A global survey reveals children want tech companies to do more to protect them online but the “smoke and mirrors” promises by tech titans may not be enough.
Children want greater protection online and want technology companies and governments to do more to keep them safe, according to a new study released on Tuesday.
The research coincides with Safer Internet Day, a day to raise awareness of a safer and better internet for all, especially for children.
It also comes after Silicon Valley social media Übermenschen, such as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, were grilled in a US Senate hearing last week on “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis”.
The study, by the charity Save the Children and the Young & Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University, showed that children routinely interact with people they do not know online and are three times more likely to ignore or decline an inappropriate or unwanted request than they are to report or block it.
Almost 600 children aged between 9 and 16 across Australia, Cambodia, Finland, the Philippines, Kenya, South Africa and Colombia participated in the survey.
It also found that children use their intuition and background checks rather than seeking help from trusted adults to manage their online interactions with people they do not know, putting greater importance on social media companies.
“I suggest all websites are age-restricted and require proof when putting in age. People should be kept safe when interacting with strangers online, because one message, video, or post can have a great impact on a child’s mind,” said 12-year-old Sophie (whose real name was not used) from Australia.
The children surveyed also placed great importance on governments to regulate tech companies and hold them to account.
“I personally would like the government to put strict rules on different social media platforms working together with organisations. I would also like the government to create more awareness to young people who use the internet and don’t know about the risks online,” Baraka (whose real name not used), aged 15, from Kenya, said.
The study also found that children are more often abused or exploited online by people they know and they generally speak about bullying and harassment rather than child sexual abuse material, said Steve Miller, Save the Children’s Global Director of Child Protection.
“It’s coming from their peers and unlike before,10-15 years ago, you could leave school and go home. Now it follows you essentially into your home,” he told Euronews Next.
Miller said that the “spectacle” US Congress hearing was important because people are speaking about protecting children online but he said it is important for tech companies and governments to work together.
It should not necessarily be about demonising a particular company or a particular individual as they play an important role, Miller said.
“Around the world, there’s such inconsistency across the industry in what safety rules to apply and how they are implemented and that’s problematic and you do have the private sector sort of setting the boundaries in this increasingly important realm.”
‘Smoke and mirrors’
In Europe, the Digital Services Act cracks down on targeted adverts and promoted content and can fine tech companies if they do not remove illegal content.
In the US, legislation is currently going through Congress to hold social media companies to account for material posted on their platforms.
Zuckerberg for the first time apologised to the parents of children who died following sexual exploitation or harassment on social media and promised them the company would “continue doing industry-wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer”.
But not all social media companies show they are willing to work with governments. Last week’s Senate hearing saw Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew voluntarily agreeing to testify, but the heads of Snap, X (formerly Twitter) and messaging platform Discord initially refused to attend and were sent government-issued subpoenas.
“They are not motivated to prioritise children’s safety, health or well-being because if they were, we wouldn’t have had to have that hearing,” said Titania Jordan, Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Parenting Officer at Bark Technologies, which produces a children’s phone with built-in text and social media monitoring for parents.
Jordan, who is also the author of the book “Parenting in a Tech World,” said that she does not believe tech companies will ever get children’s digital safety right because the initiatives they have rolled out have not been enough.
“They’re really smoke and mirrors. We need to stop waiting for social media companies to put children ahead of profits,” she told Euronews Next.
“We need to stop trusting that they will do the right thing. We need to start advocating for legislative reform that will make it so that parents and children have the power, to hold these companies accountable for the harms that are affecting children.”
She said regulation is important but it is hard to know what is happening in politics as “social media lobbyists have the deepest pockets and have more money than big tobacco. So we will never know who was being paid off, who is just a talking head, and who actually cares”.
But, she said, this means parents can help by applying pressure on their local politicians, adding that the US Attorney General’s warning about social media is a big step.
“The dominoes are falling. It’s just a matter of how quickly,” said Jordan.
What can parents do?
In the meantime, she said parents can help by having frequent, candid conversations with their children about what is happening in their digital lives when they are young.
She also advised implementing filters, time limits, and parental controls. Social media monitoring technologies that can alert parents to harassment online are also advisable so that parents can take action before an issue gets out of hand.
Finally, Jordan recommends delaying giving a smartphone or access to social media to your child for as long as possible and also joining community sites for parents to have discussions about social media.
“It is your job to keep your child safe digitally, just like you do in real life with seatbelts and sunscreen,” she said.
“Tech is neither good nor bad, but it is a tool. And so your children need to use it responsibly.”