Laura HigginsBiography
How Fear is Affecting Our Ability to Accept Digital Rights to Play. And Our Common Sense…

Kids need to play. Play is an essential human need. It is how all kids learn about the world around them: through it, they learn to communicate, negotiate, problem solve and resolve conflict. And play has other benefits which adults also appreciate: learning new skills, improved cognitive skills, it’s a great way to de-stress and most of all it is FUN. Why is it that we immediately label digital play as bad?

The world has changed, kids and teens no longer have the freedoms many of us enjoyed when we were young. You cannot send your child out to play in the street and say ‘come in when it gets dark’ as was the case for many of us Gen X’ers. Kids have fewer freedoms, often living long distances away from their school friends. Being able to spend time online chatting and playing may be the only time they spend together outside of school. Why do we believe it is a waste of time?

As part of my work at Roblox (one of the world’s largest entertainment platforms for kids and teens), we undertook a small-scale survey with UK parents in October 2019.1 The results were interesting…

89% of parents told us they were worried about their kids’ online gaming habits, citing concerns such as addiction, bullying, and contact from strangers, and worry their kids wouldn’t make friends in the real world. Half of the parents told us that the source of their worries were stories published in the media and on social media, rather than based on their own experiences.

In contrast, 88% of parents could also recognise the benefits of gaming: improved technical and cognitive skills, social skills, and potential improved career prospects all factored highly. The contradiction is startling. What if we flipped it on its head? What if we stop worrying about the sensational headlines and learn from our kids directly? My first rule for all parents is to be present in your kids’ lives, on and offline. Let them show you what their digital world looks like. You can still guide them, in fact, you MUST guide them (you wouldn’t let them drive a car without lessons and many conversations to be confident they were safe. The digital world is no different). We are increasingly paranoid and yet increasingly detached: we are potentially leaving kids at more risk than if we get to know what they do online and help them build resilience and appropriate literacy skills to navigate it safely.

A great example of the harm that can be caused by fear-mongering is some of the recent media hoax stories that have appeared, such as the Blue Whale Challenge, or the 48 Hour challenge. Probably the most well-known is ‘Momo’ (allegedly an online challenge which put kids at risk of suicide, but in truth was a hoax featuring a model designed by a special effects studio in Japan). In the first few days of the story appearing in the media and subsequently being shared by schools and via social media, online searches for ‘Momo’ increased by 45,000%, purely fuelled by kids searching for the content and scared parents trying to find out if it was true. In this case, having a few credible and trustworthy sources for the media to speak with, who could disseminate factual information to parents, could have prevented the widespread misinformation and panic that followed. We need to provide the WHOLE community; kids, parents, and most worryingly professionals, with some key critical thinking skills.2

Following such stories, many parents clamp down on their kids’ online freedoms, limiting access to certain apps, reducing the time allowed online, and often adding monitoring software. Whilst some of these apps can be a helpful tool (particularly for younger children), for example, if they flag genuinely harmful behaviour, adult content or grooming attempts, most are placing themselves as watchers, allowing parents to see every aspect of their kids’ online lives, with access to their messages, friends, and more.

Companies profit hugely from monitoring, yet many are ineffective, or over-block content. We do not allow kids to build critical thinking skills if we remove their option to think! Parents put their faith in these apps and often forget to keep those regular conversations happening, thinking that their input towards online safety is done. Kids are also savvy and are adept at bypassing most restrictions placed on them. It is difficult to build relationships with your family if you constantly feel they don’t trust you.

There is a clear cycle I see, when a negative news story breaks: schools jump on the story and further disseminate; parents panic, either confrontational or worried; kids stop talking; parents don’t trust kids so they install monitoring software; kids get round this, further building distrust; communication breaks down; kids still engage in risky behavior.

Children need to be kept safe, and we all have a part to play in that. Tech companies must continue to improve, to recognise potential risks and act early on preventing harm.

However, it is difficult for companies to be innovative. We seem to be stuck in an environment where policymakers and governments respond to a big news story (I do not wish to diminish the awful nature of some online harms, whether it be exploitation of a child or suicide), demanding immediate action is taken, forcing companies to respond only to that one concern reactively, rather than organically building out strong effective tools which work across ALL potential harms on their platform.

“Current public policy is increasingly driven by over-emphasized, albeit real, risks faced by children online, with little consideration for potential negative impacts on children’s rights to freedom of expression and access to information. The ICT sector, meanwhile, is regularly called on to reduce these risks, yet given little direction on how to ensure that children remain able to participate fully and actively in the digital world.”3

Of course, it is true that very young children require a controlled experience online, they need support and guidance. But as we build those skills in kids, we need to allow them more freedom, and potential offenders less. We focus too heavily on locking platforms down and we ultimately risk de-skilling our kids.

Lessons about protecting data and online safety rarely hit the mark. We believe we are talking to our kids but in reality, we aren’t getting through. In response to how often parents and teens discussed appropriate online behaviour, 93% of parents and 39% of teens responded “occasionally or often”, while 6% of parents and 60% of teens said that this happened “rarely or never”.

And still: the main causes of kids having accounts ‘hacked’ or being scammed? Sharing their passwords with their friends. Such a basic lesson we should be teaching them, why does the message not get through? Companies often provide tools to keep communities safe, including parental controls where this is appropriate, but again, we know that these are used infrequently. We need to find a better way to have these conversations, at home, at school, and through the media.

Digital Literacy skills around privacy and data are an important topic to teach the next generation. All consumers have a right to privacy and increasingly the onus is (rightly) on tech companies to be transparent about what data they collect, how they store it and what they do with it, as well as the right to have data be deleted (under GDPR). There is also a broader discussion about ensuring rights are communicated in a way that is accessible and in language young people can easily understand: we need to move away from the “legalese”. Whilst users need to understand they have these rights, limiting what data is collected about themselves or other users can make safety more difficult, and can impede any law enforcement investigations. It needs to be a balance, but understanding the landscape and what your rights are does help!

In conclusion, I believe it is every kid’s right to have digital play, and to explore the online world safely and freely. We should focus our efforts on preventing those with bad intent from having those same freedoms.

“Our resistance to digital play is just like Socrates’s resistance to writing. It is futile. Your kids need your help. And it’s easy to provide. Parents, children, and families just need to start playing in the digital world together.”4

Laura Higgins is Director of Digital Civility at Roblox. Laura has over twenty years of experience managing social care and support services, as well as creating online safety and digital civility programmes. In her previous role with the UK Safer Internet Centre, Laura founded several award-winning services, including the world’s first helpline dedicated to supporting victims of image-based abuse. Laura previously sat on Twitter and Snapchat’s advisory boards, and regularly speaks on digital safety topics around the world, sharing her expertise with industry experts, parents and young people.