China is at the forefront of thinking about digital well-being for children and may be the first country in the world to make it a legal requirement for large internet companies to employ a "chief children’s officer", whose sole role is to think about young users, Dylan Collins, founder and chief executive of SuperAwesome, has suggested.
In a discussion about children’s online safety at Rise conference in Hong Kong, Collins questioned why none of the major tech companies has created such a role yet, when children are the biggest online audience in the world.
Children’s internet safety is reaching a critical stage, with pressure mounting on some of the major Silicon Valley tech giants to provide more responsible services, particularly in the past 12 months.
The US Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok a record $5.7m in February for illegally collecting data on children under 13, for instance, and YouTube is rumoured to be considering moving all children’s content from the site on to the separate YouTube Kids platform, partly in response to an FTC investigation into whether the company, too, illegally gathered data on minors and exposed children to inappropriate content.
Brands are fuelling the fire. "Advertisers starting to realise that when they are operating in environments that are only ever designed for adults, they have huge risks in terms of brand exposure," Collins said. "You are really seeing much more involvement by the biggest brands in the world, who want to be responsible, they want to be safe, and they are now looking for and calling on the major technology companies to invest in safety for kids."
Collins says the problem is that platforms such as YouTube and TikTok – which are the most popular with children – weren’t designed with young users in mind. "All of these platforms were built for adults, so whenever a child is spending time there, their data is getting tracked and there’s technology behind the scenes that is watching what they're doing, that's tracking them across the internet, that’s often serving them up completely the wrong kind of content," Collins explained.
Laws are starting to catch up. When Collins started SuperAwesome in 2013 as a company that builds "kidtech" – products that offer safe digital engagement for children – the only digital privacy laws in place for children were in the US. These have now rolled out in Europe, Latin America, Australia and other parts of the world, and the fines and investigations currently being seen in the US will soon spread to other parts of the globe too, he added.
Ultimately, this should lead to the redesigning of the internet with children in mind. It’s not enough simply to move content to a separate "kids platform", Collins argued: "Fundamentally, if you have a product called 'something kids', the one thing you're guaranteed is that most kids aren't going to go there.
"Kids are going to go and use or watch or consume whatever content they want, which is why a design philosophy for anyone building the super-platforms for the next 10 years is, if you really want to make them future-proof, you have to assume that kids are going to be using that platform."
China is already making positive moves in this direction. It launched the Personal Information Security Specification, establishing digital data privacy protection for children under the age of 14, in June 2018. But, Collins said, the government has also gone way beyond this by thinking about the long-term impact on a generation of children who have grown up immersed in a completely digital world.
The country is starting to put in place frameworks for how user interfaces should be designed, for example. This means outlawing methods such as "nudge techniques", which try to get users to make in-game purchases, play one more session or stay in a free game for longer and longer. "There’s a general realisation that a user interface that is designed for a 20-year-old is definitely not appropriate for a five- or six-year-old," Collins added.
Children’s safety is ultimately a highly political topic, Collins pointed out: "It might even become a presidential topic next year. Can you imagine an American presidential debate where they are talking about children's digital privacy?"