Rights vs risk for kids online
When considering legislation to protect children online, it is important to note that not all online risk results in harm and not all opportunity results in benefit.
This is according to Dr Ellen Helsper, associate professor in media and communications at the London School of Economics. She was speaking at the University of the Witwatersrand's 'Wits Internet Week' in Johannesburg yesterday.
Helsper discussed the outcomes of the EU Kids Online research project, which has been researching the Internet's effect on children since 2006. The project particularly looks at children's online opportunities, risks and safety. Helsper said as the project has progressed, the researchers have seen an important shift from talking about child risk, to talking about child rights.
"When we talk about regulation and children it is often framed as protection, but when you look at children's rights, we need to see them as free agents with the right and ability to navigate opportunities and gain resilience against risk," she noted.
Dialogue around the rights of children on the Internet has increased in recent months due to controversial draft regulation in South Africa that aims to protect the rights of local children online. The proposed regulation by the Film and Publication Board (FPB) aims to better regulate and classify digital content in SA to ensure it does not contain child pornography, hate speech or racism. However, it has met with stiff opposition from industry and the public, many of whom view it as broad stroke Internet censorship.
FPB communications and public education manager Janine Raftopoulos says the aim of the policy is to amend current legislation that is not platform-specific and does not focus enough on the online space. She says this leaves "the gate open, so to speak, to children being exposed to potentially harmful and unclassified content and predators, accessed through the Internet and other mobile platforms.
"Media convergence has fundamentally transformed the way media content is distributed and consumed. The draft Online Regulation Policy is meant to address such challenges," according to Raftopoulos.
Helsper said research on children's online lives aims to inform regulators about appropriate legislation. However, this is difficult because a 'one size fits all' approach does not work when classifying children. Age, socio-economic background, psychological characteristics, location and education all factor into how children are affected by what they see online, she explained.
"Not all children are digital natives, and not all children are equally vulnerable."
She said children with emotional problems are more likely to be badly affected by disturbing online material, while those without any emotional problems are able to cope better with possibly harmful content. Children's virtual worlds are also less separate from their offline world than what is found in adults.
"If a child is bullied online they are very likely to be bullied offline as well; online and offline worlds are less separate for children."
Helsper said most of what children do online is fairly passive; however, the top fears they face online are exposure to pornographic or violent content. The findings also revealed children see video-sharing Web sites as most linked with violent, pornographic and other content risks. What is worrying is that there is less discussion around regulating violent content, while policy-makers often focus on restricting sexual material, she commented.