4 Oct 2022

Children’s Privacy Online is a ‘Generational Injustice’

We speak to Baroness Beeban Kidron on the need for a hybrid approach to tackling children’s safety online.

Baroness Beeban Kidron, cross-bench peer in the House of Lords and founder of children’s privacy charity 5Rights Foundation, is passionate about what she terms the ‘generational injustice’ of the lack of protection online for young people. ‘It is not ok to target young people from a very early age with harmful material and then go “it’s your problem”’.

She likens the issue to underage drinking.

‘You cannot take a kid into a bar and give them a gin and tonic’, she explains. ‘Everyone has a responsibility and knows it – the person who takes them in, the person behind the bar’.

A former film maker, Kidron became interested in the issue of children and technology in 2012 ‘when the price point for a smart phone lowered to the point where parents could afford them for their kids’, she explains.

‘I looked around me, and all the kids were suddenly behaving differently. And I thought “that’s interesting”. I made a documentary film called In Real Life.  And when making that film I discovered what I think of as a generational injustice’.

Strong words – but, says Kidron, justified.

‘We’ve invented this digital world in which everyone lives – and we do not treat children like children in it. We treat them as if – at this magical age of 13 – they were entirely adult and have all the sophistication and development and education and life experience and wisdom of adults. And when you put it like that it’s a travesty.

‘There are so many issues with the commercial pressures that the companies put on kids. Whether that’s algorithmic recommendations of things that they should never see in the first place, or pushing them to buy something, or pushing for their attention. All of these things cause hundreds of problems for kids.

‘If you start training children who aren’t even in double digits yet to always respond, to think that porn is normal, to take their clothes off and share pictures, to speak to strange adults… you’re not really giving them a chance to grow up at their own pace’.

Kidron is no dinosaur – and it by no means anti-technology. Thinking back to the start of her campaign to protect children better in a digital world she laughs.

‘I tried to tell a lot of people. I was in Parliament and I had quite a good phone book and I talked to people in tech and in politics. But they didn’t want to know. Everyone had drunk the cool aid on tech – and I think I looked like a middle-aged woman who didn’t like rock and roll. But I actually love technology’.

She also understands the commercial model of technology companies seeking attention from users is unlikely to change. ‘Yes that’s the business model – so take the kids out of it’.

As for a solution? She’s clear we need a hybrid approach with support from all sides.

‘I think it’s a really important point that we mustn’t go after individual companies – the bigger point is we need product safety, corporate responsibility, regulation’. She also believes we need a stronger line on age verification.

‘Governments all over the world have failed to say age assurance must be private, it must work. Companies don’t like it, not because it doesn’t work. But because it creates more work.’

Is it all doom? Not at all, says Kidron.

‘We are making inroads – but we have to keep saying what good looks like, and everyone needs to raise their game. We are stopping the era where we have a car on a very steep hill with no brake, no rear-view mirror, no shatter-proof glass and we have a kid at the wheel. That is bound for disaster’.

The opinions, comments and views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.