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Banning children from social media would be short-sighted

(Alamy)

3 min read

Reaction to the announcement shortly after the passage of the Online Safety Act that the Prime Minister was considering banning social media for under-16s was something of a mixed bag.

I got a stream of WhatsApp messages with varying levels of exasperation and celebration – some pleased that No 10 had finally made a stand about how tech impacts children; others incredulous, asking: “Does Rishi know about the Online Safety Act?”  

It does seem odd that, after so many years and hundreds of hours of parliamentary consideration working on legislation to make children in the United Kingdom safer online, the government thought it a good idea to contemplate an all-out social media ban before the King’s signature was dry.

I agree with the argument that social media as currently configured is not suitable for children. It is designed in a way that is addictive, polarising, and parades unrealistic lifestyles that are impossibly out of reach. What a lousy and depressing place to spend your teenage years. 

Children need better protection online, but the answer is not to kick them out of the world we all occupy

Nonetheless, excluding children from the digital world is a poor way of developing a new technically proficient generation. It fails to account for the fact that families, schools, entertainment, civic and social life all operate through the very same services that would be forbidden – setting up a tension and temptation which would be hard for children, parents and teachers to navigate. 

We should not exclude children from digital spaces but rather take every opportunity to demand that the companies that engage with children design products and services that take account of their age and development stage.

The newly minted Online Safety Act is a novel piece of legislation that offers considerably more protections for children than it does for adults. In fact, if Parliament’s intention is fully realised by the codes and responsibilities it brings forth, then the companies it seeks to regulate will have to be safe by design for users under 18.  

Meanwhile, making its way to the Lords is the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. It offers the opportunity to enhance child privacy by extending data protections in schools, allow researchers access to commercial company data in the public interest so we really can quantify the harms, ensure that the code that produces AI-generated child sexual abuse material (CSAM) is caught by the law, and at every stage make sure the digital world is private by design. 

Even the Digital Markets and Consumer Competition Bill offers an opportunity to improve protections for children by recognising that monopoly impacts on citizens (including children) as well as consumers. And then there is still much to do about the looming impact of artificial intelligence (AI), including protecting copyright. 

I agree with the Prime Minister that children need better protection online, but the answer is not to kick them out of the world we all occupy; a world in which digital and analogue have lost all meaning to a seamless, digitally enhanced lived experience. 

We are surrounded by companies that rate, rank, nudge, curate, surveil and sell – and each of those activities impacts on children. It is not an inalienable right to do business; it comes with costs and responsibilities. 

Rather than banning children from social media, I would rather see the government grasp the opportunity of its own legislative programme, to ensure that companies treat them according to their age and development stage – as citizens in a digital-first world. 

 

Baroness Kidron, crossbench peer and children’s rights advocate 

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