This article was originally published by Today on 30 January 2023.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the imposed lockdowns have led to a seismic shift in our collective internet use with an uptick in the number of users and time spent online.
Concurrently, there was also an increase in cybercrimes and online harms in this period which affected individuals as well as infrastructure and delivery of services, as reported by the World Economic Forum in their 2022 Cybersecurity Outlook report.
Unicef (the United Nations Children’s Fund) reports that across the globe, one in three internet users is a child.
In Singapore, a survey by Google finds that children get their first internet-connected device at the age of eight, which is a good two years earlier than the global average of ten years.
A 2022 survey of around 1,000 parents, by the Child Mind Institute supported by Morgan Stanley, found that more than half the number (59 per cent) of parents surveyed allowed more screen time during the pandemic.
At the same time, they were also concerned about online bullying (53 per cent), and the type of content that’s available to children (67 per cent) that may be pornographic, hateful, racist, violent or embedded marketing.
About half are worried about the impact of internet use on their children’s social and cognitive development.
How can society respond in the face of such data? And who should be responsible for keeping children safe?
They say it takes a village to raise children. Does it take a village to keep them safe?
Placing the onus solely on parents to ensure that children use the internet safely doesn’t sufficiently address the complex nature of online harms nor does it take into account all the actors that play a key role in this.
THE DIGITAL SAFETY ECOSYSTEM
Reducing harms online will require a holistic approach that considers the entire digital safety ecosystem and all the actors in it.
This ecosystem consists of industry which includes the technology companies that are designing products and apps for children, governments that regulate such companies, and the community that involves schools and other civil society organisations.
There are also the parents and caregivers which are likely the first to expose children to their first digital experience.
Today, technology companies are factoring in children’s online safety when designing gadgets and apps.
Google has a Family Safety Centre which outlines family safety features and parental controls across all products. TikTok has a Trust and Safety website with its community guidelines and safety controls available in 30-plus languages.
But there is growing consensus that the filtering systems employed by such control tools do not recognise context and are not fool-proof tools that will keep children safe as online risks become more and more sophisticated.
In Singapore, the Government passed the Online Safety Bill in November 2022 to address the increasing risks users experience from prevalent online harms.
A failure to take down egregious content on popular social media platforms will result in hefty fines of up to S$1 million or blockage of their service in Singapore.
This is in line with global movements by governments to regulate social media companies and reduce exposure to negative or harmful online content.
While this focus on content moderation is required, it doesn’t fully address the complex landscape of online safety which includes different types of risks.
These threats can come from contact with malicious actors, bad or inappropriate conduct by users, and exploitation that arises from unknowingly signing contracts online which open children up to identity thefts and fraud.
There is also a societal lack of awareness and apathy.
The Sunlight Alliance for Action set up to tackle online harms had polled 1,000 Singaporeans and found that close to half of respondents (47 per cent) have encountered online harms, and yet, most of them (57 per cent) were unaware of avenues for seeking help.
Most of the respondents (43 per cent) also didn’t believe that taking action would make a difference or indicated that they did not know what to do if they encountered online harms.
In this light, greater community awareness and training are necessities so that caregivers can recognise when children are experiencing online harms and take the right action to help them.
But most of these programmes and digital citizenship frameworks aim on building competencies and skills to identify and respond to threats rather than at harm reduction.
THE COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY APPROACH
Cutting down screen time and technology use may seem like tempting solutions, but this is impractical considering the developmental trajectory that the world is on.
Technology will always be central to our lives, but we need a collective approach to ensure that this can improve the quality of our lives.
When it comes to online safety, everyone has a role to play in ensuring a safe and trusted ecosystem where children can actualise the opportunities that are being afforded by technologies.
In this ecosystem, every one — government, industry, community and caregivers — shares the responsibility of keeping children safe.
The fundamental awareness that new and emerging technologies provide immense benefits to humanity but also engender various risks is something that society should come to terms with.
Safety is at its core a social concept and what is safe or unsafe is negotiated across social and cultural contexts.
Governments should continue to innovate online safety regulation to account for cultural and social sensitivities and work more closely with key stakeholders from academia, industry, and civil society to weigh in on the right tempo to be struck in designing appropriate community standards for online behaviours.
In this vein, technology companies should come together to set baselines for creating industry standards so that online safety can be built into the products and digital spaces that are being designed for learning and play.
Better sharing of information and policies on specific threats across social-media platforms can also go far in designing appropriate solutions to an ever-evolving space.
Governments can also effect systemic change by setting national online safety principles and encouraging the tech sector to adopt it in their day-to-day operations.
Schools also have a key role to play in cultivating good hygiene around internet and device use while engaging conversations around this for children and parents.
Online safety should become a priority and should be embedded in institutional policies much like the Environmental, Health, and Safety policies that schools currently have.
Parents should educate themselves on online safety and continue to model good online behaviours to children.
It is equally important to keep your doors open and make time and space in your lives to talk to your children about their online activities, as well as yours.
Having this collective sense of responsibility towards online safety will ensure that children and parents will not be left to their own devices when they encounter harm and that digital spaces remain exciting and safe for all users.
And this is paramount in realising the digitally enabled glorious future that is being envisioned across all fronts.