Generating Safer Artificial Intelligence

February 6, 2024

Today is the 20th anniversary of the launch of Safer Internet Day - celebrated every year since 2004 on the second Tuesday of February.  While it emerged as an idea and project of the EU, it has spread to over 170 countries and is the world’s largest single-day event focused on online safety and the positive use of digital technologies. 

The concerns and opportunities discussed at the first Safer Internet Day reflected the Web 1.0 world we were then living in.  This mostly centered on access to adult content, violent images, and the emerging phenomenon of cyberbullying.  This was before the rise of social media, user-generated content as well as camera phones.  The transformation to what we now call Web 2.0 came with the launch of the iPhone, high-speed Internet, and the explosion of Facebook and similar platforms in 2007.  Our online safety strategies, technologies, and messaging to parents and kids had to be utterly rethought and rewritten.  

And now in 2024, we are confronting yet another major shift - the dawning of the genAI era.  Generative artificial intelligence burst into the public consciousness with the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022.  It became the fastest-growing consumer software application in history and touched the lives of parents, teachers, and kids alike with over 180 million users and 1.6 billion visits in December 2023.  And that’s not counting the numerous other genAI tools (such as Google’s Bard) that have also emerged over the past year or so, upending how we think about work, education, and creativity.

Image Credit: "the positive use of digital technology", Google Bard

To get a handle on this new paradigm shift, we surveyed parents and their teenagers in the US, Germany, and Japan for a report we launched in November last year.  We found some surprising results.  Firstly, there was an unexpected level of optimism with a majority of parents in all three countries feeling positive about their teens' use of genAI.  Next, unlike earlier tech innovations such as social media or computer games, teens said that their parents knew more about genAI than they did.  This is presumably because of the introduction of ChatGPT into the workplace and their parents' early adoption of genAI tools for their jobs. 

Indeed, parents overwhelmingly felt that genAI tools would be vital for themselves and their teens to remain competitive in school as well as in their careers. And 60% of parents said that genAI will augment or supplement humans in the workplace, but that there would still be a need for creativity that only humans can bring. 

When asked about their major concerns, a majority of teens were worried about how genAI would enable and transform cyberbullying.  We have already seen instances of this with teen girls' faces edited into porn videos and then circulated throughout the school.  On the other hand, parents were most concerned about the potential loss of critical thinking skills that could occur if ChatGPT, Bard, and others could simply create fully written essays with a few prompts. 

Parents expressed a strong desire for transparency within these emerging tools - where does the information come from, how is it collated, is it true, etc.  There are considerable concerns about both dis and misinformation, particularly in an election year.  Not only can the voices and images of candidates be manipulated, but we are beginning to see politicians deny having said or done something caught on camera by falsely saying AI created it.  

So the outlook for society and young people in particular is complicated on this Safer Internet Day.  On the one hand, there has never been such a wealth of information and skills so readily available and almost entirely free (for now).  But with this unprecedented level of power, there lie serious concerns about how genAI will be used or misused.  Let’s use this 20th anniversary to do some deep thinking about the implications of this new technology and then take action to ensure that we are all safer and more empowered in the years to come.

Header image credit: "online safety", Google Bard

Written by

Stephen Balkam

For the past 30 years, Stephen Balkam has had a wide range of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in both the US and UK. He is currently the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC. FOSI’s mission is to make the online world safer for kids and their families. FOSI convenes the top thinkers and practitioners in government, industry and the nonprofit sectors to collaborate and innovate and to create a “culture of responsibility” in the online world.

Prior to FOSI, Stephen was the Founder and CEO of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) and led a team which developed the world’s leading content labeling system on the web. While with ICRA, Stephen served on the US Child Online Protection Commission (COPA) in 2000 and was named one of the Top 50 UK Movers and Shakers, Internet Magazine, 2001.

In 1994, Stephen was named the first Executive Director of the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) which created a unique self-labeling system for computer games and then, in 1996, Stephen launched RSACi – a forerunner to the ICRA website labeling system. For his efforts in online safety, Stephen was given the 1998 Carl Bertelsmann Prize in Gutersloh, Germany, for innovation and responsibility in the Information Society and was invited to the first and subsequent White House Internet Summits during the Clinton Administration.

Stephen’s other positions include the Executive Director of the National Stepfamily Association (UK); General Secretary of the Islington Voluntary Action Council; Executive Director of Camden Community Transport as well as management positions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) and Inter-Action. Stephen’s first job was with Burroughs Machines (now Unisys) and he had a spell working for West Nally Ltd – a sports sponsorship PR company.

Stephen received a BA, magna cum laude, in Psychology from University College, Cardiff, Wales in 1977. A native of Washington, DC, Stephen spent many years in the UK and is now has dual citizenship. He writes regularly for the Huffington Post, appears often on TV and has appeared on nationally syndicated TV and radio programs such as MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC and has been interviewed by leading newspapers such as the Washington Post, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, radio and in the mainstream press. He has given presentations and spoken in 15 countries on 4 continents.