Discussing the European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children

From Monday, 11 to Wednesday, 20 May 2020, COFACE Families Europe is marking the International Day of Families 2020 by hosting Digital Citizenship Breakfast Bytes, a series of eight 90-minute online sessions (from 9:30-11:00 CET) aiming to increase critical thinking and understanding of the digital world. Named "European Safer Internet Strategy post-2020: key trends and priorities", the Breakfast Byte of Wednesday, 13 May 2020 focused on the European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children, which is currently under revision.

June Lowery-Kingston, Head of Unit at the Directorate-General of Communications Network, Content and Technology (DG CNECT) at the European Commission (EC), presented the EC framework, while Karl Hopwood, e-Safety Consultant for Insafe at European Schoolnet (EUN), discussed concrete actions carried out by the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres (SICs).

June Lowery-Kingston started her presentation by looking at all the positives and opportunities digital technologies bring to young people's lives. She then moved on to introduce how children and young people's safety in the digital environment is being distributed across the 2019-2024 College of Commissioners, in which 10 Commissioners have been assigned portfolios and mission letters in relation to the topic. She mentioned in particular the role of Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market, who has been tasked with contributing to the update to the Digital Education Action Plan (DEAP) to equip young people with the skills needed for the digital age; and of Dubravka Šuica, Commissioner for Democracy and Demography, who is responsible for setting up a comprehensive strategy on children's rights, including in the digital environment.

For the Commission's Work Programme, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has set out six objectives in her agenda for Europe – all encompass the theme of young people in the digital world in their own way.

The European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children, adopted in 2012, is based on four pillars:

  1. High-quality content online for children and young people – This entails stimulating the production of creative and educational online content for children and promoting positive online experiences for children.
  2. Stepping up awareness and empowerment – This line of work concerns digital and media literacy, the teaching of online safety in schools, the scaling up of awareness activities and youth participation, and the development of simple and robust reporting tools for users.
  3. Creating a safer environment for children online – To attain this objective, the implementation of age-appropriate privacy settings, the wider availability and use of parental controls, the wider use of age rating and content classification, and the concerns related to online advertising and overspending need to be addressed.
  4. Fighting against child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation – This consists of allowing for faster and systematic identification of child sexual abuse material, and for reinforced cooperation with international partners to fight child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and child sexual exploitation.

While the first and second pillars aim to empower children in the digital world, the third and fourth strive to protect them. Overtime, as digital technologies have evolved, there has been a shift from shielding children from online risks, to helping them grow up and become confident and proactive digital citizens. This will be reflected in the revised Strategy for a Better Internet for Children. The 2012 strategy stood the test of time, but some gaps were identified such as the lack of reference to children's health, or children's digital rights.

Currently, the European Commission's framework to empower and protect children in the digital age consists of the aforementioned strategy, but also of regulations and rules – such as the Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, some articles in the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that specifically address minors, and the new Digital Services Act. This framework also consists of funding, through which the EC enables the coordination of the European Safer Internet Centres (SICs) in the Insafe-INHOPE network, and the maintenance of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) public portal. Finally, the EC pursues the objectives set out in the 2012 strategy through cooperation with Member States, with industry through the Alliance to better protect minors online, and with civil society organisations.

June Lowery-Kingston mentioned in particular the #Pledge2Youth initiative, a call from the BIK Youth Ambassadors to tech companies to come up with age-appropriate terms and conditions, and privacy policies. The youth participation element was part of the Strategy for a Better Internet for Children from the outset – talking with young people, not at young people. No other generation before has ever been faced with the challenge of having a digital record.

Karl Hopwood then introduced the work of Safer Internet Centres, the latest trends and challenges in the field of children's online safety, and the network's response to the increased demand for online safety guidance in times of COVID-19.

Insafe is a network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs) around Europe, with each covering four strands:

  • Awareness centres work regularly in schools, with parents, teachers, social care providers, and church and voluntary groups to raise awareness and understanding of safer internet issues and emerging trends.
  • Helplines provide information, advice and assistance to children, youth and parents on how to deal with harmful content, harmful contact (such as grooming) and harmful conduct such as cyberbullying or sexting.
  • Hotlines – coordinated by INHOPE – exist to allow members of the public to report illegal content, including child sexual abuse material (CSAM) anonymously. There is a lot of overlap between the work of helplines and that of hotlines, called grey areas – hence the importance of collaboration between the two strands.
  • Youth panels allow young people to express their views and exchange knowledge and experiences concerning their use of online technologies, as well as tips on how to stay safe. They also advise on internet safety and empowerment strategy, help create innovative resources and disseminate online safety messages to their peers.

There are different kinds of helplines within the network: 18 general helplines (those that do not focus their work solely on online issues) and 12 helplines focused on online safety. Despite the remote working conditions induced by the COVID-19 outbreak, several helplines have managed to expand their opening times.

Insafe helplines collect data on a quarterly basis. Their role is to provide information and assistance on online safety issues, and also to inform the work of awareness centres, providing an "early warning system". The data is available to anybody, updated regularly, through the BIK portal.

The biggest group to contact Insafe helplines is young people aged 12-18, accounting for 61 per cent of all calls in the latest data – a constant trend ever since data collection began. Despite the fact that we're all increasingly digitally connected, helplines are still primarily contacted by phone, which represented 37 per cent of all contacts in the first quarter of 2020. Between the last quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020, contacts by phone have dropped from 50 per cent to 37 per cent – a decrease which can perhaps be explained by the fact that children and young people are in lockdown and are therefore less likely to find a quiet place from which they can call, instead opting for electronic contact.

Concerning the reasons for contacting helplines, the data has remained fairly stable over the last five years, with the top reason being cyberbullying. Part of the reason as to why it is so high is because unintentional cyberbullying is taken into account – young people are distressed by something funny online because they misinterpret it as being offensive. Other key reasons for contacting the helplines include love, relationships and sexuality online, sexting, and sextortion. Altogether, topics related to sexuality (grooming, sexual harassment, sextortion, e-crime, sexting, love, relationships and sexuality online) account for 24 per cent of all contacts.

Helplines provide counselling support, referring callers to other services or helplines, providing support with removing content and taking control of privacy settings (thanks to a good relationship between helplines and industry players), or supporting callers with talking to parents or law enforcement agencies. They also provide support in the form of peer counselling services and empowerment.

As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, helplines have seen an increase in the number of calls, which has almost doubled in the last month for some helplines. Contact reasons are also becoming more specific as a result of the ongoing situation: domestic abuse, sextortion scams through fake accounts, sexting, mental health issues, family relationship breakdown, fear of parental illness, and increased viewing of pornographic/adult content. Another trend linked to the current situation is that chats are lasting longer, enquirers have more detailed requests, and some callers are returning multiple times.

Digital technologies have become an absolute lifeline during the pandemic, with a 50 per cent increase in internet traffic in some European countries. Meanwhile, concerns regarding children's screen time are diminishing. There are, however, some major challenges brought about by COVID-19, such as cybercrime, which has strongly increased as a result of people spending more time online. There has also been a resurgence of "old" scams (such as emails from supposed hackers claiming that they have been watching the victim via their webcam and hold compromising material). This sudden rise in cybercrime is well illustrated by the fact that Google has been blocking 18 million coronavirus-related scam emails every day. Disinformation has also become a major online safety concern; users need to be careful before sharing content in order to avoid contributing to the phenomenon as well as to the ongoing "infodemic".

Karl Hopwood concluded by introducing the Better Internet for Kids portal to participants, focusing on the COVID-19 content offered – a wealth of resources produced by Safer Internet Centres in the Insafe network in response to the pandemic, classified by country and by theme, available on betterinternetforkids.eu.

To learn more about the COFACE Families Europe Digital Citizenship Breakfast Bytes, including the session which will be hosted by BIK Youth Ambassadors on Wednesday, 20 May, please visit coface-eu.org.


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