Big Tech Is Failing Young People, But It Doesn’t Have To

Young people are using technology at higher rates than ever. In 2018, 95 percent of teens reported having access to a smartphone. Due to the increase in accessibility, there has also been a growing concern from parents as to what kids are being exposed to online.

We have all seen the recent headlines about social media platforms like Gab, Twitter and Facebook enabling the spread of “fake news” and allowing white supremacist networks to grow. As a sex educator, I often think about this and the all-too-familiar fear of kids being exposed to cyberbullying, explicit materials and violent imagery. Parents are right to be concerned.

However, instead of shying away from technology, which kids are increasingly relying on as their main source of information and way to communicate with peers, we should tap into this powerful tool as an ally. Let’s use technology to build open and honest relationships between parents and kids and create a new avenue to talk about the things young people will inevitably see online. We can turn to technology to find tips and tools that help answer questions kids have about their bodies, sex, and the world in general.

In an attempt to calm the public, tech companies are scrambling to deploy algorithms and protocols to moderate what young people can access. But these computer-run content moderation algorithms, such as Apple’s new iOS parental controls, actually block young people from accessing vital sex ed resources, while allowing them to view reddit discussions of explicit porn and white supremacy. Facebook is also taking steps to address its policies that allowed false news to spread through the site, but was recently unable to verify the source of several political ads and fake news was still widely found throughout the site. Although these efforts from tech companies are admirable, we have to focus on enabling parents and children to communicate when these things happen.

Technology is a tool, not a stand-in for relationships and meaningful content. And while we are often wary of the impact it has on our children, there is so much good it can do! We have seen the rise of online education resources for students to learn on their own, like Khan Academy and the growing library of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). There has also been a plethora of new connected care technologies which help children with disabilities more easily engage in recreating activities. Kids are even being challenged to develop their own digital solutions to the world’s problems with various app-building competitions, including the Congressional App Challenge and the Rural Youth App Challenge.

When it comes to health, the internet needs to be a place where young people can find accurate, honest information about sex — not be blocked by a filter that can’t distinguish between healthy curiosity about why wet dreams occur and a search for pornographic content. Over the last two years my organization,  Advocates for Youth, has teamed up with Youth Tech Health and Answer to create, an engaging, age appropriate, online sex ed video playlist for 10-14 year olds. Young people deserve access to honest, online sex ed resources, like AMAZE, and we should invest our energies in developing and creating more of these types of tools.

As adults, parents, and educators, we should encourage tech companies to lean on experts as they develop new ways for young people to engage safely online. There is a big need and space for sex educators, parents, and young people themselves, with a diverse set of identities to tackle this issue head on and help develop the tools they need to become informed in the aspects most relevant to their lives.

The lack of humanity in tech isn’t happening in a vacuum, of course. We are fighting for our lives every day under an administration that doesn’t believe transgender people deserve civil rights and protections, separates refugee children and families, and insists on abstinence-only miseducation which leads to more teenagers with unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Like “tech,” the Trump administration is not a faceless institution. Both should be held accountable and be more responsive to the needs of the American people, and both need an injection of humanity in order to put the mental health and general well-being of our young people first.

Debra Hauser is the president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit working alongside thousands of young people in the United States and around the globe as they fight for sexual health, rights and justice.

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