online safety.

A lot of parents assume children are better at technology, which may be true in an operational way. But because of this generation and digital gap, parents aren’t teaching children about the basic digital citizenship, which is a set of today’s life skills, including privacy management; recognizing personal data and how it is used online; how to react to cyberbullies. The list goes on.

Is cyber risk having a greater impact on children’s well-being now?

It’s important to teach children holistically about digital citizenship as cyber risks – whether it’s cyberbullying, gaming addiction or online grooming – are all interconnected. COVID-19 is making the potential exposure to cyber risk greater, but it’s not necessarily a causal effect. Causal effects of cyber risk are lack of knowledge, lack of discipline, uncontrolled digital use.

A lot of research has been done on cyberbullying, showing it can lead to a higher percentage of suicidal thoughts. Offline bullying might stay in the schoolyard, but with cyberbullying there’s no limit. It happens in your child’s bedroom and under your protection.

We’re putting our children out there in an unfiltered, uncensored digital world and we cannot be with them 24/7. So we need to equip them with the filter. By empowering them with digital citizenship, we want them to be independent thinkers to discern the risk and then make the right decisions online. It will be the basis for them to open up a new horizon in a digital world.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
More than 1 billion learners globally have been impacted by school closures.
Image: Statista

What is the DQ Child Readiness Kit?

We want to minimize cyber risk and maximize children’s potential, and the DQ score is an indication of how ready they are to go online. On our platform, DQWorld.net, there are eight modules on eight key digital skills that children learn in an hour a day for eight days. So, for example, children learn about screen time and why it is bad for their development, through a research-based curriculum.

The children can learn by themselves and are given a DQ score, which considers their online behaviour, knowledge, skills, attitudes and values. It’s not a pass-or-fail test – it’s a way to inform parents of their child’s level of digital citizenship and potential exposure to cyber risk. It’s also a starting point for them to talk with their kids. It’s about empowering both parties.

We specifically target 8- to 12-year-olds because our research shows the average children get their first device around the age of 10. That’s like getting a driver’s licence before you can drive.

Screen time has been going up during lockdown. Should parents be worried?

Limiting screen time is difficult for today’s hyperconnected families. We define it in terms of entertainment use only, because kids are online for a minimum six hours a day at school, and their usual entertainment use is also about six hours. So they’re basically exposed to a screen for the whole day. Research shows limiting screen time and the kind of content being watched is related to better mental and physical health, and improved school grades and prosocial behaviour.

In DQ World, we take a scientific approach. We’re not saying don’t play online. We’re teaching children what we mean by screen time, helping them calculate it, and then letting them know about the side-effects. So DQ World is like a mental exercise training tool for the parents to help children self-manage their screen time.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
The 2020 children online safety index.
Image: DQ Institute

What are countries at the top of the Child Online Safety Index doing right?

The pattern of cyber risk is very similar across language and cultural barriers, and is probably affected by the global nature of online business, social media and gaming. So we need a global measure to protect children online.

Japan, for example, has a lower cyber risk than the US or UK. Its regulation policies are not necessarily better than the US or UK, which have strong child protection measures. But when we looked at the data, one of the most protective measures was actually not having mobile devices, which are the conduit to being active in social media and gaming. Other protective measures are living environment, happiness and family, but if you remove all these factors, the number one predictor [for cyber risk] is high active social media use on mobile devices.

Parenting is the second most protective measure. But what is interesting is that cyberbullying is beyond parental control, whereas gaming addiction is heavily influenced by how parents interact with their kids. Cyberbullying is more related to school education, with a group intervention, and social media use. So if you want to be really protective, delay giving a mobile device to your kids.

What does the digital future for the COVID-19 generation of children look like?

I’m concerned about digital surveillance and other potential side-effects of technology, and that in the rush to digitize child protection will be left behind. This is about human rights in the digital age – we set the norm for the next generation and I think we’re neglecting our duties. We must make digital citizenship central in our education and beyond. Key to this is policy-makers and ICT industry leaders understanding the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and how we can empower children with digital literacy, and help them to use technology in a positive way.

DQ is about critical thinking, discernment and wisdom, and understanding the universal values we have to uphold. In the midst of this crisis, it is important to be cautious about rushing to implement unproven technology.

We want technology to be ethical and human-centred, but do we have regulatory measures to ensure these things are happening? We need a global framework for data protection, especially for children’s data. How is EdTech data, for example, being used? A lot of these issues are piling up. At the same time as protecting every child, how can we make sure we don’t compromise as the world moves on from COVID-19? How can we coordinate key stakeholders and come up with efficient solutions to support our children?

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