Online safety for children is everyone's responsibility

Online safety for children is everyone's responsibility

Shutting children away behind closed doors, away from prying eyes and with no internet, can protect them up to a point. But preventing children from engaging with the world hurts their development in the long run.

Children need fair, proper and manageable protection from online harm, and that requires collaboration between children, parents, society, businesses and the government, say experts who spoke at a recent event held by the Thai Electronic Transactions Development Agency.

Messenger Kids, introduced by Facebook for children as young as six years, was among the topics discussed. A Facebook representative at the event declined to comment, but Andrea Hargrave, director-general of the London-based International Institute of Communications, said applications designed especially for children are not a bad idea in themselves. But business is business, and that's where things get tricky.

"I am sure [products specialised for children] are helpful because they allow children to communicate within a safe space that you know you can trust, like Disney," she told Asia Focus. "But the point is, somebody is obviously making money out of this and they are making money out of your kids' data.

"Parents are caught between a rock and a hard place but you don't just stop them from using [the internet] completely because I don't think you would want to do that. Just as children need to learn how to cross the road, they need to learn how to navigate the digital world."

Many of the efforts related to child safety come from the traditional media content world, which is accustomed to regulation in various forms, but "this is a different world", she said.

"We all have to take more responsibility as parents than we have in the past. We need to collaborate and work with industries because industries want you to buy their products and if you walk away from their products, they do not have a business anymore. And that is why Facebook has taken on a number of moderators."

Even though the IT giants are making money from specialised products for children through advertising and selling of data, they are trying to help parents at least understand what they can do to mitigate some of the bigger risks, she said.

Kaspersky Lab, a multinational cybersecurity provider, identifies seven dangers that children face online: cyberbullying, cyber predators, posting private information, phishing (emails that try to trick people into clicking on malicious links), falling for scams, accidentally downloading malware, and posts that come back to haunt a child later in life since deleting something forever from the internet is nearly impossible.

Kaspersky recommends that parents talk more to their children about what is happening in their lives so they can be alert to bullying or predators. They should remind them that mum and dad can see what they post online, but that they "don't snoop". Children can be told about how people can steal private information such as a home address for malicious purposes.

Even though your children are smart enough not to send money to Nigerian princes, they might fall for scams that offer things they may want, such as free access to online games in return for parents' credit card information, according to Kaspersky. Parents need to deliver the age-old caution to children about offers that sound too good to be true.

Ms Hargrave agrees that safety starts with talking to children, but monitoring their use of devices is difficult. "For example, is your child allowed to take an iPad to bed because they want to play some games? And at what age do you give your child a smartphone?"

In the UK, many children are allowed to independently use smartphones when they reach secondary school because they are travelling on their own to school. But increasingly, younger children are getting smartphones because of "peer pressure" that parents should try to resist, she said.

The formal education system also has a role to play. "I think that in Thailand you have enormous opportunity. It is a country that respects teachers and learning and I also think teachers need to be helped to understand what the issues are in the way that parents do."

Canada and Singapore, in her view, are the most advanced countries in terms of media literacy. In Singapore, experts have been teaching safe use of the internet in schools for two decades. Parents' associations often discuss online safety. "I am sure you can do something like that here," she said.

Because private companies are the "gatekeepers" of the internet, the public should be able to trust them to deal with some of the problems that arise, said Dr Joan Barata, founder of the Vienna-based consultancy CommVisions.

"On the other hand, I also believe that in order to perform that important task, these private companies need direction from the government because in some cases, government institutions ... are better suited to define what is in the public interest or what is acceptable and what is not," he said.

In addition to heeding guidance from public bodies, private companies need input from parents and civil society organisations on community standards.

"In many cases you cannot have just one petrified code, but more like a set of rules that needs to be able to adapt to circumstances. In many cases, only thanks to feedback can you know that you are doing your work properly and make good judgements," said Dr Barata.

Dr Masato Kajimoto, a journalism professor and founder of the Asia Pacific Digital Citizens Network, favours educating children in media literacy over heavy regulation.

Children can be taught how to self-regulate, he said, based on what seems to be working in Japan, where media literacy is part of the public school curriculum.

"My recommendation is to find a way for media literacy education to be integrated into the public education system in one way or another. It could be just 15 minutes every two weeks for those aged between 7 and 17," he told Asia Focus.

For the younger age group, Dr Kajimoto recommends teaching empathy and ethical behaviour to reduce cyberbullying. Older children can be taught to think more analytically about content by answering questions. On seeing a popular TV show, for example, they could be asked: why do you think this drama is popular, why was it created, why does it appeal emotionally?

"What we do with high school and university students is almost pure journalism, including fact checking and verification, and the same thing can be done for entertainment content but slightly different because it is mostly made up," he said.

"These kinds of analyses of media content could probably help them develop critical thinking skills that they could use to protect themselves from cyber harm."

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