Designing a child-friendly internet

The internet can be a major force for good but isn’t designed with children in mind, even though it’s part of how children now socialise, play, create and learn. The ‘Disrupted Childhood’ report from 5Rights outlines how the tech sector’s use of persuasive design strategies to extend user engagement has palpable negative impacts for children. Key recommendations for government, industry and the education sector point to potential ways forward, and the introduction of the ‘Age Appropriate Design Code’ represents a vital step in the right direction.

Persuasive design strategies are the hooks and tricks that keep users online. Examples include auto-playing next episodes, likes, re-tweets, buzzes, pings and various other notifications. On their own, these offer a small symbol of personal worth or fuzzy reward; together they provide a constant, and the authors argue, damaging ecosystem of distraction and invasion. The needs and rights of children are, the report says, systemically ignored in favour of the commercial needs of a multi-billion pound industry.

The report highlights that the costs of persuasive design strategies on children include sleep deprivation, low self esteem, social aggression and can negatively affect relationships. This impacts upon children’s educational attainment, health and wellbeing, family relationships as well as undermining the development of memory, social confidence, creativity and original thought.

So what can be done, and where does education fit in? The report includes a number of key recommendations on how government and the industry can improve matters. These include asking government to define compulsive use of technology as a harm for young people, and asking industry to make it as easy to get offline as it is to get online and to enforce high privacy settings by default. Regarding education, the report calls on the government to ensure digital literacy is part of the curriculum, including through PSHE, and that aspects such as ethical design, data harvesting and the impact persuasive design strategies are at its core.

The most important recent development was the addition of an ‘Age-Appropriate Design Code’ to the Data Protection Bill. This provides a major opportunity to ensure children’s needs are taken into account in the design of online technologies. With this addition, the Information Commissioner — the UK’s data regulator — is required to draw up a Code that ensures higher standards for children in areas such as default privacy settings, data minimisation and geo-location technology.

When drawing up this Code the Commissioner is required to consult with young people, parents, experts and other stakeholders. The PSHE Association contributed to an initial public consultation which closed on 19 September. You can read more about the code and the consultation by visiting the Information Commissioners website.

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