Protecting Children Online: Different Stakeholder Perspectives—the Global Leadership Seminar on Child Protection

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Building off of conversations that began in earnest yesterday afternoon, day two of the Seminar’s focus on technology and child protection trained the participants’ attention acutely on the issue of protecting children online. To start off the morning, Seminar participants heard a variety of perspectives: international and public, local and private. These presentations and follow-up discussions put a number of key issues on the table, and drew out the tensions between empowerment v. control in child online protection.

Su Wenying, a child protection officer and researcher at UNICEF China, began with an overview of ongoing debates about children and the internet. Moving beyond a narrow, negative definition of child online protection as “keeping children free from violence, abuse, and exploitation on the internet,” Ms. Su encouraged us to adopt a broader, positive definition that focuses on fostering “safe and sensible internet use to ensure that the full potential of a child can be fulfilled.” This shift from thinking about child online protection as protecting children from something to thinking about child online protection as protecting children for something recognizes how the internet is an embedded and inevitable part of children’s lives. With this goal in mind, Ms. Su then defined and unpacked numerous risks posed by the internet. These challenges range from traditional focus areas like content, to emerging areas of concerns like privacy, as well as digital divides both between and within countries. In accordance with her positive definition of child online protection, Ms. Su encouraged participants to not panic, and instead to work with children to find ways to achieve the internet’s potential for good.

Equipped with this overview, Roan Chong and Liu Zhiyi (two representatives from Byte Dance, the parent company of Tik Tok) provided a view from the private sector. Moving from general to specific, Mr. Chong discussed the various ways in which TikTok has tried to better protect children. Through features like screen management time, restricted modes, and parental controls, Tik Tok’s approach largely centers around empowering the individual users and/or their guardians to better protect themselves. One interesting tool Mr. Chong introduced is Tik Tok’s “common filter” feature. Allowing users to choose words they do not want to see in their communities, common filter is meant to serve as a more flexible, user-driven approach to content control.

Zhang Chao of BCLARC then presented a briefing of the Center’s research into the different child protection measures used by prominent technology companies in the Chinese market, such as Tencent, Apple, Vivo, and Samsung. While the research is ongoing, the presentation of preliminary findings supplemented the morning discussion by providing additional examples beyond Tik Tok. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the methods and tools employed by these large market players are very similar to each other, even across companies and platforms.

Following these initial presentations, the Seminar participants engaged our guests in a lively Q&A. Most of the questions were directed towards Tik Tok and the difficulties they have faced in countries outside of China. This back and forth raised a number of important general questions for the Seminar to continue considering. Namely, how effective are tools that depend on child self-control and parental involvement? When looking at the technology giants: what should we learn from their approaches, but perhaps more importantly, how can we be creative in ways that move beyond the status quo? And ultimately, what values should the internet be helping us to fulfill? How do we draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable, and what do we do about a line that is almost always fuzzy and surrounded by gray areas?

Interspersed into the Q&A session was a brief presentation by Tong Lihua, which offered one practical suggestion about how to address these big questions moving forward. In his presentation, Mr. Tong stressed the need for continued cooperation and collaboration in the child online protection space. This cooperation is especially important in an area in which those making the policies and working on the issues do not understand the technology as well as those using and building them. And in the spirit of the Seminar, he emphasized that cooperation does not have to be restricted to national boundaries, but can occur cross-nationally as well.

After the lunch break, the participants shared about their respective countries’ child online protection efforts, with a focus on laws and policies. While implementing these laws and policies often require joint efforts from various stakeholders, a few presentations especially highlighted the role of business and NGOs. On the business side, Jinhye Lee shared a best practice juvenile protection policy from Daum, a South Korean web portal. Similarly, Viola Yego discussed how private mobile companies like Telco have signed onto the Kenya Child Online Protection Industry Charter, and Bolortsetseg Burneebaatar explained how two of the three major Mongolian internet service providers have adopted policies to improve child online protection. 

Among the many NGO examples, Mariya Brestnichka shared about the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre’s Cyberscouts program, which provides interactive trainings and competitions for 12- and 13-year-olds to learn about safe internet use. Believing in the importance of learning with peers and from peers, Cyberscouts also lets children alumni return and lead trainings. For Cambodia, Sean Sok Phay highlighted how the work of NGOs like Child Helpline Cambodia gain added significance in his country, which has no general child protection law and almost no laws even indirectly touching on child online protection.

After the presentations, the Seminar participants discussed their takeaways and lingering questions. In particular, the participants considered the similarities and differences between their systems as a helpful step in thinking about how to advocate for improvements in their own countries. Following a full day of discussions, presentations, and learning, the Seminar took a break for the evening, and participants moved on to a dinner filled with more conversations and authentic Chinese hotpot.

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