14/04/2014 13:17 BST | Updated 14/06/2014 06:59 BST

Protecting Children in a Digital World

The internet and information technology can widen access to learning, enhance the quality of education and empower men and women, girls and boys, with new skills and opportunities. But this does not happen by itself - it requires leadership, planning and action. Fast, affordable broadband is increasingly becoming a basic need for a modern world, and it is our job to ensure that the world's children have access to this important tool while also being informed about its dangers.

Children's reality increasingly takes place online, which means opportunities but also risks - an issue up for discussion at the Global Child Forum 2014. The possibilities to accelerate, quality education, learning, health, play and development through Information and Communication Technology are enormous. The online information flow and new services increases the need to strengthen children's life skills like critical thinking, assessing information and protection against abuse.

On average across the developing world, nearly 25% fewer women and girls are online than men and boys, and this gender gap climbs to above 40% in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Why? Discrimination, numbers, confidence, language, time, all contribute. If no action is taken, the internet gender gap will increase from 200 million women today who are not online, to 350 million in the next three years. But rights and needs must be balanced and children, particularly girls, must also be protected from exploitation and harm via the internet.

In China in 2010, for example, 44% of children said they had been approached online by strangers. 79% of girls said they did not feel safe online and only about a third of the girls knew how to report a danger or feeling threatened or bad about something they had seen. Every sector of society needs to be innovative and open-minded and urgently develop and scale up solutions and models that can advance children's rights but also ensure that children are protected.

As more women and girls get online and discover new technology, they are at their most vulnerable. The responsibility lies with everyone, from governments to schools to NGOs, to inform them of the dangers and of ways to safeguard themselves against abuse and exploitation. Technology is never free from societal influences - online platforms can be places of great opportunity, for children and young people to network, make new friends worldwide, learn and develop - but they can also replicate the risks where bullying, threats of violence, grooming and predatory behaviour become real.

So, should access to ICT be a basic human right? We at Plan believe it should, but this should go hand in hand with awareness of the dangers to children online, and efforts to minimise harm and create positive change. All parties must confront, challenge and address the threats that children and teenagers face in our fast-changing world. Investment, both public and private, is so important in order to build children's, particularly girls' capabilities and assets so that they can better protect themselves. Laws that are meant to protect young people must be enforced. Innovative solutions must be developed to protect young people.

New technology also places responsibility on businesses, care takers and the education system to respond and adapt to the reality children face online, and make sure we safeguard them from exploitation and harm as they benefit from and develop within the online world.