Every parent knows that however virtuous our intentions about giving children an ideal childhood, the fact is we bring them up in the 'real' world. And the real world today includes online, even for pre-school and primary age children.
Until 2010 this was generally limited to a family computer in the kitchen - easy to supervise and relatively hard to use - so out of the pervue of the youngest children. Then came the smartphone revolution, swiftly followed by tablets and user-friendly products that meant everything was only a click away wherever you were. And with it the ubiquitous sight of a child in a pram eyes glued to a tablet.
Much of our concern about children online is about suitability of content or tragic outcomes for individual children that fuel banner headlines. I meet many parents/carers who are anxious about what their child might see and even more who feel a little guilty about their 'secret babysitter'. But I rarely meet parents who think about the technology itself - which means they are missing the best clues to understanding how their children are being treated in the digital world.
So here are three things that might change how you think about children and tech.
What makes them click?
Almost all of the digital world is deliberately designed to keep the user, however young, attached. Sophisticated algorithms deliver small rewards to keep them interested, built on the exact same design principles as a casino slot machine. There are a number of words used by Product Designers to describe these 'reward loops'; the most chilling for me is 'addicting'.
Addicting is what they strive for - necessary because the value of tech companies is measured in Daily Active Users, a user is someone who 'clicks'. This is the heart of what insiders call the 'attention economy'. So whilst the content your child is using may be entirely appropriate, the purpose of the tech is to keep their attention and maximise those clicks. Who doesn't recognise the screaming child who wants the phone/tablet/computer in a rage of desire that we barely comprehend? They are not being naughty, merely fulfilling a Pavlovian desire for more that has been deliberately designed into the technology they are using.
A Professor at Stanford gave a sad shrug and told me "Facebook has replaced Disney as the happiest place on earth". I was curious - surely there cant be anything wrong with being happy! Well apparently there is. Emerging research shows that children are increasingly UNABLE to read complex emotions, particularly negative ones. They are missing the clues that traditionally came from looking around. With eyes glued to the screen, most often on content that has very simple emotional narratives they are missing some essential components of emotional development. A child who is taken in a buggy from a house to a shop would normally see - boredom, concentration, negotiation, irritation, concern, anxiety, hope, excitement and more... on a single journey.
But simplified commercial content and the 'happy' postings to maximise 'likes' (just another form of click) don't offer emotional range or complexity. With an even bigger shrug he revealed - that many of the youngest are not even reading their parents or carers expressions because the adults are too busy with their own screens, and an increasing number of children start their school life unable to look anyone in the eye and bewildered by any complex or negative human interactions.
Many of most the popular social media sites do not allow primary age children, but it is not rigorously policed and millions of primary age children use them, often with the tacit agreement of parents.
Traditionally, concern is focused around suitability of content or stranger danger. But excessive sharing is in itself a problem for children. Not yet fully aware of the subtleties of language or context and in a period of acute concern for their social standing - they have little comprehension of consequence. The majority of what upsets children online is what is said, posted and done by other children. Sometimes with malice, but very often not. Services reward sharing because sharing creates data. A sharing 'habit' fuelled by algorithms set to maximise spread, is, a perfect incubator for overexposure, reputational damage and bullying.
To be clear, childhood has always involved negotiating social groups and personal disappointment - but the culture of constant interaction and speed of spread contribute to the unprecedented levels of anxiety, low self-esteem and for some self-harm - and every year the age at which these issues emerge drops further.
What can we do?
It's hard for parents, who want immediate solutions to problems they see in the playgrounds, bedrooms and lives of their own children, to take a broader view. But if we want a better deal for our own children, we need to insist on a new standard of service designed to support children's presence online.
I am working with a concerned group of Product Designers and Engineers prototyping technology that upholds the rights of children. They are not specifically educational tools nor wholesome alternative products - but designed with the help of children - to support them in their use of the parts of the digital world that they already like. Many products including, innovations that puts tech to bed at an appointed hour (the tech not the child) to an automated system of letting your friends know you are busy - so that you can be 'unavailable' but keep your online-self alive. They are by no means a magic answer but they prove that there is not technological impediment to creating a different online world for our kids. It's a choice.
Parents are both consumers and advocates for their child's best interests. If we support companies that deliver children's rights and avoid those that don't... we would quickly see change.
Children's rights are not optional - even when inconvenient. And unless we implement children's rights as standard in all the interactions of the digital world- we will never be able to tackle the tragic outcomes that make up those banner headlines.
After all a child is a child until they reach maturity, not until they reach for their smartphone.
Baroness Beeban Kidron is founder of 5rights framework which seeks to deliver the established rights of children across the digital world
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