IT Law / Philosophy / Politics / Technology

Age-Appropriate Internet Content

A safe and mature society is one where individuals can live with a sense of security and well-being, free from harm and fear. This type of society is characterised by stable institutions, effective law enforcement, and a robust system of justice that protects the rights of its citizens and ensures accountability for those who break the law.

Additionally, a mature society values and promotes equality, tolerance, and mutual respect among its members, allowing individuals to live and work together in harmony to thrive, achieve their full potential, and lead fulfilling lives. The best route to achieving this is to foster societal behaviours which promote healthy development from a young age. ‘Healthy’ takes many meanings (psychological health, physical health, and digital health).

I was recently shocked to discover that state-sponsored devices handed out to kids allow access to illegal and harmful content. I took steps to address this matter, as reported here. The use of digital technologies by children has evolved dramatically and children are able to interact, contact, play, and share with others online, often without parental supervision. While this increased online presence has many benefits, it also creates an environment in which regulatory oversight and public policy should gently guide development. We should take steps to create a safe and mature online society for children. The European Union recognizes this importance, as evidenced by the updated strategy for a better internet for kids (BIK+) that was laid out in the recent Digital Decade communication.

In this new digital age, children are exposed to an ever-increasing amount of digital content and services, many of which were not designed with them in mind. This is a significant concern, as children differ greatly by age, gender, and background, and some may face additional challenges in the digital environment. In turn we have witnessed several cases of exposure to harmful and illegal content, bullying, grooming, and other risks which then translate into a society that is increasingly polarised (with behaviours that are less consistent with our desire for a safe and mature society). The risks of such exposure are:

  • Trauma: Children can be exposed to violent or graphic content that can traumatise them and cause long-term emotional distress.
  • Addiction: Children can become addicted to online content, which can lead to decreased attention span and impaired development.
  • Cyberbullying: Children are vulnerable to online bullying, which can lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, and depression.
  • Sexual exploitation: Children can be exposed to inappropriate sexual material or be targeted by predators seeking to exploit them.
  • Misinformation: Children can be exposed to false or misleading information, which can impact their understanding of the world and ability to make informed decisions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need for equal access to digital technology and digital literacy for all children. Indeed the long-term goal of any public policy should be to create the right environment in which kids learn to make the right choices online.

To address these challenges and ensure that children are protected and empowered online, the Commission proposed an ambitious reform of the existing rulebook through the Digital Services Act (DSA). This act obliges entities to prioritise the interests of children and reflect EU values, including the protection and empowerment of minors.

The EU has also proposed a European Declaration on Digital rights and principles for the Digital Decade, which will help guide the digital transformation of the continent over the next decade. The updated BIK+ strategy is the digital arm of the rights of the child strategy, and it aims to support the practical implementation of measures to protect children online, develop their skills, and empower them to safely shape their lives online.

In all actions concerning children in the digital environment, the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration. The role of regulation, policy and process in the digital environment should be to offer an inclusive and secure internet experience to children, while ensuring their protection. It is naive to assume that any state may abdicate (even temporarily) from this obligation as is it is too central to the development of our society.

The social pact (a concept loosely used in the EU to describe an unwritten agreement between government and citizens and social partners) is relevant in the context of developing children to become mature members of society. The social pact represents a shared agreement among members of a society about the rights, responsibilities, and obligations that are expected of each individual. The pact (supported by regulation and policy) creates a safe framework for development as well as the protection of children. This allows them to learn, safely, what behaviours and attitudes are considered acceptable within the community.

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