Our Voices: The Importance of Listening to Young People to Make the Digital Environment a Safe and Inclusive Place
It is known that the digital space is not really able to protect its young users from the looming dangers that are brought about by sharing the same environment with ‘users’ who use it for different reasons. To fully understand the need to be able to control, to some extent, the functioning of the digital space and the inevitable social exchanges that it exposes children to, the different platforms that children navigate on a daily basis should be monitored. And most importantly, children should be part of this process, through encouraging them to express their experiences in the digital space. At RX Radio, we value the input of our young reporters and below they have shared their experiences of privacy, security and freedom in line with their exposure to the digital environment and how they can be protected.
One of the Young Reporters, Alex White (16 years) had this to say:
A major issue with technology and its use by youth today, is that many young people don’t understand that sharing personal information could put them at risk, or how at risk they might be when performing different actions in the digital world. This could be because they are simply too young to understand, because they are more focussed on using the end product that everyone else is using, or simply because they don’t have time to read the fine print. This means that often, when teenagers or children enter information to sign up to different products, they don’t realise what can be done with that information. Currently, children are at risk of revealing information and exposing data about themselves (that should rather be kept private) without even realising it. There is a lot to ask for when it comes to protecting children and their rights. Since most internet companies are profit-driven, it is regrettable that they take a lax approach.
In spite of this, there should definitely be mechanisms to protect children when they are online, as they are vulnerable in what is a very daunting and overwhelming space. Like driving, the consumption of alcohol and many other actions that could have serious consequences when undertaken at a young age, there should at least be some sensible limitations on what children can access and/or do online, so that they are protected and able to learn about the space before they are exposed to it.
Age restrictions do already attempt to deal with this issue on most platforms, however they are generally still flawed in their implementation, and sometimes it is as easy as entering the right birth year for children to sign up to platforms that they are too young to access.
At RX Radio, we rely heavily on the internet: our young reporters use the internet on the production side when it comes to preparing for shows, finding news stories and downloading music. Since many of the children involved with RX Radio access the internet when they visit the station, we have included clear rules and guidelines in our station’s Code of Conduct, regarding how to properly act online. This was stressed again in a special station-wide meeting that we had in order to train all reporters as to what is okay to do online while at the station (and in general), and what is not. Through this, all the reporters are aware of the dangers that come with the internet and are able to use it responsibly, to help with their work at the station. There are consequences if the internet is misused and we engage with reporters to address issues, and find solutions. It just goes to show that proper awareness training and education can go a long way to protecting children online.
If listeners aren’t based at the hospital, then they have to tune in online, either through our website, or the RX Radio app. Since we know that our content is going to be viewed by children, we make sure that all our pages are safe and don’t contain any inappropriate links like pornography, strong language or violence. While there is only so much we can do on our side to protect listeners, we definitely realise, due to our unique position as a children’s radio station, that the internet does have massive benefits. There are dangers, but they can be managed through awareness, policies and responsible internet usage.
It’s important for families to talk to their children about the internet and its inherent dangers. The more children are able to understand, the better. If parents are able to convey the issues that children might be faced with online, it will only be beneficial in the long run since so many children have a desire to be online, and to ‘explore’ the world. The safer they start out, and the better their initial habits are, the safer they will be.
Tech companies should see it as their responsibility to try to implement ‘child-friendly’ modes of their online products wherever they can, so that children are able to learn and browse the internet as freely and as safely as possible. An example of this would be Google’s Safe Search, Netflix’s Kids Mode, or YouTube’s Safe Mode.
Tarique Kenny, RX Radio Young Reporter (18 years) also had this to say:
It’s not a fair trade for young people’s private information to be given to online services as a term of use. While analytics and marketing are companies’ business models, there is a fear that children’s private information will fall into the wrong hands. Technology companies need to put policies in place to ensure the privacy and security of young users. For instance, in the description of the website or app, it should be stated who can access the user’s data and with whom the data will be shared. Users should be educated as to what data they can safely give out, depending on the app or website. They should also do thorough research to determine how reputable the site is that they are using. This is why it is important for the parent/legal guardian to educate themselves on the digital environment, so that they can pass knowledge down to the younger generations. Parents/legal guardians should take responsibility for educating themselves on exactly what the digital environment is and what it consists of, as well as all the positives and negatives that come with it.
The digital environment should be used as a platform for young minds to educate and express themselves freely, and to communicate and share opinions with one another. The digital environment also shows great promise for future entrepre-neurs. Despite the amazing potential for the digital environment to support children throughout their developmental stages, there are certain harmful things to a child’s sensitive mind that could have a negative impact on their developmental growth and result in poor characteristic traits.
Once a parent is educated about the digital environment, they should sit down and explain to their child the features of electronic devices that are important for their development, while explaining there will be certain content that will be harmful, and which parents should steer them away from.
Children will always have a curious mind-set which is why if a child receives an electronic device from any age below 15, the child should be monitored from time to time. This could be done by restricting access to certain websites and occasionally checking the child’s phone, as developmentally, these are the ages when children are most likely to be curious and experimental. Once the child reaches the age of 16 and starts to emerge into adulthood, parents should allow them more freedom and privacy, as the child should already know what is acceptable and unacceptable, with the freedom to make their own distinctions as to what they feel is correct. However, there should still be guidance from a parent/legal guardian.
With all that needs to be done to make the internet environment a safe space, young people in South Africa still experience challenges accessing the internet. Let me share a bit about my internet struggle. The way for me to have freedom to access the internet is by taking a walk to the local library. However, I am not entirely safe due to the area that I reside in. I am in danger of getting robbed or even murdered by gangsters. RX Radio is the safest environment for me to have access to internet: it’s also free and I have no time restrictions as to how long I can use it. However, another big hurdle is the cost of traveling to RX Radio and the time it takes to travel. The duration of my travel time is two hours, and if I leave RX too late, I risk coming home to an area where gang violence escalates, particularly in the evening time.
The views expressed by our reporters reiterate the fact that a lot still needs to be done to make the digital space child friendly. Their feedback also highlights the importance of parental involvement in making sure that the digital space influences children positively, through showing an interest and familiarising themselves with all the corners of the sites that their children navigate. As noted earlier, sometimes children are unaware of the landmines that they come across and detonate when they unknowingly engage with harmful content in the digital environment: it is always a click away. Sometimes parents don’t know how to protect their children from the digital environment as this environment was not part of their childhood. As Tarique has mentioned, educating parents on the ins and outs of the digital environment could be very beneficial, especially parents who live in communities that still continue to exclude them.
The digital village is not really a safe space for children, even in countries where its use is prominent and monitored, and it is even worse for children who use digital spaces without supervision and protection. They become easy targets and therefore, it can be said that a lot must still be done to improve it. The digital space has become an unavoidable part of children’s current spaces and can be used positively, but that will begin when children are engaged, and can understand the extent of the influence that the digital environment has on them.