From Porn to Hello Barbie: Online Safety in Transition

Stephen Balkam
November 3, 2016

In July of 1997, I attended the first ever White House Internet Summit. Vice President Al Gore talked up a new content labeling system that would help parents block inappropriate content from reaching their children. Browser-based filters were touted as the means to keep America’s kids from accessing pornography and violent images.

Fast forward ten years and Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, heralding the dawn of the smartphone era. Combined with social media sites like MySpace, kids were now creating the content we used to try and keep them away from and they were doing so on mobile devices.

And today, nearly ten years on from iPhone’s launch, we confront a myriad of new safety issues, concerns, risks and harms, while also benefiting from the wonders that technology can and does bring into our and our children’s lives. Our original worries focused on content, but now the online safety community, as well as parents, teachers and caregivers, are just as concerned about behavioral, emotional and developmental side effects of our hearty embrace of all things digital.

Much has been made, for instance, of the prevalence of cyberbullying among teens and younger children. Both Presidential campaigns have made commitments to tackle the issue. Hillary Clinton has proposed a $500M “Better Than Bullying”initiative to help states create anti-bullying plans. Her announcement states,

“The ease with which demeaning and damaging content can be posted on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter make it difficult for our kids to ever really escape bullying.”

And recently, Melania Trump announced that as First Lady, she would work on the issue of kids and social media. In a recent interview, she said,

"I will focus on helping children and women, and also about social media. In this 21st century, what's going on, it's very hurtful to children. To some adults as well, but we need to take care of children."

Online harassment is, in some sense, a more adult form of cyberbullying. This can take the form of hurtful or vicious comments on news sites or Facebook and Twitter posts. It can jump from the virtual to the real world through swatting or doxxing and well-known celebrities, journalists and ordinary citizens have simply shut down their online accounts in the face of this kind of overwhelming cyber abuse.

And as if all of this were not enough, we find ourselves at the dawn of a host of new technologies and applications. Many of us have become accustomed to the artificial intelligence (AI) within our devices. This can take the form of our increasingly accurate GPS systems, the voice recognition ability and immediate response of personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Echo. Now children’s toys are being shipped in time for the holiday season with AI built in. From Hello Barbie to Dino the dinosaur, who happens to be connected to IBM’s Watson, the world of kid’s playthings is being radically reshaped.

Add AI to the Internet of Things and you have devices from refrigerators to thermostats to cars that are smarter, always-connected and sharing information with each other without human intervention. Then, the worlds of virtual and augmented reality have brought with them all kinds of new challenges as well as opportunities for play, exploration and communication.

Pokémon Go is just the beginning. Our real, virtual and augmented lives are about to come together in new and unexpected ways. We will need to navigate the regulatory, industry best practices and new parenting landscape with great care and attention.

How will governments around the world react to this tsunami of change and new devices? Can industry provide the tools and policies to keep us safe, private and secure? And are parents equipped with the basic understanding of these new technologies in order to protect, guide and launch the next generation of digital citizens?

It may well take a decade or two to figure out. In the meantime, there’s a new U.S. Administration about to be formed and the tech policies that emerge from the White House and Congress will be of great interest to us all.

To hear from leading experts in government, industry and the NGO sectors, join us for FOSI’s 10th Annual Conference, “Online Safety in Transition” on December 1st at the Newseum in Washington, DC.

Image courtesy of Flickr.com

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.