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The Internet Was Not Designed With Children In Mind - Let's Make It A Better And Safer Place For Them

05/01/2017 07:16
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

All of us with children have had to grow up quickly with the internet. When we were children most of us had none of the opportunities or risks that come with the digital world. We know it provides incredible opportunities for children to learn, to explore and to engage with others. But often we feel out of our depth or unsure about the impact it is having on our children's lives.

As Children's Commissioner, I have been chairing the Growing Up Digital Taskforce, a year-long study by a group of experts with expertise in areas like media law, online bullying, safety and children's digital use. Our report, "Growing Up Digital", published today, makes a number of recommendations which would give children the resilience, the information and the power they need to engage creatively and positively with the internet.

Like many parents, I'm concerned we're failing to equip children with the skills they need. Some studies suggest that almost a third of 15-year-olds have sent a naked photo of themselves at least once, over a third of 12-15 year olds have seen hateful content directed at a particular group of people in the last year.

Too often children are left to learn about the internet on their own with parents vainly hoping that they will benefit from its opportunities while avoiding its pitfalls.

For example, it's clear from our report that young people don't understand what they are signing up to under the terms and conditions of many social media platforms. They are agreeing to terms and conditions they could never be expected to understand, meaning they are waiving their right to privacy and allowing the content they post to be sold, without realising they are doing so.

We asked some young people whether they understood the terms of Instagram, a social media platform used by 56% of 12 to 15 year olds and 43% of 8 to 11 year olds. The younger children were unable to read more than half of the 17 pages of text, and none fully understood what the terms and conditions committed them to. When we asked an expert in privacy law to simplify them so that they were comprehensible to teenagers, many were shocked by what they read.

We also looked into children's experiences of reporting concerns on social media sites and found that many don't know how to report problems - and when they do, they are dissatisfied with the action taken.

So we are calling on social media companies to rewrite their terms and conditions so children understand them and can make informed decisions. We ask the Government to implement legislation to protect children's privacy and data online and are calling for an extension of the Children's Commissioners' powers so that there is independent oversight of the number and type of complaints that social media providers are receiving from young people.

We are also calling for a digital ombudsman, who would mediate between children and social media over the removal of content. It would operate in a similar way to the Financial Ombudsman Service and would be funded by social media companies, but independent of them.

Parents are not confident about how to prepare children for online life, while Ofsted has found teaching staff training to be inconsistent and often inadequate. Growing Up Digital recommends that digital citizenship should be taught from the age of four to fourteen with a voluntary extension for older children who would show the way to get the best out of the internet. It would include what it means to be a responsible citizen online, how to protect your rights online, how to respect others' rights online, and how to both disengage and engage with the online world.

The internet is a part of everyday life - and an incredible force for good. But it is irresponsible to let children roam in a world for which they're ill-prepared, which is subject to limited regulation and which is controlled by a small number of powerful organisations. It's critical children are educated better, understand what they're agreeing to when they join social media platforms and that their privacy is better protected.

When it was created 25 years ago, the internet was not designed with children in mind but I believe the proposals in our report would help make it a better and safer place for children.

Anne Longfield is the Children's Commissioner for England

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