Dialog Box

In the media: "Urgent need to address social media and young people"

First published by Canberra Times on 28 October 2021. 

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By Natalie Siegel-Brown and Tomas Lopata

As two 40-something year olds, it is difficult for us to imagine how different and complicated the lives of our children are today compared to our own childhoods, and there is no greater example than #socialmedia.

As former bureaucrats, we do not envy the challenges faced by policy makers attempting to tackle the complexity of social media; on one hand wanting to nurture all its positives, but on the other, minimising its intrusion and the scariness of its risks.

As experts in working with children and young people, we are worried.

We fear that our national approach may be reaching for relatively obvious (yet essential) low hanging fruit, while "kicking the can down the road" on some of the tricky issues that our children are facing on social media daily.

And there is an urgency to this we cannot avoid.

As we get closer to the new Commonwealth Online Safety Act coming into effect on January 22, 2022 we are starting to get a sense of the areas that are of immediate priority.

Some important issues are in scope for the Online Safety Act: restricting children's access to pornographic content, removing non-consensual images, removing material of abhorrent violent conduct and cyber bullying.

This is a great start, but not enough.

We know that there are grey areas in social media that require policy consideration urgently.

These areas will not be resolved by age verification systems because they are about the way children use social media rather than access it ... principally about the fact that children often generate and upload/post content themselves (and often of themselves).

Children can produce impressive content - there are many young people in Australia and around the world earning huge income as "influencers", with thousands of followers and product sponsors, some of it can be harmful, even if unintentional.

This includes exchanging tips on how to deal with eating disorders, exchanging clips of dangerous risk-taking activity, and content related to suicide and self harm.

We must find the balance between supporting the rights of children to access information and express themselves through social media, while at the same time, the need to ensure content is safe and that their privacy is protected.

Our national policy approach needs more than regulation and punishment of symptoms. We need a multi-pronged approach to the issue.

What is required to support kids to speak up about what is really happening for them? How can we understand the risk from their perspective?

We simply can't "know" it as adults - and we simply can't regulate it if we don't understand it properly.

We must find the balance between supporting the rights of children to access information and express themselves through social media, while at the same time, the need to ensure content is safe and that their privacy is protected.

Four things stand out to us.

Firstly, the distinction between "online" and "physical" is an adult construct.

Adults continue to view the "online" and "physical" world as two distinctive things. But that is not the case for young people, where those worlds are seamless.

We cannot remove devices or restrict access to social media from children any more than we can lock them in their rooms indefinitely.

Secondly, we need to define the problem from the perspective of a young person.

Our team recently worked with a group of talented young people on exploring some of these very issues and walked away both impressed and feeling hugely like we had a window on an unknown world.

As all policy makers reading this will confirm, the first step in the policy cycle is defining "the problem" - put simply, you cannot fix a problem you do not understand.

This week's release of the Online Privacy Bill is a much-needed step forward in the protection of children's data privacy (desperately sought by ourselves, Reset Australia and Australian young people themselves!).

However, its requirement for the development of Online Privacy Industry Codes, similarly does not demand or prescribe the level of engagement with young people in the development, monitoring and implementation of the codes.

Thirdly, stop thinking that traditional education models where adults "preach" to children will fix it.

Young people listen to young people, that is why long-established models like peer mentoring work.

We need to invest in programs that are designed with young people, to be delivered by young people, for other young people.

Finally, our kids don't see social media as evil.

They see it as an emancipation. We better start recognising the positives and elevating those companies who want to do "good".

Let's define the problem and the solution from the perspective of young people and develop solutions that are genuinely impactful and long term for them.

05 November 2021
Category: News
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