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A Technical Solution to Online Safety?

Professor Andy Phippen, Special Advisor on Digital Wellbeing to CyberSafeIreland, writes about the pros and cons of using technical interventions to keep kids safe online

I was recently speaking with a 14 year old girl, whose parents tracked her mobile phone in order to reassure themselves that she was safe whenever she was away from her home. She said she thought this was a good thing because it made her feel like they cared. When I speak with all manner of adult stakeholders in this online safety space, a familiar perspective often emerges is one of prohibition – how can we stop cyberbullying? How can we stop the accessing of inappropriate material? How can we stop them going to places we think could be harmful?

A logical progression of this viewpoint is the belief that we can prevent behaviours via technology:

  • We don’t want them accessing inappropriate content – lets put filters on the Internet access and age verification on websites.
  • We don’t want them being cyberbullied – lets monitor their Internet access and communications so we can see what is being said.
  • We are worried about where they go after school – lets track their mobile phone so we can see where they are.

Technology undoubtedly can help with support of these issues, for example filtering is a useful tool to avoid younger children stumbling across harmful content. However, we need to be mindful of the fact that while technology might facilitate some of the problems that arise with young people being online, the risks that exist are, in essence, social in nature. Cyberbullying happens due to a lack of empathy, insecurities and low self esteem, a breakdown of respect, and similar. None of these things are easily tackled with technological intervention.

Returning to the girl whose movements were tracked by her parents, I reflected upon whether this scenario did actually give any reassurance. What if the mobile went flat, or out of coverage – surely this would result in heightened anxieties? How will the tracking of her phone prevent her being cyberbullied? Perhaps they could also intercept any messages she receives to the phone (perfectly possible technologically speaking) so they can see what people are saying to her. Maybe wearable camera technology could be used when she is at school so they can see the conversations she is having there?

At what point does technological intervention become unacceptable? Just because technology makes it possible, does it actually solve the problems we face? There will always be circumventions to the technology, particularly for the tech-savvy, and privacy conscious, young person. And what of children’s rights? Does our concern for their safety trump their entitlement to fundamental rights such as accessible information, privacy or relevant education?

Online safety cannot be about prohibition. Being safe online has to come from young people who are digitally engaged, risk aware, and sufficiently resilient to address problems if, and when, they occur. We need young people to develop sufficient emotional intelligence to understand the impact of their actions on others, and to appreciate concepts such as respect, boundaries and consent. This has to come from education, providing the opportunities for young people to explore what it means to grow up in the connected world, to understand what they should and should not accept from the behaviour of others, to be able to ask questions in a safe, supportive, environment and to understand that in the event of upset, there are people they can turn to who can help, not judge.

Technology will only ever be a tool to help us keep young people safe online, it will never be a solution.

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