The EU has put in place several legal measures to protect kids online and is working with Safer Internet Centres across all member countries for a better and safer internet for kids, and everyone else.
A third of all internet users are children. The European Union is working with national authorities and civil society to make sure parents and children understand the risks they face online and the steps to take if they get into trouble.
Hans Martens works at European Schoolnet, a network of education ministries whose mission it is to adapt education in Europe to the needs of ever more digital societies. As the lead for digital citizenship, Hans works closely with the European Commission on the Better Internet for Kids project and a network of Safer Internet Centres across the European Union. We sat down with him to talk about the dangers young people face online and how, with EU support, the project helps protect them.
What are the biggest risks for young people on the internet, and to what extent are parents aware of the risks their kids are up against?
For most young people the internet is a “positive story” that offers a wealth of opportunities, but things can and do go wrong. The most typical problems are cyberbullying, sexting, or exposure to harmful content.
A recent harrowing example was a child who lost his life as the result of an online choking challenge. We have been working with his parents to alert people to the dangers of this and other life-threatening online challenges.
How do the Better Internet for Kids and Safer Internet Centres keep children safe online in Europe?
The digital world moves at an incredible pace, so it’s not surprising that many parents are unable to keep up with what children and young people do online and the risks they face. That’s where we step in. We inform teachers, carers and other people working with children about these risks and the importance of making children and young people aware of them.
The Better Internet for Kids platform brings together the different stakeholders working on the problem, informs the public of the dangers, offers counselling helplines and provides the opportunity to anonymously report illegal content linked to child sexual abuse or hate speech. At the core of this effort is the network of Safer Internet Centres that educates and raises awareness among children and young people, as well as parents, teachers and professionals.
What does a Safer Internet Centre do after receiving a report of cyberbullying or harmful content?
It’s important to say that most content reported as illegal is removed in less than 3 days, according to the EU’s INHOPE network of hotlines. It becomes more complicated where harmful content is not illegal, but still causes harm.
All the big internet platforms have their own community guidelines and rules, which are often stricter than what the law requires. Often, they do a good job of protecting users from harassment and cyberbullying. Sometimes, though, we receive reports, where platforms don’t see the full picture. What might seem unproblematic on the surface could be very harmful from the child’s perspective. This is where we step in. If you’re in trouble online, you can contact the helpline for advice, and through our network and relationships we can put pressure on platforms to remove content where there is a clear need to do so.
One mother in Malta turned to the Safer Internet Centre when she discovered a compromising photo of her daughter Maria had been posted online. Thanks to their action, Facebook was contacted, and the photo was removed.
How many requests do the Safer Internet Centres receive across the EU?
We receive around 36,000 helpline calls every year, or around 3,000 per month. The hotlines also exchange around 150,000 reports of material containing child sexual abuse every year, not just within Europe.
How do you get across your message of safer internet use?
When working with young people, it is important to take a child-centred perspective and actively involve them in our activities so we develop resources that really speak to them. Our youth ambassadors are very active — going to different places, running conferences and organising events, going to schools and running online campaigns. Overall, we reach 30 million EU citizens every year through the various activities we organise.
What is the EU’s role in making the internet a safer place for everyone?
EU law plays a crucial part and there are several legal measures that protect minors online, such as the eCommerce Directive, General Data Protection Regulation, the Directive on combating sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography and the Audiovisual Services Directive.
Beyond that though, the EU’s strategy for Better Internet for Kids actually sets out a whole series of actions for online safety. At European Schoolnet, we work on behalf of the European Commission to coordinate the INSAFE and INHOPE networks, the Better Internet for Kids Platform, the Safer Internet Day Campaign and the annual Safer Internet Forum.
If you could offer one piece of advice to someone in difficulty online, what would it be?
The most important thing is to talk about the problem. If a child or young person is having a difficult time online, they need to be able to talk to someone they trust. It is up to teachers, parents, adults and professionals to make sure we create an environment where children and young people feel they are able to speak out when they encounter difficulties.
Issues can often be amplified and grow out of proportion online when content that you don’t want to be public can be seen by anyone and everyone. We don’t want people to feel alone in trying to solve the issue. As an individual, how do you go about contacting Facebook, Youtube, or any other social media company to get certain content removed? That’s why it is important to build a trusted network around every child and young person so they always have someone to talk to so they can find a solution together.