Child Online Protection - Not so easy after all

July 19, 2013, 8:10 a.m.
Michela Menting, Research Director


At first thought, child online protection appears to be a relatively straightforward problem to crack. Initially because it is universally agreed that children deserve extraordinary protection from the ills and vices of life. But on closer examination, protecting children is a painstakingly difficult task to achieve – a look at the monstrous efforts employed by UNICEF and the other innumerable child protection agencies on the planet only begins to scratch at the surface of the issue.

Cyberspace is a new layer on top of which the decades of past work has to be adapted, integrated and often reworked completely. The greatest differentiator is the amplification of mental threats. While the consequences of physical violence are likely to include psychological trauma, there is an erroneous perception that because cyberspace presents lower risks to the physical, the mental dangers are somehow lessened. I would argue that perhaps the opposite is true. The digital landscape is home to all kinds of content and social interaction, much of which can be particularly harmful to children.

Child protection measures have been implemented in many aspects of modern life – watershed hours for broadcasters, strict regulation for advertisers (television, radio and print), age classification for film and video games, even the labeling of explicit lyrics on music. Yet cyberspace has developed unimpeded by similar restrictions and today the debate on imposing these same controls is divisive to say the least.

The predominant question is where does the responsibility (and ultimately the liability) lie? The broader consensus –or rather the status quo– is that it lies with parents and guardians. Internet companies and service providers have been reticent to don the liability cloak, with most arguments invoking the shield of freedom of information (and from manipulation). The reality is that such positions are simply not tenable in the modern world. While a decade ago the internet was just shedding its beta skin, we are today in fully-fledged commercial and ubiquitous availability. Social media, smart devices, connected gaming consoles, and apps; apps everywhere. Most parents are a digital generation behind their own teenagers, and are struggling to understand the potential threats, let alone successfully apply parental control solutions. Exposure to strangers, privacy violations, aggressive marketing, cyber-bullying – the list of dangers is growing in cyberspace and across platforms.

ISPs, MNOs and other internet companies are tentatively tackling the issue with codes of conduct, self-regulation and pledges of significant investment in content blocking and filtering at the network level. Many are offering free tools to parents, most based on technology developed by internet security companies. But is this enough? The shortcomings of a technology-only approach, whether it is blocking or surveillance based, have been well documented by child protection organizations and deemed to be insufficient. An ideal solution might combine the best of education and technology. The toughest part however is getting that mix right. To do this, it will be imperative to expose the weaknesses in current technology, ramp up parental education to a national level, develop much better tools and regulate the role of network level players. Short of this, it may be very difficult to achieve anything noteworthy at all.