The new Growing up Digital report came out in the UK today from the Children’s Commissioner (Find it here). It’s a nuanced report with many interesting ideas and thoughts about the internet. It acknowledges that children are on the internet more, and that this is not going to change. It acknowledges the internet can be a great place (It literally starts with the sentence “The internet is an extraordinary force for good…”). It suggests that children need to be taught critical skills online as well as offline. It’s really nuanced and well written.
So why is it that nearly all the press reporting on this is SO APPALLING?!
Many a daytime fluff-piece ran today about scaremongering kids online. Many articles and comment sections are being flooded with responses drawn straight from the bowels of a moral panic. So many “IN MY DAY I used to run around with a hoop and stick” articles and posts are being written. I beg you all. Please. Stop.
There are a number of problems with these responses to what is otherwise a nuanced and well-written report. Not only is it obscuring the great work done by the Children’s Commissioner, but it is treating the internet far too simply. The internet is (and always has been) SO many things at once; a social space, a place of business, a place for news, a place for interaction, and yes, a playground. We need to stop viewing the internet as an amorphous blob, as a single unified controllable entity, and instead embrace and understand the messiness and overlapping nature of the internet. It’s a place full of contradictions and overlaps. It is different for every person.
A bit like a real-life playground actually, which can be a place for kids, dogs, walkers, drug-dealers, lunches, cries, Pokemon-go, and so many other things, good and bad. How is it we can embrace and see this nuance offline and yet can’t or won’t online?
What does this report mean for social media? Well, it means several things. Firstly, we need to hold designers accountable to make these spaces safe and secure. That isn’t a one-time thing; it requires ongoing continual assessment and consideration as new issues emerge. We need them to consider the varied audiences that are present about build the space to reflect the society they want to build in an ongoing manner.
Secondly, we need to teach kids about playing in the internet playground safely. Just like we do in the real world, that means telling them not to go towards a strange person, to stay within eye-shot, to report problems, and to play responsibly/fairly. That does NOT mean that we stop them playing, nor that they won’t scrape their knees every now and then. We shouldn’t stop them playing, but we should teach them that they are not unbreakable and that stupid ideas are stupid…We teach them to play responsibly, we teach them about the dangers, but don’t stop them playing creatively, and don’t wrap them in bubblewrap.
Finally, we need to teach kids what so many adults seemingly can’t grasp at the moment. To return to my first point in this post, we need to teach kids that the internet is a place with many many elements serving many functions. Not all of them (like IRL) are spaces for them. Not all of them are safe. Not all of them are equal. Not all of them are nice. Some of them contain Donald Trump.
In short, the internet is not any one thing alone. It is nuanced, and our approach to it, especially with children, needs to be equally nuanced. That is what the Child Commissioner’s report suggests, so please, stop reporting otherwise and feeding into the easy narrative of a moral panic. We need productive ideas and responses, just like the report suggests, and not simple sound bites.