Sri Lanka’s digital divide | Daily News

Sri Lanka’s digital divide

Child internet usage reveals disturbing statistics
The gender disparity has grave  consequences  for the future careers envisioned by these child IT users
The gender disparity has grave consequences for the future careers envisioned by these child IT users

On Internet Safety Day last week, UNICEF Sri Lanka launched a landmark study on the digital landscape of Sri Lanka, specifically relating to children and their internet usage. The report, titled “Keeping Children Safe and Empowered Online: A Study on Sri Lanka’s Digital Landscape,” revealed that Sri Lanka has a ‘digital divide’- that is, a gulf between those who have ready access to computers or the internet and those who do not.

According to the report, this divide exists across the board, within the categories of gender, geographic location, socio-economic class and more. Boys have more internet access than girls, urban children have more internet access than rural and plantation children, and children from wealthier families have more internet access than children from poorer families.

The report also identified key risks children face when on the internet, such as misusing private information, accessing harmful content, and cyberbullying.

At a launch event for the report, held at the Institute of Policy Studies in Colombo, the digital divide and aforementioned risks were discussed by UNICEF officials as well as a panel of expert representatives from an array of relevant fields, all of whom put forth proposed solutions.

Details of the study

In order to understand the digital habits of children in the country, UNICEF Sri Lanka worked with the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure and the Institute for Participatory Interaction in Development (IPID) to survey and collect data from over 5,000 children. Of the children surveyed, 4,845 attend government schools (urban, rural, and plantation), 429 attend private schools including international ones and 75 were reached at telecentres.

Children were then further divided into three categories and given a different survey depending on which of the following categories they fell under: non-IT users (children with no access to a digital device or the internet), non-online IT users (children who had access to a digital device but not the internet) and online IT users (children with access to a digital device and access to the internet). Non-IT users comprised 7 percent of the children surveyed, non-online IT users comprised 40 percent and online IT users comprised 53 percent.

In addition to these surveys, those behind the study also collected school data from 60 principles island-wide, held 66 focus group discussions with 696 children and 29 focus group discussions with 216 parents and conducted several key informant interviews with government policymakers, international organisations, national opinion leaders, media personnel, academics, NGO leaders and corporate leaders to outline policy issues related to the online access and security of children.

The digital divide

Studies have shown that children who have access to the internet are exposed to a wealth of benefits. But according to the report, while 52.8 percent of young people in Sri Lanka overall have access to the internet - with the average age of first access being 13 - this access is far from equitable. The digital divide in Sri Lanka is real.

Among the 11-18 year old children surveyed, 67.6 percent of boys reported having internet access while just 33.1 percent of girls reported the same.

This gender disparity has grave consequences for the future careers envisioned by these child IT users.

“The report also highlighted a difference in terms of career aspiration and employment prospects,” explained a press release distributed at the launch event.

“When asked, 25 percent of respondent boys hoped to gain employment in engineering compared to just 9 percent of girls. Moreover, 6.2 percent of boys hoped to find employment in IT or software related industries compared to just 1.9 percent of girls.”

Variances among region, ethnicity and educational attainment also persisted.

Among urban children, 67.8 percent reported having internet access, compared to 47.1 percent of rural children and 39.3 percent of plantation children. Muslim children reported a significantly higher rate of internet access (66 percent) than Tamil (50.3 percent) and Sinhala (51.7 percent) children. And children who have been educated through A-Level exams reported a higher rate of internet access (70.5 percent) than children who have only been educated through O-Level (58.7 percent) and children who have only attended school up to grades 6 through 9 (34.9 percent).

Speaking at the launch event, UNICEF country representative Tim Sutton said, “Digital technology and the internet has the potential to be a game changer for children and adolescents in Sri Lanka - especially vulnerable and disadvantaged communities - by providing new opportunities to learn, socialize, make their voices heard and prepare for the future.”

“However,” he continued, “These same technologies can also be a dividing line, exacerbating and enabling inequities to prevail. We must work together to ensure the benefits and opportunities of the digital world are open to all children while ensuring their safety and security online.”

Risks for children online

The ideal, of course, would be to ensure that every child in Sri Lanka has equitable internet access. But that alone won’t solve the problem. For as the UNICEF report outlines, children who access the internet are also highly at risk for various dangerous behaviours.

According to the report, “Whilst children and adolescents are increasingly going online, they are doing so without adult oversight or supervision.” Explains the report further: “When asked, 53.6 percent of child online IT users responded that they were ‘self-taught’ about the internet, compared to 16.5 percent who were taught by parents.”

And this trend of self-teaching can have grave consequences, especially in an arena where privacy is so often an afterthought.

Of the child online IT users surveyed, 46.3 percent said they communicated with people they did not know online and 27.9 percent of these respondents said they physically met a stranger from online in person. To the concern of many, 18.3 percent of these children said they met such strangers without informing someone beforehand.

Further privacy and safety issues abound with children’s internet access. Of the respondents, 15.1 percent admitted to giving true, private information such as their name, age, telephone number or email to strangers online.

Then there are issues of bullying and of sending or receiving compromising photos. Explains the report: “A proportion of those who undertake risky behaviour admitted to sending nasty messages that could hurt someone’s feelings (24.8 percent) and sending or uploading ‘adult’ images, video, or text (10.7 percent).”

How to keep children safe online

The question, then, is how to ensure equitable internet access for all children while keeping them safe online. Luckily, the study and the panel participants provided several recommendations for action.

The first recommendation is to provide more quality online Sinhala- and Tamil-language content. According to UNICEF’s global report on children in a digital world released last year, “56 percent of all websites are in English and many children cannot find content they understand or that is culturally relevant.”

Other recommendations followed, such as enacting legislation to ensure the safe use of the internet by children, establishing a self-regulatory body of telecommunications and IT industry partners, encouraging internet service providers to introduce network-level parental controls to customers and developing age-specific educational and training material into the IT curriculums in schools.

On a broader level, it is also crucial to ensure that more children have not just literacy but access to using the internet, lest Sri Lanka be left out of the impending third industrial revolution.

Sutton of UNICEF puts it simply: “As Sri Lanka identifies and positions itself for a new role in the wider region and drives to become a knowledge-based economy as a route to further prosperity, it is clear that the digital skills and wellbeing of its young people will be fundamental. By utilizing the insight presented in this report and by implementing the clear recommendations, we can help to ensure that we maximize the vast opportunities provided by digital technology to children whilst minimizing the risk of harm, for the benefit of all of Sri Lanka.” 

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