Our kids absolutely need stringent protection online

Today’s kids had their lives turned upside down during the pandemic.

Lockdowns turned them into involuntary pioneers of en masse online schooling.

There is no doubt big tech performed a crucial role in keeping kids’ education going.

But there was a sinister side to it. It pervaded every aspect of their lives.

We have to acknowledge that the online experience of children during the pandemic was not universal.

Children from poorer backgrounds struggled with a lack of technology and isolation.

Others had a positive experience, connecting with new people they may not have crossed paths with under normal circumstances.

But it was also a dangerous time with a large number of kids bullied, groomed or traumatised by adults and anonymous peers.

Despite our best efforts, some children were unsupervised in a digital playground during Covid. No guardrails. No safety within the school boundaries.

But with the sudden lockdowns, things had to happen quickly and, in that haste, boundaries became porous or even non-existent.

Keeping some routine in our kids’ lives, making sure they kept learning were priorities for parents but we unwittingly sold their privacy.

The apps that allowed them to learn at home not only knew how they performed academically but found out about their friendship groups, their sexuality, their musical movie and clothing tastes and their hopes, fears and insecurities.

Big tech has little interest in retreating from the position they firmly hold in the lives of our young people.

There is big money in the sale of data that has been harvested online, and the tech companies are not about to give that up.

When it comes down to social media companies aren’t what you’d describe as altruistic. I can’t recall a time they have sacrificed market share or revenue because they had done something beneficial for society.

It would appear they have a very loose understanding of the concept of ‘duty of care’ particularly when it comes to their young users?

There is a clear demand in the community to understand and address experiences of online bullying and harassment and mental health impacts on younger Australians.

Meanwhile, children have access to violent, extreme forms of pornography and misogynistic content that is detrimental to their mental wellbeing and fuels harmful attitudes about women and girls.

There seems a real inconsistency in the arguments that any restrictions on access to social media are an attack on free speech.

We have accepted and know instantly what G, PG, M, or R means when we are choosing a movie.

We know there are rules relating to offensive language in tv shows if they are shown before what is generally considered a child’s bedtime.

There are rules around advertising junk food, gambling and what we consider sensitive or adult content during kids’ shows.

We’ve introduced laws to stop our children getting nicotine vapes.

And laws for bike helmets, swimming pool fences, baby capsules and child car seats and safety standards on a range of other products to keep children safe in the event of an accident.

Just as we have rules for the traditional media environment, we need rules for the social media environment – particularly when you consider the type of content being dished up to our kids on the internet.

I am proud to be part of a Government introducing a suite of online measures to try to remedy this problem.

The Prime Minister and my ministerial colleagues Amanda Rishworth and Michelle Rowland have worked hard to bring this initiative to fruition.

Minister Rowland announced last week she had updated the Basic Online Safety Expectations Determination.

Among the additional new expectations is a requirement that best interest of the child is a primary consideration in any services likely to be accessed by children.

In addition, the Minister is taking forward a pilot of age assurance technology to protect children from harmful content, like pornography and other age-restricted online services.

There will be a pilot of age assurance technology to protect children from harmful content, like pornography and other age-restricted online services.

The outcomes of that pilot will inform the existing work of Australia’s eSafety Commissioner under the Online Safety Act. That will include the development of industry codes or standards.

The Government will also introduce legislation that makes clear that creating and sharing sexually explicit material without consent, using technology like artificial intelligence, will be banned and subject to serious criminal penalties.

The Albanese Government is not waiting another moment. We are taking action.

But we, as individuals and as parents, don’t have to wait to nurture our children’s critical thinking when it comes to their online lives.

We can be part of the broader solution by lead by example. By making it our business to be media literate.

We can start with the simple statement that there are many opinions but only one fact.

We can still respect people’s right to their own opinion but must be clear that they are not entitled to their own facts.

We must understand and address the information, disinformation and misinformation our children are exposed to an guide them towards news sources they can trust.

It is within our control to educate ourselves and encourage our children to seek out quality news and to spot fake news.

There is no going back to the pre-mobile phone, pre-iPad, pre-internet days.

But we cannot allow the digital world to dictate the way our kids interact, compare themselves to others, set false expectations for their lives or manipulate their perception of reality.

Tech has to work for our kids and not the other way around.