Making the online environment a safe space for our children

Written by Mariya Gabriel on 21 February 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Our efforts to make the online environment safe for children are working, but we cannot rest on our laurels, writes Mariya Gabriel.

Mariya Gabriel | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual


The world is full of potential danger. Almost everything we do poses some form of risk, even the most mundane things like eating, sleeping, travelling to work or just sitting at our desk.

What allows our society to function in the face of these potential risks are the rules and regulations that help us feel secure - from food safety regulations to product safety laws and user-empowerment.

Our digital life should be no different; everyone should feel safe online. This is particularly true for vulnerable groups such as children, who represent one third of all internet users.


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Connectivity - and therefore internet access - is growing exponentially; some 21 billion connected devices are expected worldwide by 2020.

Inevitably, this will become increasingly pressing. Recent data shows that the number of children upset, scared or made uncomfortable by something they encountered on the internet has increased dramatically, from 3 percent in 2013 to 13 percent in 2017.

Nearly a third of 11-17-year-olds have seen hateful or degrading messages attacking people or groups based on their nationality, religion or colour of their skin.

More than half of young people in the same age group have been exposed to at least one form of negative user-generated content.

“Tackling this issue requires more than just supporting centres and sharing best practice; we need also to use our legislative capacities”

These figures come from just one European country - Italy - but they are indicative of the situation across the whole of the EU, and clearly underline the need for EU-level actions.

These come in a variety of forms; the European Commission is implementing a European strategy for Better Internet for Kids, providing concrete measures to make the internet a trusted place for children and young people.

These include financial support for Safer Internet Centres in each EU Member State, to raise awareness and foster digital literacy among minors, parents and teachers about the risks young people may encounter online.

It will also offer practical ways to protect and empower them, including hotlines to report illegal content.

This European network of safer internet centres, Insafe, works closely with the Better Internet for Kids portal (www.betterinternetforkids.eu), the EU citizen’s hub and the wider community to access online tools and services.

Together, they provide the backbone of the #SaferInternet4EU campaign that I launched on Safer Internet Day 2018 to improve awareness of online safety, media literacy and cyber-hygiene, in line with the Digital Education Action Plan.

The campaign reached nearly 30 million EU citizens, who benefited from more than 1800 new resources on topics such as fake news, cyberbullying, privacy concerns over connected toys, grooming, exposure to harmful or disturbing content, and cyber-hygiene.

“Everyone should feel safe online, and this is particularly true for vulnerable groups such as children”

I was also delighted to present awards to three of the campaigns that took part in the #SaferInternet4EU competition highlighting best practices.

However, tackling this issue requires more than just supporting centres and sharing best practice; we need also to use our legislative capacities.

This is done in many ways: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, includes special protection for children’s personal data.

In addition, last year’s updates to the EU-wide audiovisual media rules ensure that video-sharing platforms have measures to protect minors from harmful content, such as tools to flag harmful content, age verification or parental control systems.

We also support self-regulatory initiatives that complement EU rules. A good example of this is the ‘Alliance to better protect minors online’ initiative, which was launched on Safer Internet Day 2017.

Almost 40 key players, including media and ICT companies, device and toy manufacturers, civil society and UNICEF, worked together to address emerging risks facing minors online, defining actions to protect and empower them and promote the exchange of best practices.

We have the networks and the legislation in place, but is this approach actually working? The high level of interest shown in what we are doing from other parts of the world seems to suggest that this is the case.

In fact, many countries have adopted their own measures based on our approach.

The most obvious of these is Safer Internet Day itself, which has grown from a European Commission initiative to a global event, celebrated in more than 140 countries and reaching millions of people.

We need to sustain our e­fforts, continue building our networks, share best practices and adapt our rules appropriately.

Online safety activities will once again benefit from EU financial support under the next EU budget, continuing to be a key component of the Commission’s wider strategy of developing an inclusive and prosperous digital economy and society.

About the author

Mariya Gabriel is European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society

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