Children are spending more time online than ever before, exacerbated by the unprecedented digital shift caused by the pandemic.

As Facebook informant Francis Haugen has made clear, platforms may be well aware of the risks their products pose to children, but they don’t usually follow the necessary safety precautions. More recently, we’ve seen it unravel, and people like Roblox and Metaverse have been called in for promoting sexual harassment and other harmful practices.

At what point are we saying enough? Gradually, lawmakers are realizing that these issues need to be addressed, influenced by the powerful testimonies of victims of these platforms and the ever-increasing public pressure to dominate the power of big technology.

Presenting the long-awaited Internet security bill to parliament in March, Culture Secretary Nadine Doris said: “We risk sacrificing the well-being and innocence of countless generations of children due to untested algorithms.” Other countries around the world hold a similar position.

The times of self-regulation seem to be approaching. While this is to be welcomed, current regulatory approaches are too narrow. While algorithms developed by companies that want data and profits turn significant opportunities into harmful ones, we must not forget that technology can be used as a force for good. It allows children to connect with their friends, learn about the world around them and gain access to a whole new world of possibilities.

So, so to give children the best online experience, security and privacy certainly need to be paramount: but don’t children deserve more? The question arises: can we redesign platforms to not only protect young users, but also create an environment in which they thrive?

Recognizing this, within the framework of this new generation of technological regulation, an increasing part of the so-called “development” approach has emerged. Instead of endlessly responding to the problem of harmful content, he advocates that regulators address the problem at the root cause, forcing technology companies to restructure their products and services with a priority of well-being and safety rather than profit. The goal is not only to give children the security and privacy they deserve online, but also to enable them to thrive in the digital environment.

Offline, the public has a vision of what looks good – local, child-friendly, creative, safe places to play that are not hidden from the world, but are part of it

Advocating a digital world that recognizes children as users and meets them and their needs, we often tend to compare what they already enjoy in the offline world, and in the online world. Take a game, for example.

The child, creatively playing with a cardboard box, brings a smile to the faces of parents. Everyone loves to reminisce about their childhood playing outdoors, with dirty knees and no eyes on playgrounds, parks and greenery, but we don’t recognize these equivalent places online. Can they exist?

What is the digital equivalent of a cardboard box game? This is Minecraft, for example, and if not, why not? Why can’t society confidently answer such questions decades after the advent of the Internet?

Offline, the public has a vision of what looks good – local, child-friendly, creative, safe places to play that are not hidden from the world, but are part of it. Places for fun, growth, camaraderie and, yes, risk, while adults casually watch to see if their help is needed. This was the result of widespread public expectations, the constant promotion of children’s play and, importantly, public policies of involvement, research, regulation and provision.

It’s time to stop blaming parents for allowing their children to play online, and it’s time to raise society’s expectations by meeting children’s needs in the digital world. After all, children will continue to spend a significant amount of time online, so we need to figure out what that time can be good for them, not just mourn it.

Security should be kept to a minimum

At the Commission on the Digital Future hosted by the 5Rights Foundation, we are committed to giving children and young people the digital world they deserve.

That’s why we stand for Playful by Design – fact-based recommendations for product designers and developers who can learn from the rich cultural history of offline games and create imaginary, open and sociable spaces, exciting without coercion that support children’s agency and diversity, and allow them to grow and experiment without being dangerous.

Our nationally representative survey of adolescents aged 6–17 found that they want creative, age-appropriate and accessible digital products that do not fill them with advertising, sell their data or open it to people. they cannot control.

I do not call for a nostalgic return to the digital days, nor for wrapping children in cotton wool so that nothing risky, exciting or unexpected happens. But we can certainly agree that regulators and designers should strive to create an online world that recognizes children’s right to play, benefits them and helps them grow and develop.

Professor Sonia Livingston, Professor of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science. She currently manages the Digital Future Commission (with the 5Rights Foundation) and the Global Kids Online project (in collaboration with UNICEF).

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