Childhood online: what is the state of children on the Internet in Latin America? Interview

7 minutes
Childhood online: what is the state of children on the Internet in Latin America? Interview
"Child protection online" played by Dall-E

A wave of regulations in the United States and Europe is focused on the protection of minors. While the relevance of these measures - from introducing age verification systems to altering the encryption systems of messaging services - is being discussed, in Latin America the debate is still being viewed from a distance. 

We spoke with Alejandro Castañeda, head of Red PaPaz's Safe Internet Center - Guidelines, about the state of the conversation in the region, the main concerns about minors' online activity and the role of platforms, governments and families in protecting the youngest users. 

Is it legitimate to think about restricting the use of social networks for minors?

Alejandro Castañeda: Social networks currently present their privacy and usage restriction tools for their users. These tools have made the platforms have restrictions on the ages of people. We understand that the prohibition or limitation of access to social networks for children under 18 is not an adequate measure to safeguard their welfare and protection in the digital world.

We recognize that these platforms offer vast opportunities for children and adolescents to exercise their fundamental rights established in General Comment No. 25 of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of Children and Adolescents, such as freedom of expression, association and thought, and on a daily basis, we witness manifestations of creativity, art and personal development that are essential for their personal and social growth.

However, we agree with UNICEF's assessment of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the digital environment, which notes that this environment was not initially designed with the specific needs of children and adolescents in mind. This deficit is especially evident in social networks, whose designs lack adequate consideration of the safety and privacy of persons under 18 years of age.

In addition, measures to adapt privacy settings for users under the age of 18 have been implemented late and inconsistently across countries and regions of the world. A research carried out by the Safer Internet Center-Guidance, together with organizations from 9 countries, revealed that unfortunately European teenagers have greater protection systems than we have access to in the region.

Therefore, we maintain that the main responsibility for the protection of children and adolescents on social networks lies with the industry. Companies must take responsibility for developing products that always consider their most vulnerable potential users, and adjust their services and functions according to higher standards of protection. However, to achieve this, it is necessary to have mandatory regulatory frameworks with standards for the protection of children and adolescents.

How do we balance the responsible use of social networks with the potential dangers for minors in these spaces? 

A.C.: Unfortunately, as a society we have tended to place the responsibility for protecting ourselves in the digital world exclusively on children and their parents or caregivers. In addressing the issue of responsible Internet use, we have focused the conversation solely on providing tools to platform users, such as parental controls or privacy settings.

However, to ensure secure digital environments, it is essential to involve the Industry and the State in this conversation. We need to raise the minimum standards for privacy and security in all digital services, platforms and tools. The principles of security and ethics by design must become minimum requirements for the development of products and services, and it is imperative that they are regulated and mandatory for all stakeholders.

With these principles, we understand that in order to balance the responsible use of social networks, and the digital environment in general, we must recognize that there are specific risks and threats for children and adolescents.

Is age verification of users on social networks an effective way to protect minors from harmful content on networks?

A.C.: Age verification is a first step that social networks must take to ensure and recognize the age of the users that are using their platform. However, it cannot be understood as a unique solution to protect children and adolescents, since it does not ensure that the experience of children and adolescents on that platform is a safe experience. It is also necessary to understand that the different tools for age verification are not perfect, and in many cases, they bring risks for the security of children's data.

What are Red PaPaz's main concerns about the harm that social networks can cause to children and adolescents? What, on the other hand, are the main advantages of their participation in platforms?

A.C.:Social networks are one of the ways in which children and adolescents exercise their right to freedom of expression. They allow them to disseminate and create content in which they can disclose their tastes, ideas and opinions on any topic, often creating social relationships with people who share the same interests. It also allows them to communicate with people, family and friends who may be in other neighborhoods, cities, countries and continents, helping us all to create and maintain our sense of family. It is also a tool that can act as an important source of educational resources, helping both students and teachers to strengthen access to information.

However, the use of social networks entails different risks. Unfortunately, during 2023 and so far in 2024 through the Te Protejo reporting line we have received more than 39,000 reports of situations that threaten or violate the rights of children and adolescents, of which 97% are developed in digital environments. Of these reports, 1 in 4 are the result of an interaction on social networks.

In these interactions we see more frequent situations of cyberbullying such as grooming, non-consensual disclosure of sexual content, sextortion and bullying situations in school environments that are transferred to social networks. We are particularly concerned that increasingly, younger children are being abused for the generation of sexually exploitative material.

In addition to the responsibility of the platforms in the design of policies and measures to protect minors on social networks, what other mechanisms can be implemented? What other actors should be involved in this discussion?

A.C.: We must start by ensuring that the government prioritizes regulation for the creation of ethical guidelines for digital platforms, products and services, with a specific development in the protection of children and adolescents. For the constitution of this protective environment, it is important to keep in mind that we are all co-responsible for the protection of children and adolescents.

In particular, the government should prioritize regulation for the creation of ethical guidelines for digital platforms, products and services, with a specific focus on the protection of children and adolescents. In this sense, ethics by design should be a mandatory minimum requirement for all.

Educational institutions also have a great responsibility in the formation of digital citizenship, as well as supporting the understanding of concepts such as consent, limits and privacy in the digital environment. Also, they should give the utmost importance to ensure that the digital products and tools they use for educational processes are platforms that include security by design.

On the other hand, from academia and civil society we must continue to characterize these needs and risks with a perspective on children and adolescents in Colombia and Latin America. We have large knowledge gaps that we need to know and bring closer to our context.

And finally, families must continue to develop effective mediation processes so that we can accompany children and adolescents in their digital experiences.

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