Friday, December 15, 2017

A bridge to new opportunities: Timor-Leste youth celebrate landmark UNICEF report on the digital world

Marked the official launch of the State of the World Children’s Report 2017
by beating the drum by the dignitaries as part of the Timorese tradition.
©Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
Snapshot: For students in Timor-Leste, access to the internet bridges the gap when their education and knowledge falls short. Inequality, access and online safety were identified as key priorities in UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a digital world report, launched on 13 December 2017. Hear how internet access is affecting children and young people in Timor-Leste now.

At the beating of the drum that marked the official launch of UNICEF’s new The State of the World’s Children report launch in Timor-Leste, a crowd of smartphones reached high above the crowd, arms outstretched and straining to get the best angle, flashes popping over the heads of the hunched scrum of official media. Before the event finished these images would flood Facebook, attracting hundreds of likes, reactions, and appreciative comments.

It’s unsurprising in a country with an estimated 400,000 active Facebook users, according to Facebook’s 2016 user data – around a third of the tiny island nation’s population.

But the new report, launched jointly by UNICEF, Timor-Leste’s Secretariat of State for Council of Ministers and Social Communication and the national university Universidade National Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL) in Dili, the nation’s capital, highlights the growing digital divide between users in high and low-income countries, and explores the impact of the internet on children’s safety and wellbeing.

The launch was attended by Matias Freitas Boavida, Secretary of State for Council of Ministers and Social Communication; Nivio Leite Magalhães, Secretary of State for Youth and Employment; Professor Francisco Miguel Martins, the Rector of UNTL, and Dili school student Izaura da Silva Pinto.

Mitigating harm, expanding opportunity

Dili high school student Izaura da Silva Pinto explained to the launch crowd what life is like in Dili for a teenager.
“Our schools don’t have computer labs, so if we want to use the internet we use our phones,” she said. “But it’s expensive, and hard for all students to study using the internet.”

Dili high school student Izaura da Silva Pinto (15) called on the government
to establish computer laboratories and internet in schools in Timor-Leste,
and subsidising students’ internet access. ©Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
Izaura called on the government to commit to installing computer laboratories and internet in schools in Timor-Leste, and subsidising students’ internet access.

Matias Freitas Boavida, the Secretary of State for Council of Ministers and Social Communication, contemplated the provision of computers as a strategy for protecting children’s safety online, reflecting on his own childhood in Portugal.

“The Portuguese government distributes computers to every child, and ensures they are only allowed to access proper pages and applications,” he told the crowd. “It’s important but not easy for us to control what children access in this digital world.”

Nivio Leite Magalhães, the Secretary of State for Youth and Employment, considered the importance of an integrated approach in meeting the challenges outlined in UNICEF’s report. “We will cooperate with the Children’s Rights Commission and universities to socialise Internet safety’ in schools and universities,” he said.

Our new dividing line

“For better and for worse, digital technology is a fact of our lives and the life of our children,” said UNICEF’s Country Representative to Timor-Leste, Valérie Taton, at the launch event. “One in three internet users worldwide is a child, and digital access is our new dividing line.”

“For better or worse the internet is a fact of life for our children,”
said UNICEF’s Country Representative to Timor-Leste, Valérie Taton,
at the launch event. ©Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
Too little is being done to protect children online, and that children in countries like Timor-Leste are falling behind with digital access due to languages barriers, inferior devices and high costs of connectivity, said Valerie Taton in her inaugural speech. It’s estimated approximately 346 million children worldwide are not online.

She echoed Izaura’s concerns about the cost and limitations of internet in Timor-Leste, saying that the divide amplifies wealthy voices over marginalised voices.
Internet Live Stats, (run by International Telecommunication Union (ITU), World Bank, and United Nations Population Division) estimated in 2016 that the penetration of internet in Timor population was 1.2%.

Digital natives

Marcelino da Silva, Efigenia Moniz and Maria Nelciana da Costa are three university students who attended the report’s launch. They regularly use Facebook and Whatsapp to communicate with friends, but they’re less concerned with sharing photos and liking posts than they are with the fact that the majority of Timor-Leste’s internet users are concentrated in the country’s capital, Dili.

Panel discussion on the access and use of internet. ©Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
“We need to share internet to rural areas,” says 20-year-old Maria earnestly. “There are students in rural areas in secondary high school, and they have the right to access the internet. They need it for their studies.”

“The internet helps facilitate our learning,” explains 21-year-old Marcelino. “It enforces ideas, and sometimes when our thinking is not enough we can use it to find new information. In the future, I want to be a successful person, and learning like this helps me.”

Timor-Leste’s telecommunications providers offer a day’s worth of unlimited internet for US$1, which is equivalent to the average daily wage for approximately 40 per cent of the country’s population, the majority of whom work as subsistence farmers in isolated rural areas.
“We need to share internet to rural areas,” says 20-year-old Maria earnestly.
©Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares

The digital future

Samantha Abel, a representative from Telkomcel, a Timor-Leste telecommunications provider, reiterated the provider’s commitment to reducing the cost of internet access in Timor-Leste, and identified initiatives including a partnership with Facebook to provide free access to basic features of the social media site to Timor-Leste users.

She also addressed the UNICEF report’s recommendation about safeguarding children from harm online and protecting online privacy.

The report concludes with six priority actions to harness the power of digitalisation while benefiting the most disadvantaged children and limiting harm, including a recommendation to engage with the private sector to advance ethical standards and practices. The report also recommends safeguarding children’s privacy and preventing abuse, exploitation, trafficking and bullying online.

“As an operator we are ready to comply with the rules and policies that exist to guarantee children’s safety,” she said. “We register SIM cards, can block information that is insecure for children to access, and provide education in high schools about the importance and risks of the internet.”

In concluding her launch remarks Valérie Taton called on the government of Timor-Leste to invest in an enabling environment that helps all children access the opportunities provided by our digital world.

“Solutions exist,” she said. “It’s now a matter of will. UNICEF stands ready to support the government and private sector. Our job is to mitigate harm and expand opportunities, and tip the balance for the better.”

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By UNICEF Timor-Leste

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