General parental advice to parents for keeping children safe online may be soon outdated

General parental advice to parents for keeping children safe online may be soon outdated

As Christmas approaches, tech gifts for children such as smartphones, tablets and other Internet-connected devices are becoming increasingly popular and on-demand. Just before the seasonal cheer, in this blog post, I cover some of the risks in introducing or supporting Internet connected devices for children and advice for their safe practice.

Today, it seems, the evolutionary adaptation of the brain has been rapidly outstripped by the advancement of internet technology, which currently progresses at exponentially accelerated speed on the order of years, months, and even days. Mind change, by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, argues that the human brain is a network of neurons that are being shaped, adapted, and evolved by experiences lived and perceived in a given environment. She explains that as the “evolutionary mandate” of the human brain is to adapt and thrive, its response to the cyber world as a new environment leads to a unique personalized state of mind.  This is not to suggest the human brain is incapable of functioning in such environments, only that it functions differently there. Therefore, how do we advise and educate children on how to approach new technologies, now an essential part in education and every-day lives, on an ever-changing landscape?! After all, we have had less than 20 years ourselves as adults to practice our “online intuition” of what does not feel right and what can be dangerous on the Internet of today which is constantly evolving. What is the sudden and aggressive movement that can trigger the “flight or fight” reaction, which platform is the ‘dark alley’ where you should not walk through during the night, who are the strangers that are offering candy, and more importantly how many are they out there and are they lurking in your home network?

Cyber environments are indeed very different from the physical world and its features upon which humans decide how to think and act. Online interaction may be stripped from many social cues that form or alert human behaviour, such as body language, eye contact, sudden movements and so on. The absence of such social cues online can lead to increased cognitive loads and error in judgment in perceiving danger or ill-intent.  Such vulnerabilities have been especially pronounced for children considering their early stages of development. Despite the ability of children to adopt, use, and manoeuvre technology and the Internet for constructive purposes, we should not forget that their decision-making processes while in cyber environments may be altered and hardened.  Higher cognitive load can increase automated information processing, for example, automatically clicking “agree” buttons to consent forms without considering the content, or swiftly granting app permissions to the camera, location etc, without considering the necessity or the risks. At the same time, great many social communication platforms govern content and human interaction through recommendation algorithms and machine learning processes that may privilege efficiency or marketing over social behaviour. Increasingly popular social network practices, such as self-streaming content in a form of seemingly harmless and fun short videos created by children and young adults, can actually provide valuable insight to potential offenders for their victim and their environment. Predators may adopt and simulate similar online interests to children in order to optimize their accounts to be “friend suggested” to children, simulate mutual friends, or create harmful content that can target children and their behaviour.

While tips and advice to parents for child-safe use of technology and online child abuse prevention in the past have been very much concentrated on imperative, clear and general guidance, such as do not give out personal information or do not talk to strangers online, the Internet social culture of today seems to have developed completely counter-intuitive to that advice. Sharing of personal content to strangers is widely encouraged through various social platforms and through many content forms (posts, stories, vlogs, reels, tiktoks, igtv, webcasts, among the many) and even become the essence of any online presence.  Therefore, such general advice for parents of how to keep their children safe online may soon become redundant and outdated, or simply – no longer applicable. In parallel, limiting and monitoring children’s action online would now be either impossible or at least a full-day job considering the switch from physical to online education and leisure time. For these reasons parental advice and safety tips should now be posed beyond media literacy and be informed upon a more personalized approach – on the one hand, tailored to the online interests of the child and on the other, to the latest developments in technology, data and the contemporary online social practices and trends.

Based on this and on my expertise and research in the field I suggest the following 5 approaches for parents and carers:

  1. Inform yourself and children on data literacy and how data may be exposing children to risk. For example,Risky-by-design is a very useful tool developed from 5RightFoundation providing basic information on how social platform design features and data algorithms may be placing your child at risk https://www.riskyby.design/introduction
  2. Talk to the children about which platforms they intend and prefer to use through their devices and in which way. Get yourself familiarised with their preferred platforms data privacy, child safety and digital well-being features, as well as incident report procedure and explore these sections together with your child. 
  3. Work to develop children’s intuition to online dangers. Advise them to always be reserved, cautious, or simply sceptical to any information received or advised by content creators (peers, blogers, vlogers, influencers etc). Remember, the internet social culture today promotes “strangers” and their content, and predators may be exploiting, simulating or adapting these behaviours.
  4. Streaming and posting may be opening the door of your home to the world. Parents, together with children, should be mindful of posting and streaming practices. Be mindful which information such practices may be giving out, from the room background to what kind of chat and contacts the content may be inviting.
  5. Get yourself familiarised with reporting best-practices. Whether children receive harmful content in their feed or harmful contact in their inboxes, you should be prepared to advice children how to report the incident through the platform. You should also be prepared on how to report the content or contact to your local authority for further consideration.

Dr. Manja Nikolovska

Research Fellow @Dawes Centre for Future Crime at UCL, London, UK

PhD in Computer Science on the topic of cyber grooming of children

Email: m.nikolovska@ucl.ac.uk