International Perspectives: Multi-Stakeholder Approach to Online Safety Must Also Involve Children

By Sun Sun Lim

The past two years saw growing buzz around Web3 and the metaverse. Along with the celebratory discourse about exciting prospects of the metaverse were some sickeningly familiar headlines. Complaints arose of trolling and harassment, with graphic details of victims being physically (albeit virtually) violated. In Meta’s Horizon Worlds for example, a beta tester was groped by a stranger whose misdeeds were encouraged by onlookers. Recounting her distress, she shared that “being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense.” Similarly, a British reporter entered a metaverse chatroom using the profile of a 13-year old and within ten minutes, saw underage kids simulating oral sex on each other and heard utterances of hate speech and openly pedophilic comments.

If the metaverse is meant to become the next significant instantiation of our virtual lives, what lessons have we drawn from 40 years of living with the Internet when it comes to making the online world safer and more inclusive for children and young people? These disturbing reports about the seemingly lawless and unsavory nature of some metaverse environments reflect the ongoing challenges we continue to face with Internet safety. And yet, with digital device and Internet use reaching ever younger, we truly have our work cut out for us to make the online environment more salubrious and welcoming for toddlers through to teens. 

Given the enormity of the online safety challenge, it is imperative that a multi-stakeholder approach be adopted for any meaningful change to be effected. But it is equally vital that one key stakeholder group to be included is young people themselves. Rather than having groups of adults from diverse public and private sectors talk over children’s heads about online safety, young people’s views on this critical issue that affects them directly must be actively solicited, effectively distilled and purposefully disseminated.

To this end, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) organized its first ever ASEAN ICT Forum on Child Online Protection in November 2022 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This event highlighted the benefits of bringing children to the table and hearing their views in their own words – a monumental step considering that young people’s opinions are not always given the requisite weight they deserve. The paper that eventuated from the consultation process provides a very clear set of directives for industry players to respect and honour the digital rights of children.

Titled “Call to Action from Children and Young People to the Private Sector on Child Online Protection” this landmark document is the outcome of consultations with young people across eight ASEAN Member States—Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. It underlines four key areas where children and young people want improvements for a safer and more welcoming digital environment: child-centred features and functions; effective reporting and feedback mechanisms; digital literacy and online digital safety guidance; and data protection and respect for privacy.

The fact that many children participated in the forum which brought together a diverse spectrum of representatives from the private and public sectors, as well as academia, underlines the gravity and sincerity of this effort. Many children also recounted personal experiences of online harms that made their call even more compelling and heartfelt. Organizations present included Zoom, Meta and LEGO, start-ups Hekate and VRapeutic, and industry bodies such as Fair Play Alliance and Tech Coalition.

Besides having young people’s voices conveyed directly to industry and government, it is evident that mobilizing a broad swathe of stakeholders and partners is crucial to move the needle on an issue as important as young people’s online safety. In Singapore for example, a helpful exercise was mounted for a collective effort to tackle online harms against women and girls. This Sunlight Alliance for Action (AfA) brought together 48 representatives from diverse sectors including academia, industry, civil society, government and of course youths. Sunlight AfA commenced its work by conducting a sensing poll to gauge the scale and scope of the problem and the results offered a useful departure point for subsequent initiatives. Notably, three in ten of the 1049 respondents polled reported being personally affected by or having witnessed gender-based online harms such as cyberstalking and receiving unwelcome and unwanted images.

The alliance was given a timeline of one year to complete various tasks including drawing up a research roadmap for future research priorities, setting up a support centre and online resource portal for victims of online harms, as well as developing public education and volunteerism programmes. The strict timeline ensured realization of the different initiatives and positive momentum also resulted from the cross-sector networks that were forged from the collaboration. Overall, it was an illuminating experience for the people and organizations involved because it demonstrated how the limitations of individual action can be overcome with collective effort.

Ultimately, with technology reaching right into the palm of every child, it is absolutely vital that we take an all hands on deck approach to enhance online safety. Above all, we must ensure that children and young people are actively consulted on what they deem important for a secure and edifying online environment. 

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