Opinion | If the Internet Were a Toy, It Would Look Like This. Would You Let Your Kid Play With It?

[MUSIC PLAYING] “I do not know.” “How it works is.” “There’s, like, little invisible lines.” “And then it has a big cloud.” “Electricity is so tiny, and it goes into the iPad and watch YouTube. There you go.” We all understand it’s our job to protect kids from a world they’re too young to grasp. “Like how to be safe on the internet?” That’s why we put baby gates on staircases and buy special car seats and why we give them plastic scissors. But when it comes to the internet, we’ve abandoned them. “I’m in my room watching iPad and they’re like ‘No more iPad, no more phone.’ And I’m like: ‘Five more minutes. Five more minutes.’” We’ve left our kids to be preyed on by giant tech companies while our politicians continue to struggle to understand how it all works. “Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users.” “By hooking kids?” “By hooking kids.” We’re going to show you what your kids are actually seeing online, not through politicians’ empty speeches, but the real images our children are being shown while we’ve been out to lunch. This is a story about harm and consequences. Our children are being attacked. And it’s something we’d never allow in the real world. “My dad, he has this like record player and he puts big ones of these.” “Top-speed technology.” “Unlimited AOL Free. It sounds kind of like LOL.” Remember this? “This is your personal information universe, the internet.” This is what the internet looked like in 1998, no YouTube, no Instagram, no Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg was still a child himself. It was also the year that Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. COPPA forces websites to get parental approval before collecting data from kids, but it didn’t take tech companies long to exploit a loophole. You see, the law only applies to sites that know their users are under the age of 13. So those slithery tech companies simply added this line to their terms and conditions. COPPA is a weak law and it’s embarrassingly outdated. And although some of the language was modernized in 2013, in substance, it’s hardly changed at all. So how’s that working out? “Sometimes I watch some Instagram over my sister’s shoulder.” “My favorite thing about TikTok is the sounds and filters.” “You are?” Yeah, don’t kid yourselves. Children are on these platforms in big numbers. In one survey, 40% of 9- to 12-year-olds said they visit Instagram every day. It’s 78% for YouTube. “I go on YouTube a lot.” “You can kind of see, like, different personalities. And I like finding ones that match my personality.” “Why is it called YouTube? Is it like your channel?” Now, Google did launch a child-friendly platform in 2015, but children still visit the main site in huge numbers. And there are still loads of channels there aimed at them. We don’t let kids into R-rated movies, right? But when children log onto YouTube, they’re entering a world designed by adults, for adults. Here are some popular YouTube videos, all of them aimed at children. And here are the ads YouTube runs alongside them. These were all documented in a 2020 study. Alcohol, sex, politics for some reason. The study found ads appeared on 95% of videos aimed at children and a fifth were not age appropriate. So why is a 10-year-old kid getting an advert for a dating site? Well, the internet is a place designed by experts to capture data and turn it into money. And they don’t care whose data that is. Now, I want you to pause and try to imagine if a toy tracked your kid’s data the same way the internet does. Can’t do it? No worries. We’ll show you. “Bringing the online world to life, Twisted Toys presents Share Bear, the bear that learns everything about you, then sells the data for profit.” “I’m just a teddy bear.” “Share Bear has all the features you need in a cuddly best friend: location tracking, conversation monitoring, remote-activated camera.” “I’m watching you.” “He makes predictions about your life.” “You look sad today. Here’s an advert about losing weight.” “But remember, he’s not keeping your secrets. They’re sold straight to billion-dollar tech companies instead.” “Awesome.” “Sweet dreams. I’ll be tracking you.” “Share Bear.” “Caution. Share Bear used poor data practices. Your privacy will be violated. You’ll be relentlessly sold to. Companies will exploit children with impunity. Keep away from fire.” In the real world, we tell our kids, “Don’t talk to strangers.” But online, tech companies are allowing those strangers to easily contact our kids. That’s what another shocking 2020 study found when researchers created fake profiles on Instagram purporting to be teenagers. The more posts they liked, the more extreme the images they were shown. Users Instagram thought were 14 and 15 years old were shown these sexualized photographs. Another teen user who expressed an interest in dieting was shown images of extreme weight loss. Here’s what Instagram showed a user it thought was 14 years old when he showed an interest in fitness. And these disturbing images? Instagram showed them to a girl it believed was 13 years old. And within two days of joining Instagram, all of the fake accounts were sent private messages from adult strangers, some of which contained links to pornography. Would you buy the real-world version of this toy for your teenager? “Calling are you kids. Stalkie Talkie has arrived. It’s the toy that uses algorithms to connect children with adult strangers. Just squeeze the button and see if anyone wants to say hello.” “Where do you live?” “A new best friend.” “Would you like to make some extra money?” “So popular.” “Why don’t you change into your swimwear?” “Totally cool.” “This toy literally invites total strangers into your life. But we won’t tell Mom and Dad if you don’t. Caution. Talking to strangers can be dangerous. Age verification is weak at best. Predators use this as a tool to make children. Batteries sold separately.” No. You wouldn’t buy your kids Stalkie Talkie and you wouldn’t buy them a Share Bear. But we let our kids play with the same technology every day, technology built by programmers with one goal in mind: to get your kids to stay on the app for as long as possible. “As these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed. And it actually makes them use the app more. And so they end up in this feedback cycle, where they hate their bodies more and more.” And here’s the thing, all of these manipulative technologies, they’re done on purpose. This is a feature, not a bug, a feature designed by adults to put profits over the safety and well-being of our own children. And they are damn good at it. “I think I want to get off of this thing, but then I’m just like— no, more YouTube. More Instagram. More TikTok.” But hey, these kids know what they signed up for, right? I mean, it’s all there in the terms and conditions. “OK. So starting with this?” “Yeah.” “The following restrictions apply to use of the Service.” “You’re not allowed to access, reproduce, download, distribute—” “—transmit, broadcast, display, sell—” “—license, alter, modify, or—” “—license—” “—or otherwise use any part of the Service except—” “—prior written mission from YouTube.” “What does that all mean to you?” “I have no clue what I said.” Big Tech wants you to think this is an unsolvable problem. But guess what? It’s already being addressed. This fall, a new law came into effect in the U.K. It’s called the Age Appropriate Design Code. It’s the first of its kind in the world. And it forces tech platforms to build their products from the ground up with kids in mind. The code protects kids all the way up to the age of 18 and it applies to any sites that a child might access. But here’s the big thing. It puts the responsibility of protecting children on the tech companies, not the parents or the kids. Now, look what happens in the weeks before the British bill came into law. One by one, the platforms announced big changes to their child privacy policies. This all, by the way, benefits American kids, too. You’re welcome. But it also proves the technology to protect children has existed all along. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.” The evidence is overwhelming. We shouldn’t need whistle-blowers to tell us this. The well-being of millions of children has been dismissed so a few massive tech companies and their shareholders can get rich. Big Tech must be held accountable and COPPA should be replaced with a law fit for the 21st century. But American lawmakers don’t need to invent a solution from scratch. An effective model already exists. They just need to copy it. The stakes couldn’t be higher.


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