Smartphones are fuelling a “bedroom culture” and have given children access to the internet that is “more personal, more private and less supervised”, the United Nations Children’s Fund said in a report on Monday. According to the Unicef study, a third of all internet users globally are children, but not much is done to help them access safe online content.

In its State of the World’s Children report about internet use by children, Unicef warned against the breach of children’s privacy by governments as well as parents.

The practice of “sharenting” – parents sharing information online about their children – can harm children’s reputation, the report said. As the digital lifestyle takes this to a “new level”, parents’ lack of awareness can “damage” children’s well-being and child sex offenders can misuse what they share, Unicef said.

Governments, too, collect “vast amounts of online personal data on children, a type of surveillance largely unimaginable in the pre-internet era”, the report said, adding that this was “often neither lawful nor publicly acknowledged”.

It is “not uncommon for children who are not yet even teenagers to own their own phones”, but governments and the private sector have not kept up with the pace of change, the report said, warning that this exposes children to new risks and harms.

Inequity in internet use

Millions of children, however, are missing out on the benefits of the internet, a release by Unicef said. Around 346 million young people aged 15 to 24 are not online, “exacerbating inequities and reducing children’s ability to participate in an increasingly digital economy”. Nearly 90% of them live in Africa, Asia and the Pacific regions, according to the UN agency.

“For better and for worse, digital technology is now an irreversible fact of our lives,” Unicef Executive Director Anthony Lake said. “In a digital world, our dual challenge is how to mitigate the harms while maximising the benefits of the internet for every child.”