Digital safety: Why society needs to get smarter about smartphones

12 Feb 2018

Image: TumNuy/Shutterstock

Smartphones are here to stay, we just need to make sure people have the smarts to use them safely, says John Kennedy.

A few weeks ago, The Late Late Show on RTÉ did a superb piece of public service broadcasting. Researchers masquerading as an 11-year-old girl called Aoife signed up to social media app Kik. Within minutes, the account received a number of shocking messages, mostly from men. It alarmed the country.

The broadcast came in the wake of a court case in Ireland where a man coerced nine-year-old girls to send sexually graphic images via social media apps including Instagram, Snapchat and Kik.

‘The phones are getting smarter, but are we?’

The broadcast and reportage around the court case sparked a public debate around the digital age of consent. An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was brought into the debate, reaffirming that 13 should be the age of digital consent.

The furore surrounding the case and The Late Late Show report felt as if Ireland had just been alerted to the prevalence of online predators and the cocktail of dangers that await young people using advanced technologies such as smartphones.

There were calls for a ban on smartphones being used by children of primary-school age and for more stringent age verification processes in place by the various app and social media companies.

The thing is, this is nothing new. We have been warning about these dangers for some time now. And yet, the whole country seemed to act like this was a new thing.

In 2011, we interviewed Pat McKenna of who at the time visited more than 20,000 second-level students, teachers and parents to educate them about how teenagers in Ireland were becoming more and more exposed to online porn as well as child abuse material.

Are smartphones the new candy?

Smartphones are something of a miracle technology, capable of doing a lot more than simply sharing pictures on Snapchat or Instagram. They are powerful computers and most users barely scratch the surface in terms of their capabilities, instead using them just to communicate or to game.

In the intervening years, smartphones have become more important than toys in many children’s eyes.

Smartphones have also found themselves at the centre of a litany of troubling issues for kids as well as adults, from bullying to suicide.

Saying that smartphones are bad or banning them is not the answer. Education and etiquette are only part of the answer. Unlike how sex education had been bungled in recent decades, we can’t bury our heads on the issue any longer.

The truth is, the genie is out of the bottle. While many parents rightly restrict their kids from owning smartphones until they reach a certain age, some are already familiar with tablet computers and their parents’ phones from an early age. In a lot of cases, kids are given iPod devices as a kind of stopgap before they own their own SIM and phone number, which is redundant when you think about the fact that an iPod is simply an iPhone without a SIM and is just as powerful in a Wi-Fi area.

Parents are asking themselves how to manage this topic responsibly. There are no clear answers except to create an environment where kids can communicate openly with parents about what’s happening in their lives, offline and online.

Part of society’s inability to handle the issue adroitly is also down to the fact that these kids are truly digital natives and have a relationship with technology that is unfathomable to most adults, even today’s vaunted millennials.

These kids are growing up with this technology and it will, for better or worse, inform their future lives, careers and relationships.

The need for a digital safety commissioner is urgent

Last year, the Irish Government agreed that the digital age of consent should be 13. The decision was part of the planned legislation for harmonising Irish law with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on 25 May this year.

The thing is that every nation, not just Ireland, has had to do a lot of growing up in recent years, thanks to digital. Adults, too, are undergoing an education in digital safety and etiquette.

When we were children, we were all taught the safe-cross code for crossing the street and the importance of not talking to strangers. As growing adults, we had to learn how to be street-smart and protect ourselves emotionally and physically in life. And now, digital adds a whole extra, complicated layer to everything.

It is hard to tell people to respect each other online or in these social media apps when the very president of the United States doesn’t even think before he tweets.

But education and understanding is a critical part of the solution. In the coming weeks, the Minister for Communications will be holding talks with various security, legal and education bodies about creating the very first digital safety commissioner role in Ireland.

The appointment is a reflection of – and partly accelerated by – the kind of abuse public figures such as politicians themselves are receiving over social media. But not only politicians, individuals of all standing in society have become anxious victims of online abuse, slurs and provocation. In cases such as revenge porn, for example, victims are often caught in a kind of purgatory waiting for action by police or social media players to remove the damaging content.

For the appointment of a digital safety commissioner to matter, we need to be able to get social media giants such as Facebook and Instagram to act speedily to remove abusive material.

Therefore, important legislative changes are required.

For example, it is a criminal offence in Ireland to harass a person by phone or text message, but not by social media.

It is understood that the new digital safety commissioner role will be modelled on similar positions that have been established in New Zealand and Australia. Like the Australian counterpart, the digital safety commissioner may also have an educational role, to focus on teaching young people about online behaviour and operate a complaints service for those who may experience bullying.

Are we smart enough for our smartphones?

And that’s just it. How do you treat people in your life? Would you talk to total strangers the same way in person and with the same familiarity that you would through the brave filter of Twitter or Facebook? Would you say the same things to their faces that you would through the safe distance of a mobile screen?

Society overall needs to learn how to behave in the digital world.

Society needs the smarts to handle smartphones correctly.

Banning or curtailing their use by younger age groups is not the complete answer. At best, it is a crude solution.

Smartphones are getting smarter. Just look at the latest iPhone X from Apple, which comes with in-built AI, as well as the Huawei Mate P10, which has its own neural processor.

These devices are more powerful and becoming even more powerful than we could ever have imagined.

The phones are getting smarter, but are we?

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years