Today marks the 10th anniversary of Safer Internet Day in the UK. Each year Industry, Educators, Regulators, Health & Social Care workers and Parents rally to raise awareness and put into action, plans to tackle findings from significant research on the topic of trust and safety on the internet. This year one of the research pieces talks of the challenge ‘An Internet Young People Can Trust’. As a mum of two school age children, I am sat here wondering if the internet will ever be safe … for them or me.

If I think about life BC (before COVID), my eldest used social media for broadcast communications to her friends. She was guided on the appropriateness of certain apps and our acid test on the content she was posting, was always ‘would you go up to a stranger in the street and give him your name, age, location and a photo of you in a bikini’ … her reaction was always ‘err, no’. My youngest had never been online apart from BBC Bitesize for homework assignments. We’re not online gamers so have never had constant nagging to go online. Additionally, you have to remember the internet (and mobile internet) has been significant in my work world since 1990 so I have a heightened understanding of the pitfalls and have seen many fall foul of their online reputation, tarnishing their in-person reputation.

For many years, I’ve spoken publicly about the need for digital responsibility and education for parents but also the need for online age verification and the important role this plays in internet safety. In the physical world, age verification is needed to access services; accessing the cinema, entering a nightclub or a pub, being able to purchase alcohol etc. But in the online world, the issue is as much about preventing access to services. The adult sex industry has been hit recently as the major payment brands have revoked the ability to pay for certain content with cards carrying their brand. Was a credit card truly a source of validated age verification anyway?! We then have the unregulated social media platforms that offer some ‘loose’ guidance on age restrictions, but that any 12 year old knows they can amend their date of birth or beg their adult to let them on the platform.

Sadly the internet has become the wild west and fair game for all. The proliferation of fake news has escalated rapidly and this in turn has diminished user trust; content seems to have no boundaries and online bullying impacted 1 in 5 children in the UK in 2020, according to ONS. Is regulation the answer for app providers who create a community of unverified individuals? Should social media platforms adhere to a code of conduct for their digital responsibility in respect of the content they distribute and the platforms they run? Is the answer to restrict children’s access to everything? Any parent will tell you that too much resistance causes friction.

We need to do something. The upcoming Online Harms Bill in the UK will likely require online platforms to introduce some form of age verification to protect children from harmful content. That seems like a step in the right direction but how far will that protect children from the rest of the internet. Much of the digital identity work we are involved in is about making the internet safe again. It is as much about who you let in as who you keep out. That means designing solutions that enable people who should be allowed to access services to do so and at the same time have privacy built in. The work being done at an international level to develop standardised interoperable methods for asserting identity, age or anything else is perhaps the key to internet safety.

The pandemic has only served to escalate any anxiety I have about my children (in fact all children) and their online presence. Since March 2020 my children have logged on day in, day out (except for holidays and the rare times they’ve been allowed into the classroom). Fortunately, their lessons are supervised with teachers grappling with platforms and applications … and trying to keep 7yr old boys sat still and engaged. This hasn’t been easy for anyone.

At Consult Hyperion we work with clients across the globe, helping them define frameworks and understand best practice from other markets. We have views built on what we see working, where things have not worked as well …. and first-hand experience of being beady eyed parents peering over the shoulders of our children watching this all pan out. If you’d like to contribute to the conversation, we’d love to hear from you.

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