The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

On-Line Harms: Resetting the Moral Compass


By Cecilia Weiss

Digital Producer

and CMF Executive Group Member


As a new member of the CMF Executive Group, I offered my services as a session producer for the Childrens' Media Conference in Sheffield this year. Not only was it my first time producing a session at the CMC but my first ever attendance. I'm a digital producer, so the obvious area of CMF responsibility for me is in online issues, and in particular how we can safeguard it's young audience.

This session was called Resetting the Moral Compass. It set out to examine what the industry could and should do to make the internet a safer place for children.

The government white paper on ‘Online Harms’ is probably the most significant and important event to hit the online industry, along with the age-appropriate design code.  So it should have been easy to find high-profile speakers to proclaim how their platforms would ensure children’s safety.

Email followed email, call followed call. Google declined – politely. Facebook, Instagram, etc., representatives declined by their absolute silence.

We decided to bypass the platforms and change tack. This session would now be "by the industry for the industry".

Richard Wingfield, Head of Legal at Global Partners Digital, was collating a response to the Online Harm White Paper and he agreed to host. And Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, from Childnet International, with her finger right on the pulse of young people’s views, agreed to participate.

The session was also joined by key players Bruna Capozzoli, Creative Director of  Popcorn Digital, Brenda Bisner,  SVP Content and Business Development, Kidoodle TV, Joanna Booth, Founder and Director of Social Media Makes Sense and CMF Executive Group Member John Kent (who wrote CMF’s response to the White Paper).

We had a panel!

As I sat in the front row and session began, those first night nerves (which had lasted about a month) disappeared. I sat back and listened to the various informed, intelligent perspectives on how we can make the online space a safe a place as possible for our children.

Richard Wingfield summed up the purpose of the internet: the online environment strives to protect human rights – not undermine or weaken them.

The panellists presented different perspectives:

Bruna Capozzoli, of Popcorn Digital, presented the stark statistic that 400 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute. She whole-heartedly supported regulation of the platform, but stressed that we must face the reality that children visit YouTube, and other similar platforms. If producers withhold their content from such platforms, children will find less high-quality, less appropriate content instead. She pleaded with the industry not to be afraid of putting their own high-quality on a platform where children will easily access it.

Brenda Bisner, of Kidoodle TV,  opened her presentation by quoting YouTube’s policy which clearly states that the site is prohibited to under 13 year olds, and likened the platform to an unsupervised child on playing in the middle of a busy road. She believes that parents and children deserve an alternative to YouTube (such as Kidoodle TV – 500+ million customers!) where parents can be reassured by the promise that all content is screened by real people and not algorithms.

Joanna Booth, of Social Media Makes Sense, called for more pressure from platforms to standardise compulsory age ratings on published content and a clearer, more informative process when it comes to reporting harmful content. She cited as an example how easy it was for a child to access spoof, inappropriate Peppa Pig sites.

John Kent, who wrote the Children’s Media Foundation’s response to the white paper, expressed the importance of children having the same rights online as offline. He felt that a “walled garden” in the digital space is not necessarily the answer and real world learning has a place. As John explained, you don’t build a wall around a gambling shop on the high-street – instead you explain to children the harms of going inside.

Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, from Childnet International, played a short winning film from the organisation’s young people’s film awards with the subject: “What I want the internet to be in 10 years’ time”. She revealed that every entry showed children want the internet to be a safe, positive, friendly place, free of trolls and bullying – and to be inspiring for all and equal for everyone. She stressed the importance of age-rated content.

This was a theme that recurred at the CMC.  A request echoed by the 16 year old singer/songwriter and CMC 2019 Change Maker, Sapphire when she sang before the Creative Keynote interview with the Horrible Histories team. She spoke movingly of the need for safeguarding from bullying online in her short speech. Sapphire is a YouTube phenomenon and uses the power of her “influencer” status to meet as many young people as possible and discuss mental health self-protection when using social media platforms.

In the session, as in CMC as a whole, there were no ultimate rights and wrongs, but plenty of thought about what media makers and more importantly media distributors and social media platform operators can do to improve the lives of kids online. There are currently those who favour the “walled garden” approach, and those who feel that the open platforms are there to stay. If so, there remains a strong sense that they need to get their houses in order, accept they are dealing with an audience under 13 and take responsibility for that.

That is the CMF position. Tacit support for the government White Paper’s aims, even if the proposals themselves lack detail and are flawed in places. And a clear understanding that if the platforms don’t get themselves sorted as kid-friendly places – then regulation must follow.

Clearly, everyone wants children to have a safe and positive experience, and the ‘Online Harms’ paper has considerable room for improvement but it's a step in the right direction. I thought it was an informative and engaging debate that prompted further discussion between the panellists and delegates after the session had ended. Always a sign of a good debate, and I’m proud of the first session I produced. The debate will be continuing - so I suspect it won't be my last.

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