EA struggles to protect children online as digital life quality stagnates

Saturday February 17 2024

Uganda, Tanzania and DRC are among the countries with the poorest digital quality of life globally, and are currently ranked 14th, 20th, and 25th in Africa respectively, out of the 25 African countries sampled. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


East African countries are struggling to protect children online amid poor digital infrastructure, policies, regulation and parental negligence.

Most East African countries score poorly on both the Child Online Safety Index (Cosi) by digital intelligence think tank DQ Institute, and the digital quality of life (DQL) index by Surfshark, a Dutch cybersecurity firm, published last week.

According to the Cosi ranking, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) generally rank low in online protection of children, with poor performance in family support common.

The Cosi measures how exposed children are to cyber risks (such as cyberbullying, age-inappropriate content, and spyware); the level of parental mediation for their children’s online safety; school education on the same; how ICT companies in a country ensure child online safety; the level of regulatory enforcement; and the quality of technology infrastructure support.

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Kenya, which ranks better than other East African countries, excels in school education and ICT company responsibility. However, regulations, family support, infrastructure and children’s technology use are worse than global benchmarks.


Safe use of internet

Rwanda is below the global average but performs better in ICT company responsibility and regulations. Its children’s safe use of the Internet, family support, and digital infrastructure are however poorer. Burundi and DRC both perform poorly on all fronts.

“In an age where our children leave their digital footprints before they can walk, ensuring their online journey is safe is not just a responsibility but also a crucial obligation,” said Agneska Sablovskaja, Surfshark’s lead researcher.

“Global co-ordinated action, akin to addressing climate challenges, is imperative, and we can no longer delay,” said Yuhyun Park, founder of DQ Institute.

At the same time, a separate report shows that the digital quality of life — a measure of how well citizens enjoy their life online — is generally low in the region, and this is also aggravating unsafe use of the internet by children, Surfshark research shows.

The DQL index ranks countries based on internet affordability, internet quality, electronic infrastructure, security, and governance, which covers State policies on improved digital life quality.

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Again, Kenya ranks above East African peers, but still below global average and third in Africa, coming after South Africa and Morocco. It has generally improved on the ranking, moving one position up since 2020.

Electronic governance

However, electronic governance, infrastructure and internet affordability have deteriorated since 2020, defying several efforts by the government to improve internet governance and security.

Just this week, Ministry of Interior and National Administration published new regulations on computer use, aimed at boosting cybersecurity in the country.

“These regulations enhance the capacity of both public and private sector institutions, such as the telecommunications, banking, transport and energy sectors, to safeguard critical digital information from cyberattacks and improve cybersecurity readiness,” the ministry said in a statement.

Elsewhere in the region, digital life quality remains much lower. Uganda, Tanzania and DRC are among the countries with the poorest digital quality of life globally, and are currently ranked 14th, 20th, and 25th in Africa respectively, out of the 25 African countries sampled.
Surfshark researchers have linked digital quality of life to safety of children online, with their analysis revealing that in countries where DQL index is high, Cosi is also high, and the converse is true.

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“When we analyse how children’s online safety correlates with the global focus on kids’ rights and the overall quality of digital life in 100 countries, we observe that countries with a higher standard of digital life often exhibit higher levels of children’s online safety,” Ms Sablovskaja said.

“Systematic measures are essential to safeguard children in the digital space — not only in their immediate environments, such as family and school but also at national and global levels.”

DQ Institute’s Dr Park says with the emergence of new technologies, the online safety of children has become a ‘persistent cyber-pandemic,’ with over 70 percent of children using the internet currently exposed to several cyber-risks online.

“Today, with the fast deployment of generative AI (artificial intelligence), the metaverse, and XR-like (Extended Reality) pervasive devices, digital technology is changing children’s lives even more, yet there is minimal discussion regarding their potential harmful effects,” Dr Park said.