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  • 6th Feb 2024

“Together for a safer internet”: how and why we should put children and young people at the heart of designing future internet policy

Today is Safer Internet Day, raising awareness globally of a safer and better internet for all, especially for children and young people. Lis Costa, Managing Director of BIT UK, considers how we might make this year’s theme of “Together for a safer internet” a meaningful reality. 

I spent the Christmas period hanging out with my lovely teenage nieces in Australia. In between snorkelling and bush walks, they taught me the latest Gen Z lingo (much ‘slaying’ and exclamations of ‘bruh!’) Over the weeks, I also gently enquired about what they are doing on their phones and how they are keeping in touch with their friends over the holidays.  

It’s clear that in just a generation, the way teenagers spend their time and build relationships has changed dramatically. My (early!) millennial friends and I often remark on our relief that we didn’t have social media when we were at high school. The photos we took on disposable cameras are dusting away in storage boxes, but otherwise our more embarrassing and awkward moments are preserved only in our memories. And when school broke we got a reprieve from navigating the trickier aspects of teenage friendships. In contrast, my nieces and their friends are far more connected to each other outside of school, and a lot of those interactions happen online.

Responding to these trends global policymakers are stepping up efforts to keep children safe online through regulation like the new UK Online Safety Act. Clear and unequivocal regulation, and strict enforcement, is required for issues like pornography, sexual exploitation and self harm. As we saw in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in the US last week, it is unlikely tech companies will act quickly or decisively enough on their own, and some platforms may not act at all. 

I hope that the focus and pressure on the tech companies following the congressional hearing translates to stronger regulation that addresses these pressing safety risks. Yet there is also a sizeable grey zone of more subtle ways in which social media influences childrens’ lives and relationships. Does it make for meaningful positive relationships? Do they know how to manage if they are getting excluded or bullied? Here, a more inclusive approach to policymaking is needed.

Spending time with my nieces helped me to understand some of the nuances of how and why they interact with each other online. For instance, much of the attention on Snapchat is on the addictive design of ‘streaks’ which puts pressure on children to be consistently ‘on’. I hadn’t realised the extent to which young people use the Snap Map, which plots your friends on a real time map. It feels more nefarious to me than streaks, and indeed its safety has been widely debated. SnapChat has responded by taking some actions to strengthen the privacy features. Thinking about the grey zone, my mind also went to how bruised I would have felt as a teenager if I’d seen all of my friends in the same place without me. Yet when I asked whether they’d be upset  by this, they seemed unperturbed – they have grown up with the Snap Map after all and perhaps it’s part of the new social norms. The map even led to some positive experiences, allowing us to divert a beach walk and meet up with some of my nieces’ friends. 

I still feel conflicted about the Snap Map. But it was a good reminder of the bias we bring to designing policy solutions, and the need to challenge initial reactions based on our own experiences. At BIT we spend a lot of time understanding the perspective and experience of the person whose behaviour we are seeking to shift. The past few weeks have only strengthened my view that if we want to not only keep young people safe online, but support them to build respectful, constructive relationships, we need to work with them rather than doing to them.

There are a few concrete ways to do this. 

1: Put young people at the centre of the design process

BIT is trailblazing this type of co-design approach in Australia, with Digital Compass – a behaviourally informed program designed to help young people behave ethically online. 

Digital Compass focuses on the questions that mattered to teenagers. How could they intervene in online conflicts and dramas without putting themselves at risk? How could they better connect with their friends online? Rolled out in schools, the program gives young people the autonomy to reflect on their own values and whether they wanted to change their online behaviour to align with their values. It was co-designed at every stage and focused on what young people could do to have positive, ethical online interactions, rather than what they can’t do or shouldn’t do

The programme has increased self-reported prosocial behaviours, and is being rolled out in schools across Victoria, Australia. Policymakers and funders should be looking at whether it can be scaled further, including to other countries and contexts. 

2: Encourage tech companies & regulators to give young people a distinct, collective voice

I’ve written a lot about how tech companies can do more to understand the collective voice of their users, and reflect this in their governance and corporate decision-making.  

We’ve piloted this approach with adults, running global community forums to enable Meta users to weigh in on how Facebook should tackle climate misinformation; how to curb bullying and harassment in the Metaverse and the guardrails for generative AI across Meta’s platforms. These have been a real success – engaging global social media users from very different backgrounds and giving them the agency to shape the online environments within which they make choices.

It’s time to extend this governance model to other platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube, and design community forums that are specifically for children and teenagers. In our Meta community forums, people have been highly engaged in the details and nuance of the policy choices facing the platform. We can trust teenagers to do the same – asking them to reflect on and shape how social media platforms can help them create safe, respectful and enjoyable online experiences.

3: Build social media into the solution

In building safe, positive online environments for young people we need to harness social media to our advantage. BIT is currently leading a UK adaptation and large scale replication of Betsey Paluck’s US-based Roots anti-bullying intervention. Grassroots uses network analysis to find a group of ‘social referent’ students in a school who are likely to be able to influence other students – and it’s not necessarily just popular kids. Those students are then asked to lead anti-bullying activities, including through social media, to prompt a shift in what the students deem to be acceptable behaviour. 

It is about meeting young people where they are at – and they are online a lot of the time. More can be done to experiment with how young people can positively influence the behaviour of their peers, with social media forming a key part of the intervention itself. 

Overall, spending time with my nieces makes me more hopeful for the future – they are amazing, thoughtful humans. As an aunt I worry and want to protect their safety and wellbeing online.  As a policy maker I know that if we are to build effective, sustainable solutions, we need to give them and their peers a strong voice in designing and shaping the places they hang out. 

If you work in tech or policy and want to explore running community forums to design safer online environments for children, please get in touch with us

If you enjoyed reading this, keep an eye out for our upcoming series on Digital decision making which will be launching in March 2024.

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