The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Is it Fixed Yet? – A CMC Recap

Sam Lawyer and Yara Farran summarise a CMC session asking what should be done by policymakers, platforms and media professionals to make online spaces safer for children.

In a CMC session titled "Can We Fix It?”  campaigners, media producers, academic researchers and others gathered to discuss the task of making digital media an ethical and supportive space for children.

Giles Dilnot, a former BBC presenter now working for The Children’s Commissioner for England, moderated a discussion among five panelists: Baroness Beeban Kidron, Alice Webb, Vicki Shotbolt, Deepak Tiwari and John Carr. The audience of industry professionals were also able to voice their concerns by sharing real-time commentary on the social media app Slido. Emerging from this conversation was a consensus regarding the urgent need for the UK government to step in and regulate online spaces in the form of a Digital Charter, that should include tailored design standards around content, activity, and algorithmic bias for all sites, alongside a broader shared responsibility to empower kids through digital literacy and resilience.

Much of the discussion in this session focused on the need to set and enforce design standards across the industry. Beeban Kidron kicked off this part of the conversation and suggested the creation of an ethics commission that sets out how the UK wants to deal with digital technology. She noted that standards which could help protect children online - e.g. easier options for turning off features such as GPS and Autoplay - would be welcome pieces of regulation, and that new public roles would be necessary to uphold them.  To support her case she cited the failure of self-regulation thus far.

Comments from the audience additionally mentioned the UK’s strong positioning in the marketplace to set such standards internationally.

This led to questions about the practicality of regulation in a global market, which various panelists noted would be difficult, but not impossible. Audience members expressed disappointment with the degree to which some of the largest platform providers, e.g. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, have been able to avoid such ethical responsibility, particularly regarding their use by under 13s. John Carr reminded the conference that while international regulation is challenging, these media companies still must comply with the laws of individual countries and we are not their “helpless pawns.” Ultimately, 75% of the audience polled (on Slido) agreed with the statement that “regulation is essential but must be global.” Such regulation would need to be supported by platforms, educators and parents.

One solution came from Deepak Tiwari, the founder of the Swiss company behind Oyoty, an artificial intelligence assistant bringing self-help tools to children. Tiwari showed examples of how Oyoty works to bring real-time interventions to kids online. The tool covers issues ranging from cyber-bullying, radicalisation and screen-time, and prompts notifications offering support when a challenging situation is detected. Various industry members in the audience were excited to know that such technology exists, with one person commenting that it should be “mandatory for Snapchat.” As Tiwari and other audience members pointed out however, this type of tool isn’t an alternative for parenting and offline conversations, but exists to fill in the gaps when adult guidance isn’t possible.

Taking this further, Beeban Kidron brought up the notion of “digital resilience,” a popular concept often employed in discourse around internet safety. She noted that this term has yet to be concretely defined. Vicky Shotbolt argued that the term itself is typically misused and that highlighting resilience might not be the most productive focus, since educating children to be more resilient does not cure the ills of the digital world. She offered her approach to digital resilience as an ever-evolving set of knowledge, skills and mechanisms that can’t be taught but rather should be nurtured. Within this, safe spaces should be provided to enable young people to recognise risk and deploy well-developed strategies to both cope with and recover from the risks they have identified.

Parents and educational institutions were also addressed as fundamental players in upholding internet safety and building digital resilience. John Carr noted that digital media has become so integrated in our daily lives that we must also discuss the ways in which technology has changed family dynamics. Vicky Shotbolt argued that online platforms are designed to take away a parent’s right to consent to their children’s actions, John Carr focused on the ways in which parents need to become more media literate and aware of the practices they perpetuate. Betsy Bozdech, an audience member from US based review and advocacy organisation Common Sense Media, noted that “role modelling” is a good strategy that empowers parents to influence their children’s digital use. Some audience members wondered how best to educate parents, who are also vulnerable on the internet, when technology is rapidly evolving.

Outside the family domain, educational institutions were also positioned as places where young people can learn about internet safety. However, the standard e-safety classes traditionally offered in school leave much to be desired, and panellists questioned their relevance and effectiveness. Both Baroness Kidron and Alice Webb discussed the importance of allowing young people to be in the driving seat of their own learning. Beeban Kidron noted that agency should be central to young people’s experiences and the best outcome is to co-design policy, education and technology with young people. Alice Webb also stressed both the importance of talking to young people and listening to their experiences, and the need to foster opportunities for peer-to-peer education so that young people can engage with and learn from each other.

As the session concluded, it was clear that the complex debate around creating a child-friendly internet is pressing and needs to be actively deliberated. One key to moving forward is collaboration amongst the multiple stakeholders involved – including the political sphere. As Alice Webb said, the Digital Charter may not need to be binding, but it must be big and bold enough to motivate real action. She warned that if we do not think critically and act intentionally now, in the future we'll regret today’s lack of decisiveness.

The resounding takeaway from this session is that change is possible. We can fix these issues, and now we have to come together to agree how.

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