The Observer view on keeping children safe in a smart-tech world – The Guardian

This summer’s most widely panned film release must surely be The Emoji Movie. Picked apart by critics for its lack of plot and shameless product placement, it managed a quite dismal 7% rating on the review agglomerator Rotten Tomatoes.

Observer atom

That Hollywood saw a market for a film set in the inside of a smartphone – it grossed $26m in its first weekend – is perhaps revealing about the role such technology has come to play in our lives. Also telling was Ofcom’s annual look at the nation’s viewing habits, published last week. For the first time, it examined our consumption of on-demand streaming services alongside broadcast television. The report painted a picture of individualised viewing habits – families sitting in a living room all watching different programmes on different devices – characterised by binge-watching TV shows.

It is children and young people who have most avidly embraced the impact smart technology has had, not just on the way we watch things, but the way we communicate. Ofcom’s regular publication of viewing statistics used to provide an opportunity for bemoaning how much time children were spending sat passively in front of the television. Today, the amount of time they spend doing so is in decline. But it is being more than replaced by the time they spend online, which has steadily increased in recent years, even for very young children.

Three- to four-year-olds now spend almost eight and a half hours a week online on average; for 12- to 15-year-olds, it is more than 20 hours. Almost three-quarters of 12- to 15-year-olds have a social media profile, as do more than two-fifths of 11-year-olds, despite the fact that all of the major social media platforms have a minimum user age of 13. Four-fifths of 12- to 15-year-olds now have their own smartphone.

Technology has profoundly shaped experiences of childhood, in ways that make our old concerns about too much TV seem rather quaint. Primary school children do their homework with the help of a tablet device. Teens regularly update their social media profile with selfies and chat on messaging apps such as WhatsApp, sometimes late into the night. While many parents are wary of sharing photos and videos of their children on social media, some children will have a digital footprint, which they will never be able to escape, set up on their behalf long before they can type.

Social media clearly creates huge opportunities for a generation for whom interacting online is second nature. But if it sometimes accentuates negative patterns of behaviour in adults – bullying, harassment and abuse – it has even greater potential to do this in children, who are more impressionable. It’s perfectly possible that in 30 years we will look back, relieved that the positive aspects of technology have clearly outweighed the negative. Or, indeed, that we will come to see the ubiquitous presence of social media in children’s lives today as being as damaging as other modern vices.

Though we do not yet know the overall impact, it is clear that technology introduces new risks into children’s lives just as other types of risky behaviour – smoking and drinking, unprotected sex – are declining. The Royal Society for Public Health has warned that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat risk negatively affecting young people’s mental health, exacerbating body-image issues, bullying, sleep problems, feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression. This is particularly a problem for girls, twice as likely to have experienced bullying as boys, and for whom rates of anxiety and depression have increased in the last decade.

And while falling teen pregnancy rates suggest teenagers are not having as much unprotected sex as previous generations, this does not necessarily mean attitudes towards sex are becoming healthier. An NSPCC survey found that by the age of 14, virtually all young people have seen sexually explicit content online, many coming into contact with it at a much younger age. More than half of boys aged 11-16 think pornography is a realistic depiction of sex, and one in seven 11- to 16-year-olds say they had taken naked or semi-naked photos of themselves.

These risks could be managed far better than they are at the moment. Just as parents and schools are responsible for teaching real-world good manners and positive behaviours, and the government is responsible for regulating real-world spaces so they are safe for children, we need to equip young people more adequately for the online world they will inhabit and do more to make it safe.

As a society, we are failing in this responsibility. This is partly because of the generational gap: children often better understand the online world than their parents and teachers. It is partly because we as adults are still learning about some of the negative impacts social media can have on ourselves, let alone on our children. And it is partly because the internet remains a realm dominated by huge global organisations such as Google and Facebook, whose behaviour is hard for national governments to regulate and shift. The result, as argued by Unicef, is that the internet is a domain where children’s rights are barely given a second thought, despite the fact that one in three internet users globally is a child.

So the children’s commissioner’s “digital five a day” campaign being launched this weekend to promote healthy online behaviour is a very positive development. The children’s commissioner is also right to call for digital citizenship, led by older children, to be on the school curriculum.

But it is not enough just to implore parents and schools to do more: the internet needs to be made a safer space for children. Social media platforms could be doing much more to police their age restrictions meaningfully and ensure they have child-friendly systems for reporting online abuse. They should be investing in innovations such as Cybersmarties, a “training” social media platform for primary school children, specifically designed to promote positive online behaviour for life.

The remarkable reduction in rates of smoking, drinking and teen pregnancy among young people we have seen in recent years show what’s possible in terms of making the world a safer place for our children. But when it comes to the internet, it feels like we’re barely trying. That must change.

Comments

Write a Reply or Comment:

Your email address will not be published.*