When discussing the challenges in keeping children safe online, or keeping up to date with the latest messaging platform or device, “S/he knows how to use it better than I do” is becoming a frequently heard phrase in parenting circles. Hands up how many parents have started to treat their child as their in-house IT department? Sure, there are plenty of technologically savvy people in the older generations but the emerging picture is one where younger people are more at home with digital technology, mainly because they were born into it and because of their innate ability to adapt.

For children seeking to grasp some form of control in life, the digital world over which they have such easy mastery (while their most relevant authority possibly struggles) becomes the perfect medium for demonstrating their independence. And what a great place to thrive! Facts, games, videos, friends: the world at your fingertips. But, while a treasure trove of opportunity, the digital world is also full of miscreants and real low lives – a platform that allows bad intentions to easily rub shoulders with the good.

Savvy parents are able to educate about the more obvious dangers that can be compared to offline dangers: ‘Tell me if a stranger talks to you in the park’ becomes ‘tell me if someone you don’t know talks to you in the chat room’. Advice on less obvious but no less important elements like viruses, online privacy and phishing can be discovered in modern parenting books, and are often as much use to the parent as to the child they are educating.

But what about potentially damaging opportunities that arise from new digital social situations? With technology currently progressing at breakneck speed, these can be harder to spot and harder still to control. Take age restricted content, like films:

(Note: We’ll stick with the ‘non-adult’ variety for this article: Impending changes in legislation will soon require the porn industry to be able to verify the age a user asserts online. Changes will affect not only the adult sector but also a number of other sectors including, e-cigarettes, tobacco, online gaming and online dating.)

Watching films through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime is becoming the norm. At the same time, we watch films on multiple devices, from multiple locations. This means that two previously effective methods of access control immediately fail: keeping the films physically out of reach, or sending children to bed before the watershed. Some platforms allow you to create user profiles that only allow access to certain films, but, bewilderingly, it is simple to change the user profile you are using to one that has more access. A pretty fatal flaw in the system (looking at you, Netflix), and one you can read more about here.

And let’s not spend too much time analysing the fairly ridiculous ‘honour system’ in some platforms like YouTube. You know the one: where, before playing a video, you need to ‘solemnly swear’ you are 18+.

Life, uh… finds a way.

Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argued that despite our best efforts, sometimes things have a way of happening regardless. We can see that under current processes, a determined child can find their way to, and access, restricted online videos despite parents’ attempts to stop them. Whether that’s through lying about their age in honour system websites, switching user profiles, or even simply visiting a friend’s house where controls are not so stringent. Speaking of friends: the internet being the excellent collaborative environment it is, it’s entirely possible your children and their friends work together to find ways around controls. Don’t believe us? Try searching for ’how can I watch restricted films on youtube’. Who do you think is reading those articles?

A cross sector solution to age verification is needed – one that accounts for the way that platforms and locations change from moment to moment. One that forces the user to prove their age in the moments before they click ‘play’ but also does not hinder or noticeably slow down access to the content. You can find out more about our work in this area here.

By Alex Harvey
Ask me anything: @alextharv

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