Perspective: How can we make the Internet safer for children?  Give more power to parents

Perspective: How can we make the Internet safer for children? Give more power to parents

From cyberbullying and peer pressure to explicit content and websites that promote self-harm and dangerous fads, even the most cautious child can stumble upon online dangers.

As tweens and teens spend an average of an hour watching online videos each day, they are regularly exposed to content that their parents would never allow them to see in real life. It’s an open secret that the videos that perform best on TikTok are optimized for engagement, not age.

The first line of defense, of course, is parents and their communities. But while these efforts are necessary, they are not enough. Lawmakers from all political walks of life, including in progressive California, are recognizing the need to shift the playing field away from Big Tech and toward child protection. Giving parents more tools to make sure their kids are safe online should be part of a parent-friendly political agenda.

The most important step policymakers could take is to require all minors to receive permission from a parent or legal guardian in order to open an account on a social media site or app, such as suggested this by Thomas Lehrman and Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia.

But the next-level strategy would be to link that parent’s account to their child’s, giving mom or dad admin-level access to view a child’s messages, videos, preferences, and settings. Already, many parents are asking their children for their passwords to access their social media sites, although some feel this would suggest a lack of trust. Of course, parents would never have to use this access if they didn’t want to, but having it by default could help parents be more aware of what their children see online and do a better job of it. having conversations on social media. contents.

Many of the dangerous social pathologies that exacerbate mental illness, suicide, and depression are fueled by online subcultures that aren’t always visible to the blind eye. Even in less harmful areas, many parents who have been surprised by the sudden changes in identity, interests, and behavior of their teens have attributed these changes to social media use of which they were unaware. Parents, even the most progressive, have expressed concern about what unfettered access to pornography has done to middle and high school students.

Giving parents the ability to see what kind of content their children are being fed by algorithms or other users could give them an early warning sign. And knowing that mom or dad might end up finding a trail of age-inappropriate content might make some kids think twice about clicking on links they shouldn’t.

When it comes to technology and social media, parents from all political backgrounds feel overwhelmed; two-thirds of parents tell pollsters they are somewhat or very concerned about their children being targeted by online predators or accessing violent or sexually explicit content. And there is a growing bipartisan effort for the federal government to update its ground rules regarding children and technology.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act currently provides some basic protections. For example, websites and social media companies cannot collect information about children under 13 without parental permission. But the law was passed in the days before MySpace, let alone Snapchat, Instagram or TikTok.

President Joe Biden has called for a ban on data collection and targeting advertising at minors, which would not address the underlying issues facing children. A more promising federal avenue is the bipartisan Child Online Safety Act of 2022, or KOSA, sponsored by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). The law would require social media platforms to prevent the glorification of certain harmful behaviors (including self-harm and suicide), strengthen data privacy for users under 16, and give minors more opportunity to opt out algorithmic recommendations. This would make it easier for researchers to study the impact of technology on children.

More importantly, KOSA would explore the best ways to implement an age verification system that would prevent children from accessing explicit content without producing proof of age, such as a driver’s license or bank account. This is a crucial step in a world where the average age of first exposure to pornography is now around 11 or 12 years old.

But states don’t have to wait for Congress. Recently passed California law requires online services to enable the highest privacy settings by default for users under 18 and prohibits certain forms of data collection and tracking. It offers a modest first step towards a more kid-friendly internet, though it doesn’t go far enough to give parents more of a chance to see what their kids are seeing online.

Conservatives should take the California law and build on it. It’s important to emphasize that these efforts are not about content moderation or Big Tech political censorship; it’s about recognizing that the social pressures facing children online are too great for an individual parent to stop on their own.

Again, parents will always have the ultimate responsibility for keeping their children safe online. Earlier this year, my colleagues at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy and I developed a guide for parents on children and technology, aimed at making families more aware of some existing tools to screen content and enforce screen time limits. The Wait Until Eighth group, a grassroots movement led by parents, encourages parents to mutually pledge that their child will not receive a cell phone until eighth grade.

But parents also need the help of policy makers. Building better guardrails around how kids interact online is like painting a crosswalk on a busy street. Nothing can guarantee that they will not find danger, but by modifying the infrastructure we can reduce the risk that they will fall into danger. Likewise, changing our digital infrastructure to err on the side of child protection should be a top priority.

Pro-family conservatives should be heartened that even progressive states are beginning to address the dangers facing children online. Giving parents more tools to shape and monitor the digital environment in which their child will spend time should be a fundamental part of a pro-family agenda, and perhaps even an area of ​​bipartisan compromise.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites on Twitter) is a Fellow of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy and Writes from Columbia, SC


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