Online Social Safety Net for Children

All parents want to protect their children in every way. It is online social media where they do not know how.

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Social media is both a boon and a bane.  Young teenagers embark on it as a must-do because it is uncool otherwise.  As they gain ‘momentum’, they become more and more adept and confident in connecting, chatting, sharing and commenting.  Some are sufficiently resilient, work at their own pace and can take things in their stride.  There are others who find it extremely stressful – checking their phones frequently for new messages, feeling a constant pressure to reply immediately and getting overwhelmed with adverse posts from others.

Let’s take the example of teenagers who are the early adaptors and more ‘proficient’ than their peers.  Googling stuff related to studies, sports and entertainment is common and frequent for them.  They are active socially and on multiple social platforms.  In fact, many of them look out for the new ‘happening’ social apps too (from Instagram to Snapchat to TikTok).  However, I doubt how much they understand about identity and data theft or online frauds, shaming, trolling and abuse.  Maybe in their late teenage years close to adulthood, they become more aware, but not when they start off.  Then what about the latter set of teenagers who are stressing already?  Where do they stand?

Cases of stress, depression, nervous breakdown and even suicide are rising globally every day.  The trend is more in societies with higher internet and smartphone penetration and social media exposure.  Schools in the USA have started suing the social media industry lately.  Governments and politicians are making new laws.  They are penalizing social media companies with hefty fines all over the world.  But is any of this a long term solution to protect our children?  These are all reactive measures after the harm has been done.  What happens to the child already traumatized?

Is there any real solution?

My boss once said – do not state a problem if you cannot come up with a solution too.  Well then, here it is and forgive me if it is too radical or over ambitious or completely impractical.  After all, we are playing high stakes here.

If the virus has come from technology, so should the vaccine.

Imagine an online registry of children where schools enter the profile information of all their students, say from standard 6 or 7 when they enter the teenage years.  Every school creates their own registry, standardized as per defined criteria, with the school having total and sole control over the data.  The only external interface is for verification requests from outside entities to check if a given profile is a child or not.

Next, imagine a law that mandates the social media industry to capture a passport-type photograph and some basic information like name, gender, date of birth, email id, mobile number and location for every user, mapping with the school registry.  This can be done at the time of signup. 

Now integrate the two.

Build an online ‘child verification exchange’ where a social app sends a request, which is routed through the exchange to the school system that responds with a ‘child or not’ reply.  Build this along the lines of stock exchanges or the Aadhaar verification system in India where transactions are fully automated with zero manual intervention.

For every ‘connect’ or ‘follow’, send a verification request to the child verification exchange.  If it is a child, allow connects and follows within the same school (or those affiliated).  If not, or if the child is an adult as per the laws of that country, allow all connects and follows.  Use photo and data mapping methods for verification (perhaps other tools and artificial intelligence too).

The ‘social media virus’ will ‘infect’ all children at some time.  Use this as a technology-enabled vaccine.

Throw kids in the water to teach them to swim… with a life jacket.

Introduce social media as a curriculum subject in senior school at the start of teenage years.  Encourage children to exchange messages, jokes and pictures.  Create teams of the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’, to post according to their defined role.  Let the teacher become an ‘outsider’ who targets specific children for their identity and data and with offensive posts.  In short, create real world social scenarios in the protected school environment.  Discuss, debate, educate and counsel bit by bit.

If planned and executed in an outcome-based structure, children will see both sides of the coin.  Today, they see only one side, which is thrilling.  This thrill motivates them to explore more, starting with friends and then with random others too.  It leaves them completely unguarded.  When we do not allow our children to venture out by themselves until they are of age, why allow them in the online world?

How can we make this work?

Just like there are regulatory compliances for the financial sector, create something similar for the social sector.  Mandate compliance for companies with over a certain number of online users, say a million.  Create a ‘children social safety net law’ at a country level.

Next, create global group of experts to define the profiling criteria and verification interface for the ‘child verification exchange’.  Standardize it like the consortium of browsers does for browsing-related technologies, with the necessary processes and security.

Then create a ‘mission mode project’ at a country level to award implementation of the exchange.  The first country that does it becomes the pioneer for its children.  When a new country comes in, integrate the exchanges between the two like the Domain Name System (DNS) works globally.

The devil lies in the details.

What I have described here is merely a concept.  If it has any merit, the details will throw up many more issues and constraints.  But if a path can be created, with changes or a complete overhaul of the concept, it will be worth it.  The big tech guys, education boards, privacy experts and governments around the world can evaluate and thrash it out.

We must remember that the social media industry is massive, employs millions and is listed on big stock exchanges.  Their business model is advertising, hence data harvesting.  Singling them out for all the ‘ills of society’ may be gratifying, but it is not a long term solution for children.  No matter how many acronyms (laws) we create like COPPA or KOSA, fixing the problem at the root will be the only permanent solution.

What every child needs is a ‘social firewall’.

Every teenager will hop on to social media sooner or later, and they will always start at the highest level of vulnerability.  We owe them an ‘online social safety net’, now more than ever, before they start ‘venturing out’.  Becoming citizens of the world is not enough today, they need to become citizens of the online world too.


Pravin Shah

Founder - Riddlock - Some things in life are public, some private and some secret. Being social and private are not mutually exclusive but two sides of the human DNA.