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It’s high time we made the virtual space safer for children with age-appropriate digital services

Professor Babu Sena Paul is an electronic engineer and Director: Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Johannesburg.

Professor Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, University of Johannesburg. He is supported by the US Fulbright programme and currently undertaking a research sabbatical at Princeton University.

Professor Dr Konstantinos Karachalios is a globally recognised leader in standards development and intellectual property. He serves as managing director of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Standards Association and is a member of the IEEE Management Council.

They recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 09 February 2023.

The huge uptake of the digital world by children is something that should be of concern for all of us, including governments and civil society. Just like the real world, the virtual world contains content and information which is not age-appropriate for children.

“My child opened a social media account for me, and even went as far as to register and access ChatGPT, the new chatbot application that has impressed but also caused so much anxiety across the world.”

This is the kind of comment that has become common at social gatherings in recent times as parents grapple with technological advancements and their more techno-savvy children.

It is often said that children take to the digital world as fish take to water. Based on a report from Statista, in January 2022 South Africa had as many as 41.19 million active internet users and 28 million active social media users.

Another study in 2022, involving 2,643 children (9 to 17 years) and 1,393 parents conducted across 176 cities and towns across South Africa and supported by Unicef South Africa and the Department of Social Development, claims that more than 95% of children in South Africa have access to the internet.

The uptake of the digital world was further accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns when schools and colleges operated remotely.

This huge uptake of the digital world by children is something that should be a reason for concern for all of us, including governments and civil society. The internet can be seen as a virtual world co-existing side-by-side with the real world, with a cyber community dealing with real-life issues.

And just like the real world, the virtual world also contains content and information which may not be age-appropriate for children.

With advancements in communication technologies and with the rollout of 5G connectivity in many countries around the world, the user experience of digital products and services has become much improved.

In the near future, and especially with the rollout of 6G connectivity (expected to be developed and rolled out by 2030) and further maturing of technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality and metaverse, the uptake of digital products and services will increase further. Both worlds — real and virtual — have evolved over time.

One of the main problems in the virtual space is the system design of the digital products and services which develop addiction for services which are algorithmically promoted.

Algorithms can now learn from the behaviour of users to make targeted recommendations. New business models and products have come up over the years to keep users glued to the screen. Some products like online games and short videos can also be addictive.

Exposure to non-age-appropriate content negatively affects the mental and physical well-being of children. On social media and in the world of online gaming, children often have “friends’’ on their contact list who they have never met physically. This makes children vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and online violence.

We as a country in South Africa should endeavour to make the virtual space safe for our children. But how do we do it? Can it be done through parental guidance and interventions? Maybe to a limited extent.

As already alluded to, children are often more tech-savvy than their parents. While using parental controls one should take care that the rights of the child including his/her privacy are protected. However, issues like privacy, safety and security should be by default embedded into digital products and platforms, as is required by international laws.

Advances in 4IR technologies can be used to stop children from accessing non-age-appropriate content. A commonly used excuse by internet platforms is that they cannot know the age of a user without violating the right to privacy.

However, this is a problem that can be addressed in various ways and — in any case — it cannot be used by the platforms to put the burden entirely on the shoulders of the parents (published records from judicial proceedings have demonstrated that platforms can assess rather well that a user is a minor).

There is also a need for government intervention to monitor and regulate digital services to protect the rights of children. An expert task team comprising constitutional and legal experts, developers, children’s rights activists, non-profit organisations, and academics could be constituted to advise the government.

In November 2021 the not-for-profit professional association, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), published a new standard to address age-appropriate design for children’s digital services. Such standards can assist in guiding governments in framing their own regulations for age-appropriate digital services.

Governments should regularly monitor how the data collected from children is used by digital service providers and make them accountable for misuse.

There are already encouraging legal and regulatory precedents. The UK has already passed the Data Protection Act and the Age Appropriate Design Code in 2018 and 2021 respectively, and California has passed the California Age Appropriate Design Code, which is practically a copy of the UK’s. Further European countries, US states and countries in SE Asia are currently considering similar provisions.

Currently, the internet is fragmented. The accessibility of content depends on the law of the land and varies from country to country. There is a need towards a harmonised global approach and standard basic consensus among countries for age-appropriate digital services. Divergent approaches will make compliance and enforcement of the codes and laws difficult.

The Global Digital Compact track of the Summit of the Future, to be organised and held in September 2024 by the United Nations, can be one such platform for countries to come together. South Africa can also drive this for the African continent through the African Union.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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