Snooping isn’t a good way to ensure child safety online

Snooping isn’t a good way to ensure child safety online

Author: Aparajita Bharti

Published: 24th April 2024 in the Mint

Recently, reports emerged that India’s ministry of electronics and IT has been working on an app, Safenet, that links parents’ phones with those of their children, so that they can monitor the online activities of their offspring. While parental controls on internet platforms typically offer options of granting app or website access and placing limits on the time spent, Safenet is said to go further by sharing call details and SMS logs, apart from data on all content viewed on platforms like YouTube. The Internet Service Provider Association of India has suggested that this app should be made available by default on all personal devices. This proposal is a classic example of techno-solutionism, an attempt to use technology to solve a complex social problem.

Online safety for kids is a complicated issue, with debates over the overall impact of internet usage on children. Since this impact is highly context-dependent, policymakers present a strong argument that any ‘duty of care’ in the online environment should rest primarily with parents, just as it does in the physical environment. However, the devil always lies in the details.

First, in the physical environment too, parents do not have complete control over a child’s information ecosystem. Parents are often in fact surprised to discover how much their children know, because they do not control all their interactions in school either with peers or their environment. However, in the digital realm, while parents can potentially get complete visibility of their child’s online interactions, it could conflict with a teenager’s need for independence, as child psychologists point out. There’s a delicate balance between parental oversight and teen autonomy that needs to be addressed.

Second, tools made available that allow an intimate invasion of privacy are very likely to be misused. This is particularly concerning for children who face abuse from their own families. Further, one-third of women in India experience intimate partner violence, according  to National Family Health Survey-5. Abusive partners can also use such tools to monitor and exert complete control over their victims. Identity verification, often proposed as a solution to this, is far from foolproof, given low digital literacy among women. In the gender context, another unintended impact of such tools would be parents exerting more control over the activities of adolescent girls than boys, a phenomenon observed routinely in the offline world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a recent interview with Bill Gates, spoke about the immense power of technology in the hands of women. However, in a deeply patriarchal society, tools that allow such control over the information ecosystem of girls would not sync with that vision. It could widen the gap between boys and girls with respect to information access on top of an already prevalent digital divide.

As is evident, over indexing on one part of the ‘online kids safety’ puzzle leads us to newer problems. We therefore need an all-of-ecosystem approach.

First, we need to update our laws. For example, under the new Indian law that replaces the IT Act, 2000, there should be room for codes of practices similar to the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code and the Aotearoa New Zealand Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms. These codes provide guidance to platforms on features to make them safer for children. The newly passed Online Safety Act in the UK also requires platforms to conduct a risk assessment from the perspective of children.

Second, we need platforms to design behavioural ‘nudges’ to drive uptake of the parental controls already available. Many popular platforms have parental controls or family centres that aim to maintain a balance which lets parents know about their child’s usage patterns without granting them the power to eavesdrop. Platforms should come forward to co-design child safety codes with the government that would suit the Indian context.

Third, we need education institutions to chip in. Among parents’ key concerns are screen time and their inability to monitor legitimate uses versus unwanted activities. However, even schools (especially affluent ones) have been driving up screen time by making education more tab or screen based in the post-pandemic world. This perhaps requires a rethink.

Fourth, every educator and parent would acknowledge that every solution, technological or otherwise, is prone to circumvention by children. Children are creative, often more adept at using the internet, and have networks with peers that adults often know little about. Therefore, we need to invest in fostering children’s own ability to navigate the online world safely. We should focus on inculcating  self-responsibility, so that kids are able to tell good apart from bad, feel free to seek support when needed, and develop mature relationships with technology where they are in control and not the other way around. For this, we should update school syllabi , introduce this as a life skill, revise civic education curriculums and also create space for discussions on tech and society.

Finally, a survey by Young Leaders for Active Citizenship revealed that 80% of parents seek guidance from their children off and on to navigate the internet. We perhaps ought to flip the entire household dynamic on its head, so that today’s up-to-date teenagers can become coaches for safer internet usage at home. After all, we know that many millennial parents themselves are hooked to Reels and may be in need of help too!

Aparajita Bharti is the co-founder of The Quantum Hub, a public policy firm and Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC)