The latest update to the government’s plan for measures to protect youths from crimes and other troubles linked to the internet calls for a response to widening use by younger children and its associated problems. In light of the shocking case of murders that came to light last year, in which a man in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, targeted nine people aged between 15 and 26, including a high school girl, because they posted Twitter messages expressing a wish to commit suicide, the plan would also have the government pushing operators of social networking sites to delete harmful postings, including information related to suicide, and promoting monitoring of the sites by nonprofit groups.

There will be limits, however, to cracking down on information on social networking service sites that could put youths and children in trouble. Efforts are needed in schools to better educate children on the potential risks that could arise from using the internet, along with steps to facilitate discussions between parents and their children about adequate rules on internet access.

Small children, including those in lower grades in elementary schools or even of pre-elementary school age, are accessing the internet in increasing numbers via smartphones. Bullying of children in cyberspace is a growing problem.

According to the National Police Agency, the number of youths up to age 17 who fell victim to sexual or other crimes perpetrated through the use of social media reached 1,813 in 2017, the most since officials began compiling comparable statistics in 2008. The crimes included child prostitution as well as an increase in the number of children coerced into sending naked photos of themselves to people they met online. Most of the victims were junior high and high school girls, but the youngest was an 8-year-old elementary school girl who was persuaded to send an image to someone she met through YouTube. About 2 percent of those who fell prey through the internet to serious crimes such as rape or kidnapping were elementary school children.

According to a government study that interviewed 5,000 youths between 10 and 17 and the same number of parents of children in that age bracket, 82.5 percent of the teenagers accessed the internet via smartphones, cellphones and tablets. High school students used the internet most for communication, junior high boys and girls for watching videos, and elementary school children for playing games. They used the internet 159 minutes a day on average. Time spent on the internet increased as they grew older. About 5 percent of the elementary school children, 11.6 percent of the junior high school students and 26.1 percent of the high school students spent more than five hours a day on the web.

The government’s updated plan notes that access to the internet has clearly expanded among small children due to the widespread use of smartphones and tablets. It calls for promoting education for children from the early grades of elementary school about the risks associated with the internet, as well as preparing reference materials about the issue for parents of small children, including those before elementary school age. In addition to efforts to inform parents of kids attending kindergarten or nursery school of filtering functions to restrict access to harmful websites, the plan says the government’s survey on children’s internet use should include parents of kids up to 9 years old.

In addition to education in schools, measures to encourage better communication between parents and their children about healthy use of the internet is essential as more and more small kids access cyberspace. In that respect, the government’s study points to a gap between parents and children. In the survey, 83.5 percent of the parents said they control the way their children use the internet, such as by setting rules on the amount of time each day their kids spend on the web. On the other hand, only 65 percent of the children replied that they have some rules on internet use, and the figure went down to 21 percent among high school students.

A separate survey by the National Institute for Youth Education polled some 10,000 elementary and junior high school children in Japan, the United States, China and South Korea about their internet use and relations with parents. About 32 percent of elementary school children and 25 percent of junior high school students in Japan said their parents rarely caution them about the risks associated with internet use — the highest figures, respectively, among the four countries surveyed. The apparent lack of communication between parents and children is worrying and needs to be addressed in the effort to adequately educate kids about what dangers may lurk on the web.

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