Lillian Kariuki: Creating a Safer Internet for Children

Safer Internet Day is celebrated globally every February with different themes every year. SID this 2019, is on the 5th of Feb and the theme is ‘Together for a better Internet. Safer Internet day  is a platform for raising awareness on child online safety and promoting positive use of the internet among young people. The Internet has no doubt made the world a global village through emails and social media sites. It’s now possible to access news and valuable information on health and education online. These are just some of the benefits. While this is good news, the internet also poses a risk to many people hence a need to find a way of making this space safer.

Lillian Kariuki the Executive Director of Watoto Watch Network is a Child Protection expert in Child Online Safety, with 11 years’ experience working directly with children. Watoto Watch Network sole focus is Child Online Safety, “We run child online safety programs and projects. We train children, parents, teachers, child protection workers, people working in the judiciary and, more recently, those in the ICT industry. Anyone with interest in child online safety,” explains Lillian.

Lillian says her motivation to start the organization escalated due to the fact that she has passion to work with children and had experience working with children for a long time. While studying abroad, she worked for a children’s organization that had an education program on Child Online Safety, hence, that’s where she was trained and got experience, then decided to bring this concept to Kenya. “I thought Kenya needed this kind of opportunity and in early 2013, I registered Watoto Watch Network,” she continues.

Lillian interacting with the children

Registering the organization was not an easy task.  “It took me 9 times going to and from NGO board to get the certificate the 10th time’. This only goes to demonstrate the importance of perseverance and believing in your work.

Watoto Watch Network has been running for the last 6 years and has had the opportunity to reach 45,000 young people in Kenya. The impact of their work is not only felt in Nairobi County but also Meru and Nakuru. They hope to reach 10 counties this year. Lillian believes that all children are heading towards accessing the internet at one point or another. The fact that they cannot do so at this time does not mean that they are not in harm’s way. For example, there have been incidents where children are being taken advantage of adults who have access to the internet.

“There was a time in 2015 when children were put in front of a computer. Through skype, they were told to perform indecent acts by the adults. The children who were between the ages of 5-9 were still affected despite not having previous access to the internet,” she narrates.

Watoto Watch has a parent’s project that runs in schools and through outreach programs during the school holidays. They realized that calling out to parents to attend the trainings did not attract as many parents as they wished. Hence, they decided to go to places where parents frequently visited together with their children, such as malls.

A session with the children

Watoto Watch Network has been at the forefront of coordinating Safer Internet Day in Kenya. On this day, they bring together organisations and people interested in promoting internet safety for children. Each year has a different theme with this year’s being “Together for a Safer Internet.” The number of organisations interested has risen from five from the time they started 5 years ago up to 16 last year. Some of the partners include Safaricom and the Communications Authority.

“Since we started working on online safety, a lot has changed. For example, we did not have materials to train people. Eventually, we developed a guide to child online protection. Furthermore, we usually have another event that happens in June called the Youth Internet Governance Forum. This brings together young people to discuss issues related to the internet. Once this is done, they are given the chance to speak to leaders in the ICT industry at the Internet Governance Forum.”

The topics range from online grooming to how to deal with online child pornography. The main issue that most often comes out is Cyber Bullying. Many of the children either state they are survivors, or they know someone who is. Most of the time, children do not know how to deal with this. A common issue among high school students is the making of sex tapes. Children in these age group rarely see what is wrong with this. Most of the time, they don’t realize the consequences with many of them thinking that this is cool. To change this kind of attitude, it is important for them to look at how they will be affected in the future. They train children on how to understand how this may affect them socially and professionally.

Another training session

“Parents should ensure that children do not access a phone that belongs to someone else. As a parent, it is important to take measures to control what a child can access using someone else’s phone by either putting passwords or locking certain sites. However, this may not always happen when it comes to someone else. This becomes dangerous for children who may be much younger, especially toddlers,” says Lillian.

Lillian hopes to expand her reach to other countries and pass on the same skills in the next five years. Further, she hopes that that they can create their own content. Initially, most of the material they were using was more Western based. By partnering with UNICEF Kenya, they were able to develop three videos that they now use to train children. Watoto Watch has also worked with UNICEF Kenya to train over 5000 children, nearly 700 parents, over 200 teachers, almost 200 child protection workers and about 50 people in the Judiciary and the Police. This happened in 2016.

Internet safety should not be an afterthought. In fact, it should be the very first thing that people think of when going online. It is therefore very important for parents and guardians to be aware of what children are accessing online and make sure they use it responsibly. The Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act in Kenya outlines various crimes such as child pornography and harassment. Such legislations need to be more familiar to us as internet penetration in Kenya continues to expand.

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