Is the Internet safe for children?
Just as playing in traffic isn’t safe for children, all people need to be properly mentally, and emotionally equipped to navigate the chaotic environment of the Internet. Sometimes it’s market forces, other times it’s algorithms, but nearly everywhere there are pitfalls designed to rob people of all ages their time, attention, and resources.
Gaming gets a lot of flak for doing this to children, but it’s far from the only place. Social media likes, boosts, and shares are effectively points keeping score in larger social games. The greatest challenge of protecting children online is realizing that their mind is as much at stake as their body and safety is.
Visualizing the problem
Imagine the Internet is a massive, sprawling city. There are some amazing, safe, and well maintained places. There are also some dangerous places infested with notorious gangs. Not only that, but there are places that range from everywhere in between. Most people would understandably plan to steer clear of the more dreadful places, but people underestimate the barriers to entry (and residence) in the nicer places.
Many online services make it exceedingly easy to just give away more and more information. Many platforms attempt to mitigate it but the problem is systemic. There are a number of dark patterns used to gate access to information or content behind accounts, personal details, or other information. It’s not always clear what is optional and what is required.
Constant surveillance of all people is a significant problem. We won’t know the true costs of putting children at the mercy of machine learning algorithms for a long time.
Online spaces don’t exist in a vacuum, they’re a part of our human society. As things become challenging and confusing in life there is an incredible draw to retreat to online spaces that feel cozier than the rest of the world.
Leading to all kinds of problems:
- Sleep deprivation
- Political extremism / radicalization
Sounds a lot like a millennial doesn’t it? Many of us are internet-addicted for a variety of reasons. Many of these problems aren’t new, and likely won’t be going away anytime soon. Some appear to have gotten much worse.
One of the things that has gotten a lot worse is algorithms, in the early days feeds had only the crudest metrics to judge engagement. Now AI has an immensely accurate picture of how to manipulate people into all kinds of behaviors.
The advertising industrial complex comes for every marketable group. It does not care if you’re a wealthy person with tons of time on your hands, or a child who’s stolen their parents credit card. It’s a powerful machine designed to do whatever it takes to separate money from the fools and wise alike.
These systems effectively work to build addictions in people. The system really doesn’t care what kind of addiction it is: gaming, gambling, porn, food, ect. It only cares about how it can turn that addiction into regular and increasing business. You can call these systems evil (and I’d agree) but the important thing to realize is that they’re entirely indifferent to the suffering they create.
Schools have been guilty of rolling out surveillance technology to use on children. During the covid crisis many schools closed their doors, with predictably disastrous consequences for children. Remote learning was a golden opportunity for centralization and control as the tools presented to the schools were loaded with privacy problems.
Large institutions are often given deals on software packages that have business model in surveillance. EdTech is a big industry and a non-trivial part of it is data collection. In many ways these tools are not really tools but glorified cages. While your child will seem knowledgeable in using these products, they could be like a fish-out-of-water when having to learn how to accomplish the same tasks without them.
A significant challenge is that trying to bring change or accountability to these institutions is nearly impossible to do alone. It is in your own interest to ensure that not only your own children, but also the children in your community aren’t beholden to technocratic control.
If any of the above were bad enough, unfortunately you have to be concerned about your child’s peers. It’s hard to feel included when you’re not in the latest devices and systems. It can be hard to balance your child’s desire to interact with their friends against the harms caused by these platforms.
The wrong answer: Censorship, Control, and Centralization
Governments around the world are converging on ‘solutions’ to these problems that all inch us closer towards technocratic totalitarianism. The problem with most of these methods is that they aren’t even useful in the extreme circumstances where someone will try to justify them.
- Censorship harms children’s ability to learn and process information.
- Greater control over people’s digital lives teaches them learned helplessness, effectively robbing them of the opportunity to learn to take control themselves.
- Centralization harms everyone’s ability to solve problems, and build resilience.
One of the greatest things protecting all people online is relative anonymity.
Anonymity allows people to interact with sources of information without necessarily having to divulge any information about themselves. From bullying, online predators, and financial scams there is more and more propaganda trying to convince people that anonymity must be eliminated. This is the absolute worst solution, in every instance it’s been tried it has failed to successfully safeguard the vulnerable. Elimination of anonymity only serves to feed data-collectors and empower those who seek control over others.
Real life activities
What children need most in the world is engaged parents who proactively work to enhance their freedom, opportunities, and well-being. Unfortunately this isn’t always easy, but it gets easier when you get others involved with you.
- Host community dances
- Teach and learn skills together
- Get involved in community sports
- Be where the fun and joy can be found
Instead of children lurking online to escape the world, ensure that there are real opportunities for them to learn, create, play, and share with people in their community.
Taking time to build a strong family bond is one of the most important things you can do to keep your children safe. Being approachable allows them to warn you of dangers that may not be on your radar.
There are a handful activities you would want to restrict until your child has shown an appropriate level of responsibility. Like many other rules there are ways around them, but the point is to steer them away from sliding into a trap.
If nothing else the more your entire family can avoid ‘smart’ devices the better.
The internet is a useful tool, disallowing it entirely is likely not the best strategy. Outside of practicing specific skills, long stretches of screen time will do most people very little benefit and non-trivial harm.
The easier it is for your children to make purchases the easier it is for algorithms to rob them with scams and manipulation.
Online Games and communities
Take the time to investigate certain games and online communities to make a reasonable judgement on a case-by-case basis.
Build their technical understanding
Preventing technology from monitoring or manipulating your children doesn’t mean they have to be ignorant. There are many age-appropriate ways to learn how to build or modify simple electronics and write basic programs.
What you will want to do is protect them and their information from data-driven services.
Ensure your children know not to share identifying or sensitive information:
- Real names
- Location information
- Nearby activities
- Photos (only share the best memes!)
- Any kind of financial details
- Contact information
It can be useful to create fake identities (make it fun!) for them to use on various platforms so you can make sure the accounts don’t have it. Anything you can use your own accounts for the better, such as purchases and subscriptions.
Adapt your child’s education
The current system is setup to teach people helplessness and dependence. It is important to everyone, especially at young ages to understand that they do have the capacity to build their own independence. Find resources that have higher goals than teaching children to be cogs in a machine.
Watch Corey Lynn’s appearance on CHD TV’s show: Financial Rebellion