IIt’s easy to talk tough on technology, as Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, demonstrated this week. In an interview with the Telegraph, Donelan warned that social media platforms could be exposed to huge fines if they allowed children under 13 to remain on their platforms. If that means deactivating the accounts of nine- or eight-year-olds, then they will have to do it, the minister said.
The approach sounds fine and good in theory. It’s red meat for conservatives who clutch pearls, law and order, who believe the world is full of danger, and the tech companies are to blame. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to lay at the feet of social media companies for the damage they have caused. But the harsh words are part of a larger trend in our politics that ignores the reality of how we interact with the Internet and requires a degree of censorship that is not only impractical, but counterproductive.
Of course, the Internet can be a cruel place, and what happens online can have real-world consequences. Revelations made following the campaign by the parents of Molly Russell, the teenager who took her own life after being bombarded with online content relating to suicide, self-harm and depression, have been castigated. And documents leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen laid bare the access many users had to distressing content and misinformation.
However, Donelans’ demands that tech companies block access to their tools for children under 13 amount to the misleading practice of teaching abstinence-only in school sex education lessons: You can pretend kids don’t do that , but they will do it anyway. Avoiding the conversation completely will leave them unprepared to handle problems as and when they arise online.
Believe me: I’m in my mid-30s and grew up on the internet in its wildest days. Between the ages of 10 and 18 I saw things I shouldn’t have seen and interacted online with people well beyond my age. Thankfully nothing bad happened, although it undoubtedly did for some, but it was a learning experience. I learned how to keep myself safe through trial and error and conversations with my colleagues.
In hindsight, I wish I had been open enough to have similar conversations with my family members, but I had a feeling they would have taken a similar approach to Donelan and simply banned access to such platforms.
Just as we are starting to recognize the problems caused by helicopter parenting, realizing that letting children roam with less rigorous supervision will ensure they grow up independent, rather than dependent, so we need to give them a little more freedom to online exploration.
Some platforms already develop versions of their apps suitable for children or allow the implementation of parental controls on accounts, acting as a kind of child monitoring. While far from perfect, these are more practical solutions than simply saying that children aren’t allowed to access some of the more attractive areas of the Internet.
Perversely, Donelan’s draconian demand that tech companies ban younger users from their platforms will likely have the opposite effect than intended. If you make it excessively expensive for companies to recognize that underage users may be on their platform, they will do their best to prevent children from accessing it. But children will still slip through the net, and they will do so easily, as most online age checks consist of little more than asking users to state their date of birth. Any child who can take 13 off of 2023 will be able to add a few years to her age in an instant. Video age verification, in which AI tries to discern an individual’s age using a video of her face, can be fooled by the judicious use of makeup.
And in this imagined future, tech platforms will pretend that children don’t live in their digital halls and will turn a blind eye to their existence. The provisions of the online security bills are such that the companies affected will largely continue to self-police. Communications regulator Ofcom will have the power to fine companies for not following the rules, but it will be up to the companies themselves to reveal where things go wrong. If fines are too significant, it’s easier for companies to pretend the problem doesn’t exist rather than risk losing revenue.
Instead, it pays to be open and honest. Yes, children will want access to social media platforms. Yes, they will, whether you want it or not. Yes, parents should accept it. But they should also have adult conversations with their children about being online, the possibilities for entertainment, and the potential danger that comes from exploring the vastness of the Internet.
Unfortunately, the line adopted by Donelan promises a negative outcome for everyone: the platforms will not see the evil, children will not speak of the evil and therefore parents will not feel the evil. Instead, we must understand that it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle and adopt a more realistic approach. Let children experiment online. But make sure everyone in charge is watching.
In the UK, youth suicide charity Papyrus can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org, while in the UK and Ireland the Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123 or by email email@example.com or jo @samaritans.ie. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for help. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text counselor. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis support service is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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