THE internet age has opened up new vistas for the advancement of information, news, and entertainment in Pakistan. The digital penetration of mobile phones has reached close to 50 per cent of our population, and the increasingly cheap availability of smartphones means that most Pakistanis, across social and demographic divides, have a digital footprint.

The growing use of social media, smartphones and digital devices is transforming our children’s lives in unprecedented ways, giving them fantastic opportunities to navigate the world from the safety of their own homes. It is estimated that one in three children around the world — most of them outside the West ­— now uses the internet. Schoolwork, online gaming and social networking are popular online activities.

While most children in our cities navigate the internet for homework, schools teach little about the risks and responsibilities of being online, the pros and cons of the internet. Young minds are lured into the cyber world knowing little about viruses, online privacy, social networking etiquette, and other internet safety and security issues. The explosion in popularity of internet sites for social interaction, unrestricted access to age-inappropriate content online, and extended screen time are playing havoc with our children’s social, emotional and cognitive skills.

We watch out for children when they go out of the home, but we fear nothing when they go online. We will not leave our children with a stranger, yet most of us are content to let them surf the virtual world on their laptops or smartphones, considering this a benign pastime.

We are not training our youth to understand the complexity of online content, or to be able to differentiate between authentic information and misleading content, whether it comes from paid propaganda websites or individual user-generated content. They don’t know the difference between news and fake news. The exploitation of young people at the hands of sharks on the social media is a growing phenomenon, under-reported due to social taboos.

With the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, photography has become a general skill among the young. The worldwide fad among the youth of taking selfies has led to oceans of photographs. Most of these pictures land on social media sites such as Instagram or Facebook. The circulation of personal photographs of girls and women on social media outlets can be disastrous in Pakistan where societal norms are conservative. Yet, millions of family photographs are circulating on Facebook, with no privacy settings.

Nobody is watching over children browsing the web.

With advances in Photoshop, creating fake IDs is child’s play. The social consequences of a faked account can be devastating for someone’s life and career. Most of Pakistan’s urban young live in a social environment where there are very few opportunities for social and physical engagement beyond school or colleges, such as hobby clubs, art and cultural centres, or sports grounds. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, there is a tendency towards online relationships through social networking websites.

There is a contradiction between what young people see on the digital media and what they experience in their personal lives. The pleasure of experiencing Western culture through the digital media contrasts with the stark realities of lived experience in a Third World country that is plagued by corruption and social injustice. Feeling powerless in either changing or beating the system, young people in Pakistan suffer from anxiety and frustration, with some even taking refuge in narcotics. Outbursts of emotions through social media updates and blogging can land them in trouble with the law.

Sadly, public investment in the development of citizenship is minimal. More money is spent on upholding the law through coercion, than in trying to uphold it through civic education. While the chief of army staff warns the youth about the dangers lurking in the internet, the risk of college-going teenagers, such as Noreen Leghari, being radicalised by complete strangers through online interaction is on the rise.

Internet filtering is a method of controlling inappropriate content used by many countries; it needs to be gainfully employed further in eliminating hate speech from the internet. However, it should not be used as a back door for the government to have greater online control over the freedom of speech in the country.

A nationwide campaign anchored in schools is needed to make children aware of the potential risks of the internet. Digital literacy should be an essential part of the curriculum from the early years in school, so that children recognise and avoid the dangers on the internet. A stakeholder consultation comprising of parents, IT experts, government officials, and school officials is required to equip our young people with online literacy so that they can benefit from the brave new world that technology has opened up.