I like to think we’ve come a long way since the days when prevailing wisdom was that ‘children should be seen and not heard’. These days we realise the importance of empowering and engaging with our younger generation to ensure the best outcomes for them as they develop and learn to thrive in today’s online environment.
In the world of eSafety, we strive to involve children’s voices, perspectives and needs through robust “co-design” processes.
Indeed, thirty years ago the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, recognising that children and young people have human rights and should be empowered to realise them. The Convention specifies children’s rights to be safe, to have their voices heard and to have their best interests shape the decisions that affect them in all aspects of their lives.
Today, online technologies and experiences are integral to most children’s lives: 42% of Australian two-year-olds are given internet-enabled devices, and 94% have access to the online world by the age of four. These startling statistics make it clear that technology is playing an increasingly important role in our children’s personal and social development, shaping how they form their identities, friendships and ideas.
So listening to children and young people about their online experiences is essential both because they have a right to be heard but also because we can only truly understand the risks they face and the support they need to stay safe when we stop and engage with them.
In such a rapidly-changing tech-focused environment, expecting parents to have the sole responsibility for guiding and supporting their children is no longer realistic or reasonable – we all have a role to play throughout a person’s educational and development journey. So too, the companies that build and provide access to online services must also take into account the best interests of children and other particularly vulnerable users when they design, develop and release services and platforms — not just after harm occurs. Designers and engineers must make the safety of their online users — of all ages — a central focus.
'Give young people an internet where they are free to express themselves without fear of judgment, harassment or any type of harm.'
Recently, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called for submissions on the rights of children and young people in the digital environment. eSafety’s submission was well-informed — guided by what young people have told us about the services and platforms they use and the online world they want in the future.
During the consultation for our ‘Safety by Design’ initiative, 123 young people between the ages of 14 and 17 participated in a five-day online forum. They told us how important online access is to having their voices heard, supporting their sense of belonging and giving them the freedom to research anything at any time. We also heard that entertaining and engaging content allows them to relax, learn new things and have fun. We were awed by their insightful, considered and evolved comments about what they want online.
'My vision is to have a toxic-free environment where there are no people who are rude and can have a bad influence on younger children. I think that every company, including developers, should be responsible for the safety of users to some extent.'
'We should make online spaces secure, safe and allowing of user freedom, with full privacy of personal details, and an environment that is welcoming, allowing creativity and independent thinking to flourish.'
Co-designing the world online
The forum helped us to understand the range of harms young people are experiencing online and how online risks impact them. They were particularly concerned about having lies and rumours spread about them, having their personal information posted without their consent and being exposed to violent or sexual content.
We learned there were different levels of understanding of the tools and features many services provide to help keep users safe. For example, young people told us they would like safety features that allow them to control their own experiences online — such as blocking, muting or reporting another person. But fewer than half of those consulted understood how he technology used by platforms actually worked, for example how they limit exposure to illegal or harmful behaviours.
Young people resoundingly stated they want to have greater control, autonomy and transparency online. They want to be made more aware of their options, feel more confident in their actions and have greater trust in the industry. According to one participant:
'I want developers to be aware of the problems that the youth of today can and do face before creating platforms for them to use. Safety features should be a focus…'
A vision for the future
'My vision is to create a safe and controlled online world, where everyone is able to have freedom of speech and not be a victim…'
Overall, the young people we consulted viewed online safety as a shared responsibility. While they thought users themselves have a significant role to play, they believed the onus should be on the companies themselves to protect users.
As part of the online forum, young people were asked to prepare a Youth Vision Statement, laying out what they want and expect of industry in order to help users navigate digital environments safely and freely. Their final statement is a powerful declaration — one we need to hear and fully embrace. If the platforms and services truly want to put young people’s best interests at their core, they should consider and action their requests.
Working together to achieve the online world we ALL want
At eSafety, we are delighted that recognition of the rights of children and young people online are gaining traction, not only from government and advocacy organisations but also from industry.
We particularly welcome Facebook’s worldwide series of Safety by Design Youth Design Jams, being launched in Sydney. eSafety is excited that our Safety by Design Principles and Youth Vision Statement are being used to frame the sessions. We are keenly anticipating the technology design solutions that participants will develop and, above all else, any recommendations for how we can continue to work with young people and industry to promote children’s rights and safety online.
Working together with in this way, we really can help create the online world we all want. It will then be up to companies to embrace and adopt the Safety by Design principles and youth ideas into future versions of their services and platforms.
Quotes taken from Safety by Design youth online forum, 2018.