While law-makers lagged the online world got a lot more dangerous for children

Feb 7, 2023 | children online, online safety

Artificial intelligence (AI) sensation Chat-GPT just became the fastest growing consumer internet app in history with 100 million users in just under two months. AI now joins the metaverse as emerging technologies that bring a new wave of dangers for children, but legislation to protect them against existing threats is still largely absent. On Safer Internet Day, how can parents take steps to protect their children online?

New threats, old online safety concerns

The rapid pace of tech change which led to the growth of the internet, social media and connected digital devices left children exposed to myriad potential dangers online. But the UK government’s proposed Online Safety Bill, aimed at protecting children from harmful online content, is still wending its way through UK parliament, with the comparable EU’s new Digital Services Act largely untested.

Two emerging technologies now represent a new threat to children’s safety – the metaverse and artificial intelligence (AI).

The metaverse and children’s online safety

The metaverse, a virtual reality (VR) world where people can interact and engage in activities as if they were in the real world, is increasingly popular among children. According to the 2021 Media Use by Tweens and Teens report, 17% of children report having a virtual reality (VR) headset, with about one in five tweens (22%) and one in four teens (27%) having tried virtual reality at some stage in their lives.

The VR world lacks the same safeguards and protection as the real world, it can be challenging to monitor what children are accessing and who they are interacting with, making them vulnerable to cybercrime, grooming, and exposure to inappropriate content. In the metaverse, for example, young users can inadvertently come across virtual strip clubs, simulated sex acts, and rape threats. VR is designed to immerse the entire body so abuse has the potential to be more traumatic, if and when it occurs.

One potential misunderstanding about the metaverse is that participation is not necessarily always via a VR headset. Millions of children use non-immersive gaming systems (such as games consoles or computers) to take part in connected virtual worlds like the ever-popular Roblox, which reported over 100 million monthly users under 13 years old in 2021.

AI and children’s safety

Artificial Intelligence also presents risks to children and vulnerable users with deep fake and generative AI being two applications of artificial intelligence that pose new threats to children’s online safety. Both make it easier for bad actors to create and distribute harmful content, such as child sexual abuse material and misinformation.

Deep fake technologies use AI algorithms to replace or superimpose the faces and voices of individuals in digital media and can be used to create fake online profiles, making it difficult to determine who is behind the screen. Deep fakes can also be used to create fake child abuse material or to spread false information about children. This application of AI also makes it easier to spread misinformation and hate speech, which can have serious consequences for children’s mental and emotional well-being.

Generative AI, on the other hand, can create entirely new content, such as images, videos, and audio, based on a given set of parameters or ‘prompts’. This technology can also be used to create new child abuse material and other harmful content.

The dangers posed by deep fakes and generative AI are significant, as both applications can be used to harm children by creating and distributing child abuse material or by spreading false information about them. The anonymity of the internet makes it incredibly difficult to trace the source of these materials and remove them, which means that children could be exposed to these dangers for years to come.

Parents must be proactive

Despite the efforts of governments and technology companies, it remains important that parents take an active role in ensuring their children’s online safety. Some simple steps that parents can take to help keep their children safe online include:

  1. Educating children about online safety and the potential dangers they may face. Teaching them to be cautious of strangers online and not to share personal information.
  2. Setting clear rules and boundaries for children’s online activities, including time limits and restrictions on certain websites and apps.
  3. Using parental controls to restrict access to inappropriate content and monitor children’s online activities.
  4. Encouraging open communication with children about their online experiences, and listening to their concerns and worries.
  5. Checking privacy settings of children’s social media accounts and making sure they understand how to use them effectively.
  6. Reporting any instances of harmful or inappropriate content to the relevant authorities, such as the police or the platform in question.
  7. Regularly checking children’s online accounts, including their direct messages (for younger children), and being vigilant of any suspicious activity.

The Metaverse and AI have introduced new and significant threats to children’s online safety. Governments and technology companies have a role to play in ensuring the protection of children, but parents also have a responsibility to take an active role and keep themselves informed about new developments in tech. In doing so, parents can help to keep their children safe from harm and ensure they have positive and enjoyable online experiences.

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