Monday 17 December 2018

Parents alone cannot police our youth in cyberspace

When children go into cyberspace it is 'like letting your kids free in the middle of New York City on their own'.
When children go into cyberspace it is 'like letting your kids free in the middle of New York City on their own'.

Mary Aiken

At what point did we as a society make parents and care-givers almost solely responsible for monitoring minors in cyberspace?

In the real world, we do not expect parents to man the doors to public houses or newsagent counters to prevent underage youths purchasing alcohol and cigarettes. So why do we expect parents to tackle problematic youth cyber behaviour? In an age of ubiquitous technology, smart phones, tablets and public WiFi, surely monitoring youth behaviour online is nearly impossible for parents, teachers and guardians?

I am the academic adviser in psychology to the European Cyber Crime Centre at Europol, and we are very concerned about child welfare online. However, the landscape is continuously changing. Have you ever considered that when your child enters a search keyword and presses return, they are in fact interfacing with machine intelligence?

Where is the governance? Who is overseeing the transaction? Without doubt technology is an invaluable tool in youth education, however, when a vulnerable and distressed 11-year-old enters search words relating to 'thin' and is presented with the "gruesome and grotesque images that promote self-harm and anorexia" (Webwise Youth Advisory Panel), who is responsible? More importantly, as a society, why have we been so passive in accepting the 'technology status quo' as some form of inevitability? Why are we expected to accept sophisticated technologies that actively target children, with a collective mentality that is more representative of lemmings jumping off a cliff than one of mature reflection.

Parents are promoted as the protectors of minors in online environments, however, the point at which technology companies design an app, which allows children to take risky images that are transmitted, viewed and then disappear, is the point at which 'youth covert behaviour' is arguably being enabled by technology. How can we possibly hold parents or caretakers responsible in these circumstances? Clearly no commercial technology company wants to be associated with anything that results in harm to a child, but what is being done to address these problems? Researchers are well placed to investigate and recommend solutions, however, the issue as always, is funding. In Ireland we showed leadership in the introduction of the smoking ban, so clearly we care about the physical health of our youth. Now we need to address their cyberpsychological and mental health.

This is a leadership issue, we levy plastic bags to protect the environment, but there are insufficient funds to support badly needed research and intervention regarding problematic youth behaviour online. Does this mean that as a society we care more about rubbish than our children? The television licence will ultimately be replaced with some form of household broadcasting charge, designed to allow for increasing use of technologies. I would suggest that perhaps a fraction of this publicly funded charge could be set aside to address techno-social problems such as child welfare online, and matched with public private partnership funding by concerned technology companies.

It takes a village to raise a child, and social media companies are very much part of this new global village. But governance in this area would appear to have fallen to those companies who, I expect, with their modus operandi of 'freedom of speech' and 'new frontierism', may have little desire to deal with images of children self-harming and worse. It would be all too familiar if our official, elected government, for fear of upsetting the status quo, was content to let child welfare fall by the wayside, once again.

I am one of the authors of a comprehensive report that considers difficult issues relating to online abuse, cyberbullying, harassment and harmful content. Established in 2013 by former Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, the report discusses negative content, material that may be offensive or harmful, including websites that promote self-harm, drug-taking or alcohol abuse. The recent phenomenon of 'neknominations'; websites promoting anorexia or bulimia; websites containing racism, hate speech, or anti-LGBT attitudes; extremist political radicalisation; and websites that contain frightening, violent or gory content are discussed. The phenomenon of youth 'sexting' is also raised, involving the sharing between users of sexually explicit messages or photos online or via mobile devices.

The ease at which young people can access pornographic material online was discussed in our report, which noted that censorship of the media on the grounds of obscenity is still a feature of the legal system in Ireland. Our report outlined that in Ireland, On-Demand Audio-visual Media Services acts to regulate online audio-visual content, however, this code covers services originating within the Republic of Ireland, and has no effect on online content from outside the jurisdiction.

Territory is key in cyberspace; interestingly countries such as Germany have found effective ways of tackling some internet-related youth problems. So how many Irish children are affected? The 2011 EU Kids Online Report found that a quarter of Irish young people, aged 11-16, had come across harmful online content; 16pc had encountered hate messages; 11pc had seen anorexic/bulimic sites; 9pc had accessed self-harm sites, as well as sites about drug taking; and of serious concern, 4pc had viewed websites discussing suicide.

Some 11pc reported having received a sexual message or 'sext'. In the same research, young people said that the content that upset them most was pornographic material, as well as violent content online, consisting of cruelty, abuse of animals and killings. However, this research is over three years old.

The report addresses these problems from an Irish perspective and it is available online. Anybody with an interest in the protection and healthy development of children in an age of technology should have a look at it.

My colleague, Cyberpsychologist Professor John Suler, says "when kids go into cyberspace on their own, it's like letting your kids free in the middle of New York City on their own".

We are at the centre of an unprecedented technological revolution, where 25pc of three-year olds now go online daily. We urgently need to start an informed public debate concerning accountability and responsibility for children online, a future-thinking discussion, where the burden of child welfare in cyberspace does not unfairly fall to parents and caregivers.

Mary Aiken is director of the RCSI CyberPsychology Research Centre Internet Content Governance Advisory Group Report. (Broadcasting) http://www.dcenr.gov.ie/)

Irish Independent

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