Reckoning to Protect the Youth: Where Do We Stand in Child Safety?

Child Safety
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An appetite for regulatory control is gaining traction in the US Congress, where a bipartisan approach is rare. Still, this crusade to apprehend child exploitation and abuse through social media is snowballing. For child safety and anti-big tech advocates, there is a hope that the US Congress will patch up legislation that will deter major social media platforms from hosting loose regulations and rules to govern their platforms, to the dismay of parents and child safety advocates.

While the US Congress is sincere in tackling child safety concerns in social media platforms, it acknowledges that overregulation may weaken the competitive edge of American companies against overseas rivals such as those of China. So, while regulation and imposition of hefty fines may be under consideration to avoid overregulation, social media companies will most likely be given leeway to self-regulate themselves in a manner that will not risk blunting their competitive edge.

Child safety in social media is compromised in several ways through the inability of the platforms to sieve the absolute age of its users, exposure to indecent content and child exploiters luring underage to their devilish inclinations without deterrence or direction to parental control or social behaviour enforcers.

All major social media platforms, such as Meta, TikTok, and X (formerly Twitter), have been criticized for promoting a delusional lifestyle. Top content creators ambush their viewers with unrealistic lifestyles that coerce them to attempt to follow suit. Reportedly, some of the content creators tend to pretend to lead a filthy rich lifestyle that entices their viewers to look forward to emulating them. When they fail to imitate them for one reason or another, despair creeps in, sometimes metastasizing into a sense of hopelessness, leading to the suicide rate jumping up.

Read related: Tanzanian Children’s Intelligence at Risk: The Dangers of Instagram and TikTok.

There was a case of a couple of video content creators in Meta who portrayed themselves as leading an idyllic life. Still, the pressure of being what they were not day in and day out strained their relationship, and infighting ensued, which led to the man murdering his fiance and later killing himself.

Underage children are also exposed to interactions with paedophiles to their detriment. Cases of the underage coaxed to take nude photos of their supposed friends who are under catfish pseudonyms are common and repetitive. The victims presumed they were chatting with fellow children, not understanding that they were dealing with paedophiles posing with false identities. Cases of murder, rape and kidnaps that began in social media messaging apps are spiking at an alarming rate.

The challenge of protecting child rights in social media platforms begins with access to false identities. The allure of social media platforms is to support joining a forum under a false identity. False identity affords a member the freedom of not being identified by those with a reason to thwart his keyboard freedom. So, part of the freedom of speech and expression is intractably tied to the anonymity of the users. Some users can also abuse that incognito right.

Children may sign up as adults while they are not, and social media platforms refrain from curbing children from masquerading as adults, exposing them to the ominous dangers of meeting paedophiles who may lure the underage to their injury. Injuries may be mental, physical, psychological or death.

Innovative ways of protecting children have been in the offing, with some suggesting that there must be parental permission whenever children want to sign up. However, the challenge is how social media is structured, purposed and presented to users to avoid zeroing into personal identification. For parental guidance to work, sign-in users must reveal their social title, compromising their ability to express themselves without fear of retaliation.

Verification of personal information is likely to be resisted because users may feel their freedoms and privacy are being infringed upon and exposed to potential exploitation, such as hackers or even the same media companies that sell their clients’ data to marketing companies. Marketing companies apply those data to profile and strategize how to advertise their products to those potential customers.

With the technological evolution of artificial intelligence (AI), it is possible that shortly, we may have messaging apps that can establish the age and criminal records of the platform users and may stop children from pretending they are adults when they are not. Similarly, convicted criminals pass for law-abiding citizens while they are not.

Any legislative effort that does not restrict children’s actual age from signing up to these social platforms will not resolve many challenges confronting children’s safety in social media platforms without flagging content deemed objectionable or users who may abuse children’s rights. Some AI experts are trying to create keyboards and camcorders that will have DNA and facial recognition mapping tools that are connected to a data pool of convicted criminals such as paedophiles and other sexual offenders.

Legislative efforts are likely to ensue no sooner such technology becomes available in the market for public use. Those tools will likely prove helpful in the developed world rather than the developing world, where data collection, storage and application for criminal offenders remain less of a priority.

Any legislation that will force social media platforms to strictly impose rules and regulations that require users to identify themselves through official identification such as national identity cards, passports, banker accounts or social identity numbers will receive stiff resistance because most users do not want to compromise their identity to the people they hardly know. At the heart of this is that nobody knows how this media company will use its vast access to its clients’ data and information.

Also, read TCRA’s 2023 Report: Internet and Social Media Usage, Should We Expect Rising Cyber Threats?

Access to personal identities may also open a can of worms as identity thieves may end up having a field day, leading to social media users’ stampede to rival social media platforms that do not bear those requirements for user identification.

Others have suggested that parental guidance gives parents tools to monitor their and what their children view on these platforms, but others say that, too, has its drawbacks. Children may opt to join foreign social media platforms to evade parental guidance.

Teen education has been emphasized, but so far, it has been ineffective in discouraging children from consuming phonographic, violent and delusional materials, afflicting them with immeasurable pain in their growth. Children are the most impressionable and likely to copy, be inspired by, and glorify whatever content is displayed on social media.

Cases of children trying to murder their fellow children are also escalating, with video content viewed on social media blamed for such copycat murders. There was a case of a couple of children who were accused of stabbing others in a copycat of what was later dubbed as a “slender man” video.

Back home, protecting our children should be less challenging because most of us do not use WiFi. With data usage under the leash, we should expect exposure to unsuitable content to be minimal. However, parental control is the most likely tool to flash out potential abusers before they strike the innocence of our little ones. The use of social media platforms as an indoctrination tool for gender change is also surging.

The influence of digital platforms on shaping children’s understanding of gender identity is a significant concern, highlighting the importance of monitoring the content accessible through messaging apps. Such scenarios ought to motivate most parents to keep an eye on what their children are consuming. Apps that empower parental control and guidance ought to be promoted as the last line of defence against child abuse.

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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