Dangers of childhood in the digital age

22nd of February 2018 (Thursday), Brussels, Belgium – The European Parliament held a workshop on the protection of minors in the digital age. The three main topics brought on the table were defining the problem of child safety online, the solutions and policy dilemmas, and finally, the recommendations for EU policy developments on protecting minors in the digital age.

Children today have been definitely spending their childhood going digital all over the world. Future generations will use digital technology more than any generation before as it is an integral part of our everyday lives. Digital connectivity is, therefore, shaping society and completely redefining childhood.

Needless to say that this change represents opportunities- children learn extremely quickly simply by observing grown-ups. They use technological devices to learn, communicate, create, and for leisure. However, it also poses risks. Although there is still a huge lack of knowledge on the dangers that children are exposed to online, it goes without saying that digital technology also present dangers – violence, bullies, racism, pornography, traumatic stories, and many more. According to Stephane Chaudron of the European Commission Joint Research Center, children around 6 years old are already networkers. This highly impacts children’s safety, education, and well-being. The internet is an addiction just like alcohol, drugs, and gambling are, but is not regulated yet. The most important matter to bear in mind is that technology disturbs the children’s development and affects their critical thinking.

Digital is inevitable, but the problem is to find the right balance between allowing children to use technology, whilst protecting them from inappropriate and violent content online. Children should not be vulnerable nor threatened by the digital age. Parents and grandparents are simply not aware enough of the risks of digital devices. Therefore, the most important step to undertake is to educate parents about the dangers of giving their children full access to technology.

Although the European Union claims that protecting children online is one of their priorities, it was extremely disappointing to discover that the topic was not treated seriously. The workshop was oriented into a political interest debate by, as an example, putting the emphasis on freedom of speech. But freedom of expression does not concern kids from 0 to 8 years old. Regrettably, no concrete solution was brought on the table to help families protect their children. What was highlighted, however, was that only some of the recommendations given in 2012 were truly implemented. It bears in mind the questions: Are economic and political interests restraining the EU to implement effective recommendations? Is money, once again, controlling policies?

The European Union has for far too long focused on self-regulation and co-regulation. This is why pornography is easily accessible to children to the point of them even popping up in children websites. The EU also highly concentrated on data-protection. But now, it is time to protect children.

Without EU control, parents are lost. Self-regulation and co-regulation instruments are not enough. Policies are necessary. Thus, restricting the internet with effective EU laws is the solution to limit the damages.

Regulating the use of the internet is a huge challenge, but it is inevitable if we want to protect the future generations. Why not regulate it like alcohol and drugs? Make the technology industry and the social platforms more responsible and accountable. Parents and schools are overwhelmed, and are unable to guide children when they are online. The only way to help them is to be proactive at the state and EU level.

Therefore, it is strongly encouraged for the European Union to help families protect their children from inappropriate content online.

Written by Astrid Leonet, an intern in the WYA Europe office.