Photo from Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs

On the 11th February Palau joins 140 countries worldwide in celebrating Safer Internet Day.  Safer Internet Day is a day to promote safer and more responsible use of the internet and online technology while celebrating and promoting the opportunities that being online present to children and young people globally.

The theme for Safer Internet Day 2020 is Together For A Better Internet.  This may seem a distant goal for children and young people, facing many risks online: cyberbullying, being exposed to sexual content, and online abuse.  Yet, listening to the voices of Palauan children themselves, better internet for all is not far out of reach, and is achievable with the combined efforts of children, parents, community leaders, and government.

Research conducted by the Government of Palau (Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs) and UNICEF in 2019 and continuing into 2020, shows that many children in Palau are not only aware of many of the dangers that the rapid introduction of high-speed internet present, but also are aware of some of the ways of safely managing these risks.  Based on this and other regional research, Palauan children use arguably a wider range of applications and online tools than any other children their age in the region.  Children have in a matter of years achieved internet skills that far outstrip many of the adults and parents in their families and communities, using online discussion sites, streaming movies through Netflix, and using tools that allow them to be online anonymously and securely, such as virtual private networks (VPNs).

The online technology skills that children are acquiring are increasingly important for achieving longer-term employment and workplace skills.  Yet, global evidence shows us that the more time children do spend online, and the more skills they acquire, the more risks they encounter.  The challenge is to equip children with the most appropriate and effective skills to navigate these risks, and to make informed and responsible decisions and choices when online.  Many of these decisions can be grounded in the value and cultural systems within Palau. As Palauan children themselves reported, many of the undesirable behaviors that worry parents the most, involving the sharing or production of sexual images, what children themselves refer to as “toxic or undesirable content” for example, are simply incompatible with Palauan values; in the words of one boy, simply “not the Palauan way”.While children are naturally curious, they are aware that much of this content that they find online, while intriguing, do not reflect their own values, which they hold important.

These words provide one of the best departure points for how best to achieve a safer and better internet for all.  Through the ongoing teaching and promotion of positive values, decision-making skills, and empathy – many of the same values that underpin Palauan society more broadly, and translating these to the online environment – the safety of children and young people online can be promoted while promoting the opportunities and benefits that being online offer to young people.

Parents and adults do not need advanced technical or online skills to do this but can rather promote this through positive and supportive parenting, good communication and open discussions with children.  Through this, even though children may have better digital skills than their parents, parents can still support their children towards being safer online, while making the internet a better, and empowering, experience, for all children. (Ministry of Community & Cultural Affairs)