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 TheAtlantic.com reading about hagfish slime.