Should We Give Kids an Internet of Their Own?

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Instead of regulating the internet to protect young people, give them a youth-net of their own.

It might be better to ban kids from the internet.

Across the West, governments are pushing for more power to regulate cyberspace even as authoritarian political parties are gaining more official power, portending a future in which what people can say online is subject to the whims of ill-meaning bureaucrats.

Often, calls for regulation and even censorship are justified by the highly defensible and probably correct anxiety that the status quo ill-serves the internet’s youngest users.

In the United Kingdom, the government in a white paper recently proposed a crackdown on any website that “allows users to share or discover user-generated content, or interact with each other online.” Its proponents cited that “the impact of harmful content and activity can be particularly damaging for children and young people, and there are growing concerns about the potential impact on their mental health and wellbeing.” And The Guardian noted “growing pressure on the government to act in the wake of the death of teenager Molly Russell,” a 14-year-old whose father believes that “exposure to images of self-harm on social media was a factor in her taking her own life.”

In the United States, cyberbullying and internet safety rank among the top concerns of parents. Their anxiety is not irrational, as Jean M. Twenge argued in a September 2017 cover story in The Atlantic on technology’s role in mental-health problems among teens.

The Washington Post has reported on ISIS’s efforts to recruit children in Western countries. “A 12-year-old German Iraqi boy—guided by an Islamic State contact in the Middle East who warmly addressed him as ‘brother’ and groomed the boy via the encrypted messaging app Telegram—built and tried to detonate a bomb near a shopping center in the western German city of Ludwigshafen,” the newspaper noted. “A 15-year-old girl—the daughter of a German convert to Islam and a Moroccan mother—was sentenced to six years in prison for an attack last February on a German police officer in Hanover. She gouged him in the neck with a kitchen knife, causing life-threatening injuries after being befriended and cajoled by an Islamic State instructor via a text messaging service.”

With each viral story about terrifying harms, political pressure for new rules that protect kids is likely to grow. Perhaps the best way forward is to try to come up with a regulatory regime that strikes the right balance between free speech for all (adults) and the well-being of children. But I’m not hopeful that society will succeed in that endeavor.

One alternative is to ban kids from the open internet, a place where the violence is more graphic than any R-rated movie, the sex is more salacious than any strip club, and the bullies get 24-hour access to kids’ bedrooms.

Of course, there are reasons society hasn’t taken that course. Kids badly want internet-connected devices. And the internet offers many benefits to young people. As the above-mentioned U.K. white paper puts it:

Most children have a positive experience online, using the internet for social networking and connecting with peers, as well as to access educational resources, information, and entertainment. The internet opens up new opportunities for learning, performance, creativity and expression … Research by UNICEF (2017) shows that use of technology is beneficial for children’s social relationships, enabling them to enhance existing relationships and build positive friendships online. A report by The Royal Society for Public Health in 2017 found that young people reading blogs or watching vlogs on personal health issues helped improve their knowledge and understanding, prompted individuals to access health services, and enabled them to better explain their own health issues or make better choices

Research by Ofcom showed that nine in ten social media users aged 12–15 state that this use has made them feel happy or helped them feel closer to their friends. Two thirds of 12–15 year olds who use social media or messaging sites say they send support messages, comments or posts to friends if they are having a difficult time. One in eight support causes or organisations by sharing or commenting on posts. In the 2019 UK Safer Internet Centre survey, 70% of young people surveyed said that being online helps them understand what’s happening in the world … 43% said they have been inspired to take action because of something they saw online, with 48% stating being online makes them feel that their voice or actions matter.

Moreover, there is a sense that, for better or worse, there’s no fighting technology––that today’s young people can be kept from the internet no more than yesterday’s young people from the printing press or television. And imagine the injustice of punishing, say, a science-loving 11-year-old, or her parents, for a session at reading about hagfish slime.

But perhaps there’s a regulatory middle ground. Here’s an idea:

  • Silicon Valley builds a new network specifically for young people— up to, say, age 15. The youth-net is huge and varied, like the internet. But its content must be similar to that of a PG movie. It emerges as the new starter internet. Allowing young kids on the actual internet comes to be seen as anomalous.
  • On the youth-net, decisions about content moderation are made with children in mind. Freedom of speech is not paramount.
  • Young people would access the youth-net via a new generation of smartphones and tablets. These new devices would block access to the actual internet. Via a password-protected companion device, parents could impose age-optimized limits on total daily screen time, total time on social-media apps, and total time on gaming apps, as well as a nightly shutoff time.
  • Social-media apps wouldn’t be available to users until they reach high-school age. Only companies that do not own social-media sites for adults would be allowed to develop child-specific equivalents, reducing the incentive to addict children to their products.
  • Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and other “adult” sites would be for ages 16 and up, with access to the adult internet and its mainstream apps replacing the coming-of-age thrill of a first car in the coming era of automated driving.

The youth-net would protect children from adult material and predatory adults while minimizing the need to police speech on the internet. The youth-net might also lead to a flowering of content for younger audiences.

As with any new development, the youth-net would have unintended consequences and imperfections. Silicon Valley, the government, and parents would still need to guard against abusers and scammers. Still, maybe a two-tiered internet—one for adults, one for the young— would be better than the existing internet, or a future, severely restricted internet. Kids with especially dumb or clueless parents might be best served.