Against the backdrop of an unprecedented year, we are all working to come to terms with the lessons that 2020 has brought. For a modern society that already lived much of its life online, this has meant shifting to even more reliance on technology — what it means to be connected, and what it means to be safe. The internet is how we are now working, spending time together socially during a health crisis, and how many of our children are learning from a distance. We face an even bigger responsibility to insist that online safety is prioritized, and that the digital environment of our youngest citizens remains as safe as possible.
The internet enhances the educational and social lives of children by providing platforms for learning, creativity, self-expression and social connection. This has never been more vital than during this year’s emergence of COVID-19, as we watched our children’s entire lives move online. Technology provided a lifeline for many families throughout 2020 to maintain a sense of normalcy.
While the many benefits of the internet are undeniable, we must also acknowledge the accompanying risks and challenges. I believe the key to ensuring safe, productive, and positive experiences is to create a “culture of responsibility” online — one in which government, law enforcement, the tech industry, parents, teachers and the kids themselves have different but overlapping responsibilities in online safety.
One thing the U.S. government can do, as a matter of priority, would be for the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to take a coordinating role in implementing a coherent national online safety strategy. The tech industry, academic and non-profit sectors should be involved in this work, culminating in an annual online safety summit led by the White House. Government also has a vital role in funding ongoing research into online behaviors and attitudes, so as to ensure that policies are evidence-based and tailored to real, not perceived, risks.
Meanwhile, industry must prioritize safety by design and take seriously their responsibility to young users. We must continue to push executives and engineers to think rigorously and proactively about children’s safety and privacy when it comes to products and services, from inception to release. Content creation must be approached with attention not only on what garners the highest viewership, but what incorporates the most enriching qualities into what kids interact with online.
A most impactful lesson of this year’s response to COVID-19 has been truly understanding the importance of technology in education. Unfortunately, many teachers lack the training and resources to translate the curriculum effectively online — and many students do not have access to the devices and services necessary for online learning.
We must empower families by encouraging proper technology use, starting in the home from a young age. As a child’s first point of reference for responsible online behavior, and often the most influential role models they will have, it is critical that parents are better supported. Government awareness campaigns are an important element of this, and more are necessary. Engaged parents working to educate themselves must have resources readily available, both in practical guidance and technical online safety tools.
Lastly, children must be entrusted with the agency and shared responsibility of their own online futures. While adults create a strong foundation of safety practices, children must understand the weight of their actions online: the power of the digital footprint created by the content they access and post, and whom they choose to interact with. This aptitude and resiliency can be instilled through comprehensive media literacy education, the best way to educate children and keep them safe online.
The disparities we see when it comes to technology cannot continue. It is imperative that we address critical broadband issues such as closing the digital divide, ending the homework gap, and challenges such as the spread of misinformation. All children and families must have equal access to education and employment opportunities. This is a baseline that must be met in order for citizens not to just participate in the modern world but to be afforded the equal right to thrive and reach their full potential.
All children deserve the chance to benefit from the tremendous opportunities presented by the internet, and their wellbeing is a shared task that must rise above political, professional, and personal lines.
Stephen Balkam is the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. that seeks to make the online world safer for kids and their families. Follow him on Twitter @StephenBalkam. FOSI’s 20+ members — including Google, Facebook, Verizon, Twitter, and Amazon — represent the leading Internet and communications companies in the world.