Digital Families 2022

A recap to the conference featuring expert speakers across the worlds of technology, education, parenting and online safety.
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Published on Oct 20, 2022
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“The conversation about being online is already out-of-date”

These are the words of Vicki Shotbolt, founder and CEO of VoiceBox’s sister social enterprise, Parent Zone. As part of her keynote to kick off Parent Zone’s Digital Families conference, Vicki’s speech had an urgency to look to the future. The world of technology is constantly on the move, and we were delighted to see so many people come together to discuss how exactly we might stay ahead of the curve, when a lot of the time, we don’t even know what the ‘curve’ is going to look like. 

We often see the top names of Silicon Valley thinking ‘big’. Whether that’s space travel, driverless cars, AI with a conscience, or even having legs in the Metaverse. We at VoiceBox are excited by the prospect of some of the technological advances on the horizon. We hope that they will progress healthcare, give us a better understanding of the world beyond our own, and lessen the impending consequences of climate change, to name a few. But the desire from tech firms to reach their rose-tinted version of utopia distracts from what truly matters: that the internet, quite a lot of the time, does not adequately consider children and young people’s safety.

Why do the Zuckerberg’s of the world care more about creating a new civilisation on Mars when, as Vicki so powerfully noted, 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14? While technology isn’t entirely to blame for this, we suspect that it has, and will continue to, play a part in young people’s declining mental health. The future must work for children and young people before any whispers of profit enter the offices and meeting rooms of tech CEOs. 

This collective agreement continued onwards, with an insightful speech from Faith Rogow PhD on digital literacy. “We can approach technology with fear or imagination, end the guilt, start the education”, she concluded, with nods of understanding around the room, emitting a flicker of hope for the children and young people who so desperately need support and guidance. We would encourage anyone who is responsible for the care of a child or young person to not shy away from digital literacy. Online spaces are like oxygen all around us, and are necessary to function in most parts of society. Not addressing them is, as Faith so rightly put, “like keeping children and young people away from books, and expecting them to become great readers.”

The morning session moved on to a talk from Dr. David Zendle on financial harms. It was enlightening to see that there is still such a focus on video game monetisation, despite the loot box debate seemingly drifting in limbo between the for and against at each new turn in policy. Gaming is, without a doubt, a wonderful activity that encourages community, problem solving and teamwork. But we believe the current business model of gaming must not be accepted as the new normal. It is exploitative and notoriously unfair – known to have caused great financial harm to children and young people. They deserve to explore their favourite virtual worlds without being hounded by tactics to make extra profit. We hope that game developers continue to get adequately rewarded for their artistry and that they may work with young people to bring the industry out of exploitation and into benevolence.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking moments of the day though, were the passionate, yet alarming speeches from Dr. Elly Hanson on pornography and misogyny, and Callum Hood from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, on incel culture. Callum’s work has exposed many destructive online spaces, including dangerous incel forums actively promoting violence against women and the sexualisation of minors. Dr. Hanson spoke about the damaging effects of modern-day consent starting under the assumption of porn – the idea that our bodies are there to be used by another, rather than as a mutual connection for the purpose of appreciation, interaction and pleasure. Indeed, our own research into OnlyFans explores the influence of media-induced sex, and the effects that come from it.

VoiceBox’s Director, Natalie Foos, provided a young person’s perspective and continued the dive into these topics alongside Dr. Hanson and Callum, during ‘VoiceBox in Conversation’, where she discussed VoiceBox and the work we do to ensure young people’s voices are heard. “A lot of ‘sex-positive’ stuff I find to be abuse blind”, Dr. Hanson explained, “it’s positive about sexual scripts that are conducive to abuse.” VoiceBox’s OnlyFans report delves into this very debate. Many young people are taking back power from the commercial porn industry, and this should certainly not be ignored. But that very idea of self-generated content is encouraged in such a way that minors are being groomed into making an OnlyFans account at 18, and creators on the site are putting themselves at risk of doxxing (audiences revealing their identity) and capping (screenshotting and redistributing content) every day. When asked about how parents should talk about these difficult topics with young people, Natalie stated “it’s important to tell young people the truth”. Too often young people are fear mongered or lied to about difficult topics and that usually ends up causing more harm. 

As the conference drew to a close, we heard from Sam Sharps, from the Tony Blair Institute For Global Change, on the ‘10 uncomfortable Tech Truths’, Paul Finnis, CEO of the Digital Poverty Alliance and finally, Lord Jim Knight in conversation with Vicki Shotbolt. The urgency to look to the future was once again highlighted, whether that be the aspiration to end digital poverty by 2030, or questioning if the online safety bill will ever pass through parliament. Lord Knight, thankfully, thinks it will.

He left us with one argument to consider: just because adults use online platforms, does that mean they are right for children? A weighted question that we don’t think anyone has the answer to. The future is uncertain, and there is a lot of work to be done before the internet functions as a safe and inclusive place – but should children and young people’s fundamental right to explore and learn be taken away? The internet provides the potential for friendships that span continents, to virtually walk through a Jurassic jungle and meet a T-Rex, and gives a half hour back to parents thanks to the array of children’s shows on offer. We’ve got many of the ingredients to make a friendlier internet, and as we look to the future, we must create a recipe that puts children and young people first. 

We want to know YOUR thoughts on Lord Knight’s question. Get in touch with our team and tell us your opinion. Whether you agree or disagree, we want to hear it. 

Whether you’re here to relive the action, or experience it for the first time, watch and share the Digital Families live stream here.

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