How can artificial intelligence help with ensuring children’s safety online? Photo by: Katerina Holmes from Pexels

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on health systems and economies across the globe, it also caused severe disruptions to child protection services in more than 100 countries, leaving children at increased risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse, according to a global survey by UNICEF.

It also reinforced the need for connectivity as the only means of accessing education services amid lockdowns and restrictions on movement.

“Suddenly children are more at risk because these displacements from school meant that they were online for more time, they were online during the day and younger kids are now online,” said John Zoltner, senior director of technology for development and innovation at Save the Children USA.

NGOs like Save the Children have increasingly turned to information and communications technology, or ICT, to ensure the continued delivery of their services — but also to tackle new issues such as misinformation around young mothers fearing the transmission of COVID-19 through breastfeeding.

“We're working in the poorest most rural areas of the world and it's hard to get technology into those areas sometimes — and the tech that works in more advanced infrastructure environments many times doesn't work in places like sub-Saharan Africa,” Zoltner said.

Devex spoke to him about the role of technology in safeguarding children’s online safety, and ensuring continued access to health information and educational resources during the pandemic.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

“The problem was born with technology and part of the solution has to include technology.”

— John Zoltner, senior director of technology for development and innovation, Save the Children USA

How has COVID-19 increased the need for online child protection?

Online child exploitation and abuse is one problem that didn't exist when we were founded more than 100 years ago. There's a lot of great things that technology can do, but it can also be a very unsafe environment for children, especially for girls.

For the past 20 years, we've been working in various ways to increase online safety for children, and we run hotlines for the reporting of child sexual abuse material, or CSAM, more commonly known as child pornography. We do a lot of training for children to help them understand ways of keeping themselves safe, and then for parents and people who work with children.

It's a problem that's been growing exponentially since the Internet was introduced. At the very beginning the problem wasn't focused in the countries where we work … but pretty quickly internet access — especially through mobile internet — began to filter down to the communities that we're working in. Examples of CSAM that have been found by reporting agencies grew 15,000% between 2005 and 2020, and that was before COVID.

Enter COVID, and suddenly you have more than 1.5 billion students displaced from their schools, and in many areas where we work they still don't have much access to technology and the internet — but in many places, there's very quickly growing access. And because the access is relatively new in some of these countries, there's less understanding of how they work and what's normal.

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Suddenly children are more at risk because these displacements from school meant that they were online for more time, they were online during the day and younger kids are now online. It's become a perfect storm because there was already a huge and growing problem and suddenly the problem grew worse.

What are some of the ways Save the Children is using artificial intelligence to help ensure children’s safety online?

We teamed up with a company called Omdena that organizes AI for good challenges. We recruited over 50 data scientists in order to work with us to first find the data: they basically scoured the internet for data that would help us scope out the problem. They were able to find a lot of open data sources that we didn't really know about before, for example, a lot of chats between groomers and children, conversations that would be published in legal proceedings — they were available but they had to be found and scraped in order to be put into a database.

We were able to take information like that and we also scraped academic articles about online child violence and newspaper articles so we were able to triangulate all that information in order to better understand the problem and then think about ways we might be able to address it using technology. The problem was born with technology and part of the solution has to include technology.

We then built a prototype anti-grooming chatbot where we used natural language processing on all that grooming information and were able to develop methodologies to determine early on in a chat whether it might lead to grooming. It allows us to run it on platforms where grooming happens so that we can take an action, for example automatically shut down the chat or flag it to a reviewer.

We're developing an open-source technology and we'll make it freely available; our role is to give technical assistance because we understand what happens to the children so that a company or organization that is focused on technology products can take that forward.

How did you adapt some of your education programs for home-based use during COVID-19?

A lot of our learning content was aimed at child care workers or facilitators that worked in community-based child care centers that we operate. With COVID, suddenly the children were at home and couldn't access these centers ... So we had to go through all the content and determine what was applicable and could be taught in a home environment. We changed the focus of it — or the way we communicated it — so that home caretakers or parents could understand it and use it.

That required re-recording a lot of content, it required trained people who understand curriculum design in order to re-write the content so it would be more usable in the home environment. Most of the caregivers or parents weren't literate or had very low levels of literacy, so radio was the perfect medium for us to use.

We used that not just for learning but also to give evidence-based information around COVID to counter misinformation. [For example, in Malawi] because we already had the existing radio instruction program Tiyende [“Let’s go” in Chichewa] since 2013 and because we had a radio channel, we were able to pivot and provide not only educational information but also health and safety information.

COVID-19 disrupted the way Save the Children was supporting and educating front-line health workers around infant and young child feeding. How did low-tech communications and other innovations allow you to adapt these resources and the ways you reach front-liners?

We have more than half a million community health workers working around the world, and one of our real focus areas is on nutrition for pregnant mothers, infants, and young children. A lot of that happens in in-person training meetings, both training of professionals or direct training with young mothers.

But of course, we couldn't do that given the COVID restrictions, so what we decided to do with funding from the USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is to develop a mobile tool that can be accessed through the web or mobile technology that provides those materials but with a really intuitive interface that allows the health worker to really fine-tune their search so that they can find the information in the right language, at the right level of literacy or complexity that they're looking for.

Face-to-face training is the best but if you can't do that, short videos are the best alternative. There's a real temptation to put in as much content as possible into a training video, but we realized from past experience and from talking to others that it's not the most effective way.

So instead we created very short videos that gave only the key messages for professionals to train people on how to be safe during COVID, and one of the real issues was women asking “Can I safely breastfeed my baby or do I run the risk of infecting it with COVID?” We want women to continue to breastfeed, so we were able to recommend ways of safely breastfeeding so that children don't miss the best nutrition.

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Update, Feb. 19, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify that Save the Children USA received funding from USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

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