Positive online content: An interview with M Schmalzried (COFACE)

"Positive online content isn't some sort of digital nanny: in order to make the most of it, parents and carers should explore it with their kids."

Date 2017-09-27 Author BIK Team, Martin Schmalzried

It's only natural that parents want what is best for their children, but navigating through the sheer amount of online content and services targeted at younger users to ensure they remain safe, while at the same time stimulated, informed and empowered, is no easy task.

For these reasons, the third day of the Positive Online Content Campaign (POCC) Awareness Week is aimed directly at parents and carers, hoping to provide some insight into what they should be looking for in online services/apps/content that is respectful of their children's needs and learning capacities.

On this occasion, the BIK team met up with Martin Schmalzried, Policy Officer at COFACE Families Europe to provide some insight and tips to parents and carers in terms of positive content. Read on to find out how our discussion went.

BIK: Martin, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Before we start, could you tell us a little about yourself, your organisation and the associations you work with?

Hi everyone, my name is Martin and I work as a Policy Officer at COFACE Families Europe, an umbrella NGO with many members across Europe trying to protect families' rights. Our main activity consists of lobbying with European institutions, advocating for better policy aimed at protecting families, as well as protecting children's rights online. We equally have our own projects, such as "Delete Cyberbullying", a project aimed at preventing cyberbullying in schools.

BIK: Great, let's dive straight in with the subject of positive online content for children. What is positive content to you, Martin… or, perhaps, what isn't positive content in your opinion?

Positive online content is a delicate thing to define. I would define it as digital content aimed at children which must fulfil certain criteria based on child development research and on certain qualities and principles it should help to develop in the child. Therefore, all digital content that develops these type of traits, linked to healthy child development, is useful and positive. What kind of traits am I alluding to? It's empathy, democratic participation, creation, social and emotional learning, resilience or simple entertainment - which is also an important part of positive online content. But all of this should be put into context: even with an example of positive online content in front of them, left by themselves online, with no parent to guide them, children may not draw the same benefits from positive content.

And as far as "harmful content" is concerned, I am looking forward to having a harmonisation in terms of what gets defined as "harmful". This will hopefully be resolved with the EU's new Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVSMD).

BIK: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for parents with young children in our digital society?

I think there are multiple types of challenges parents are faced with nowadays when it comes to online content. First off, there are clear structural ones brought about by the sheer vastness of the internet: there's so much out there and it is hard to know where to start.

Paradoxically enough, at the same time there is also the opposite, brought about by the restrictive nature of services such as Facebook, Google, and so on which limit one's world views through their customisation of content, hence preventing users from seeing the whole picture. On top of all this, there are equally the wider, systemic kind of problems related to the lack of time available for working parents to spend with their kids. This is equally one of the cruxes of our activity, for which we advocate all year round: developing policies that give parents time; that is, more time to spend with their children. And this can only be achieved through a more satisfactory work-life balance.

BIK: As a new parent, how optimistic are you about the current state of digital products/services/apps for children nowadays? Could you perhaps also provide some examples of these digital products/services/apps which qualify as positive content?

Working in the field and therefore knowing where to look for good online content, this might be a bit of a truncated view but, as a new parent, I feel very optimistic about the current and future state of online content for kids! I think in this respect, we're on a good track: it's enough to think of the huge open source movement to be in a good mood! Let's take the example of Minecraft which started off as the initiative of just one passionate developer and ended up blowing up completely, sparking so much creativity, building skills and so on. Or Portal for instance, the puzzle-platform video game: it's absolutely mind opening!

And there are so many other good initiatives out there. Take Wikipedia for instance, which contains an insane amount of information for free, or coding initiatives for kids such as Scratch, which is a language openly developed for helping children learn how to code.

There are just so many great things out there, that's why I'm really excited for my child to grow up and immerse herself into all of that!

BIK: Do you foresee any major developments in the positive content landscape in the near future? If so, what would they be? Wishful thinking is acceptable, by the way!

What I would really like to see is more effort put into the education-to-democracy side: learning democratic ideals, principles of decision making, autonomy, participation, and so on which I feel is still missing. Of course, nowadays you can share so many things online, but there isn't really a tool that allows children to interact with each other, collectively decide on things, and learn the democratic ideals of debating and discussing.

I feel this is something which the decentralisation movement might help with: blockchain technology, for instance, allows for these kind of interactions, free from any centralised control, in which people have to make their own decisions. Or Mastodont for example: it's an alternative to Twitter, where people can build their own servers and communities and decide autonomously how to interact with each other. I think these are the ideals that are really necessary in today's society: building a democratic culture and also building digital citizenship for the future where you have more power over the services you use. It is this participatory instinct that is absolutely key for the development of democratic societies.

BIK: In your opinion - and experience - how can parents play their part in building a better online environment for their children?

My first piece of advice would be for them to put their money where their mouth is. By supporting the services that they find really useful, by participating, by getting involved and, if they really like it (as is the case with Wikipedia), by making donations to keep the services free, available to all without advertising and community generated. Therefore, if they really find content worthy for themselves and for their children, I would advise them to support it in any way they can: either by spreading the word, or by making small donations. Ultimately, this is how we can shape the internet and avoid waking up to a future of a commercial and advertising-filled bubble which tries to extract money from kids.

Each of us can personally contribute to creating an open source, shared internet, in which people who create something truly positive and get properly rewarded for their good work.

BIK: And finally, do you have any tips and tricks for parents when it comes to choosing and using positive content for their children?

In terms of tips and tricks, I would invite parents to use the various online repositories of content available such as the Positive Online Content Campaign (POCC) minisite on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal. It's a great starting point for tracking down positive online content for kids. I would also recommend staying in touch with organisations such as COFACE, which host portals for parents where they can exchange and share whatever content they found useful for their kids. I'd also mention expert websites, such as Common Sense Media, which select the best content for children (apps, websites, and so).

Apart from these excellent online tools, my last piece of advice would be to encourage parents to spend as much time as they can with their kids. Because, ultimately, positive content is not some sort of digital nanny - children need to be accompanied, to experience the digital environment together with their parents, to share and discuss about what they have learned. That, for me, is how you get the best and most out of positive online content!

To find out more about the Positive Online Content Campaign, visit the POCC minisite on the BIK portal and check out the repository of positive online content examples from across Europe. Take a look also at the criteria checklist and apply the principles within it to your own searches of positive content for your kids. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter @Insafenetwork and stay updated about the campaign using #positivecontent.

Help us spread the word about positive content for children and help us provide better experiences for your kids!

Watch the full interview below:

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