Why are we ignoring play in the digital world?

Prof Sonia Livingstone, director of the Digital Futures Commission with the 5Rights Foundation, says we need a national discussion of what a healthy online experience looks like for young people.

Children are spending more time online than ever before, exacerbated by the unprecedented move to digital brought on by the pandemic.

As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed plainly, platforms may be well aware of the risk their products pose to children, yet they routinely fail to implement the necessary safety measures. Most recently, we’ve seen this unravel, with the likes of Roblox and the Metaverse being called out for facilitating sexual harassment and other harmful practices.

At what point do we say enough is enough? Slowly, lawmakers are realising that these issues need addressing, influenced by the powerful testimonies of these platforms’ victims and an ever-growing public pressure to reign in the powers of big tech.

As she introduced the long-awaited Online Safety Bill in parliament in March, culture secretary Nadine Dorries said: “We risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms”. Other countries across the globe are taking similar lines.

The times for self-regulation are seemingly coming to a close. While this is to be welcomed, current regulatory approaches are too narrow-minded. While algorithms designed by data- and profit-hungry companies are turning meaningful opportunities into harmful ones, we mustn’t forget that technology can be used as a force for good. It enables children to connect with their friends, learn about the world around them, and access a whole new world of possibilities.

So, yes, to give children the best possible experiences online safety and privacy should be paramount, of course: but do children not deserve more? Begging the question: can we redesign platforms to not only protect young users, but deliver an environment where they thrive?

Recognising this, a growing strand within this new generation of tech regulation has emerged, defined by a so-called ‘By Design’ approach. Instead of endlessly responding to the problem of detrimental content, it advocates for regulators to address the problem at the root cause by forcing tech companies to redesign their products and services with wellbeing and safety as a priority rather than profit. The aim is not only to give children the safety and privacy they deserve online but also to ensure the digital environment is one where they can flourish.

Offline, the public has a vision of what good looks like – local, child-friendly, imaginative, safe places to play that are not hidden away from the world but are part of it

When advocating for a digital world that recognises children as users and caters to them and their needs, we often tend to compare what they already benefit from in the offline world, versus the online world.

Take play for example. A child playing creatively with a cardboard box puts a smile on parents’ faces. Everyone loves to recall their own childhood play outside, with muddy knees and no eye on the clock. While we always need more and better access for children to playgrounds, parks and green spaces, we don’t even recognise these places online? Do they, can they exist?

What’s the digital equivalent of playing with a cardboard box? Is it Minecraft, for instance, and if not, why not? Why can society not confidently answer such questions, several decades since the internet was invented?

Offline, the public has a vision of what good looks like – local, child-friendly, imaginative, safe places to play that are not hidden away from the world but are part of it. Places for fun, growth, sociability and, yes, a bit of risk-taking while adults keep a casual eye out in case their help is needed. These have resulted from widespread public expectations, sustained advocacy for children’s play and, vitally, public policy to engage, research, regulate and provide.

It’s time to stop blaming parents for letting their children play online and time to raise society’s expectations by providing for children’s needs in a digital world. After all, children will continue to spend considerable amounts of time online, so we need to figure out how this time can be beneficial to them instead of just bewailing it.

Safety ought to be the bare minimum

At the Digital Futures Commission, hosted by 5Rights Foundation, we are determined to give children and young people the digital world they deserve.

That’s why we advocate for Playful by Design – evidence-based guidance for product designers and developers to learn from the rich cultural history of offline play and build online spaces that are imaginative, open-ended and sociable, immersive without being compulsive, supporting children’s agency and diversity, and letting them grow and experiment without being unsafe.

Our nationally-representative survey of 6–17-year-olds found that they want digital products that are creative, age-appropriate and affordable, and that don’t inundate them with advertising, sell their data, or expose them to people in ways they cannot control.

I am not calling for a nostalgic return to pre-digital days, nor to wrap children in cotton wool so that nothing risky or immersive or unexpected can occur. But surely we can agree that regulators and designers alike should strive to create an online world that recognises children’s right to play, benefits them, and helps them to grow and develop.

Prof Sonia Livingstone OBE is a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She currently directs the Digital Futures Commission (with the 5Rights Foundation) and the Global Kids Online project (with UNICEF).

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