Evaluating the importance of digital literacy for university students, in the wake of the present online child exploitation crisis.

by Desiree Menezes, Staff Writer 

In a digital landscape, so vast and tangled, there blooms social media. But in this realm of perfectly curated snapshots, the seeds of insecurity are sown. Where true identities can be concealed and shrouded, certain threats exist to target the youth. Children’s minds are so impressionable and green, susceptible to the digital storm. Parents and educators are tasked with helping the youth separate what is real and what is fake.

Online Child Exploitation

The current online child exploitation crisis has cast a grim shadow over the digital world. With the rapid proliferation of online social media, online predators have misused these platforms to prey on vulnerable individuals- most of whom tend to be children. The most prevalent type of online crime is sextortion. This is a type of online blackmail in which malicious individuals trick people into sending explicit content, which is then held against them. Between 2022 and 2023, there was an 88% increase in sextortion reports (Cybertip, 2023). The anonymity created by encrypted communication tools makes it challenging for law enforcement agencies to regulate these online activities. 

Recently, concerned parents and Senators in the US Congress have accused these social media giants of being complicit in this ongoing crisis through the lax protocols that enable these predators. In a world where our collective dependency on social media has increased, these situations have debilitating effects on the mental health of youths. This is summarized by Sandy Chung from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “The digital world wasn’t built with children’s healthy mental development in mind” (USHHS, 2023).

Image: A Bipartisan Consensus Reached on Capitol Hill | Obtained via upsc.gov.

US Congress Big Tech Hearing

“I’m worth more than $270”. 

This phrase was reverberated on Capitol Hill; emblazoned on t-shirts of youth activists who stood in solidarity with families of victims of harassment on social media (Swant, 2024).  Internal documents from Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta demonstrated that the firm estimates the lifetime value of a teen user of their platform to be $270. This refers to the total profit the company can expect to generate from a teen user throughout their entire relationship

The CEOs of Meta, Snap, Discord, TikTok, and X (formerly Twitter), were denounced by the US Senate Judiciary Committee on January 31st, 2024 for capitalizing off the innocence of children by intentionally overlooking the harmful content available to children on these platforms.

“Mr. Zuckerberg…it appears that you’re trying to be the premier sex trafficking site… Kids are dying.” blasted Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn), who called out Big Tech’s greed for profit at the expense of the lives of children.

In Zuckerberg’s written testimony, he addressed the lack of empirical evidence linking mental health to social media by stating that the results from the Academies of Science “did not support the conclusion that social media causes changes in adolescent mental health” (Senate Judiciary, 2024).  Yet he did recognise that preemptive measures should be taken to prevent possible risks. He offered a series of substantive improvements to engender changes across the tech industry. “We have invested over $20 billion since 2016” he stated, to improve online security (Senate Judiciary, 2024). He detailed around 30 resources, including parental supervision tools and more advanced age verification technology.

Similarly, in his written testimony, Shou Chew, the CEO of TikTok Inc. reinforced his company’s ethos in their zero-tolerance approach to the online exploitation of minors. “Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a vital partner for TikTok in our work to counter online child sexual abuse and exploitation”, he wrote (Senate Judiciary, 2024). 

Despite the palpable polarisation of Democrats and Republicans in the US, there was a curious unity observed, as speakers from both parties collectively criticised these Silicon Valley behemoths, advocating for stricter policies such as the Stop Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) Act. However, although the tech execs have promised support for federal legislation, there has yet to be a consensus on the extent of support t offered. So, the current state of affairs hangs in suspense, with outcomes still unclear. 

Whose Responsibility?

On the topic of online safety for children, the most pressing question is: who shoulders the responsibility for protecting the impressionable youth from the dangers online? 

Article 13 of the UN Convention on the “Rights of the Child” recognises the rights that children possess such as freedom of expression, but they also acknowledge that children are more vulnerable to certain threats than adults (OECD, 2011).  Hence, parents are granted the authority to make decisions that align with their child’s well-being. In today’s time, this responsibility includes imparting essential digital literacy skills to their children to help them navigate the digital realm critically and to prevent them from engaging in activities that can result in harm. 

However, as observed in the recent congressional hearing, the rapid pace at which these online spaces are evolving makes it more difficult for parents to educate themselves on digital literacy while also exerting reasonable supervision over their children’s online activity. The US Senate proposed that the onus should be placed more on social media companies that have access to more extensive research to galvanize the regulatory frameworks of their platforms. 

“Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don’t mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands” (Swant, 2024) exclaimed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who voiced his concerns towards the companies, to pressure them to take a more active approach towards rectifying these gaps in online security. 

Importance of Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is the armour against the threats of online exploitation. As university students, we are studying in a generation where technology permeates into every sphere of our lives—misinformation, phishing, cyber attacks, sextortion, etc. None of us are immune to these invasive crimes. 

According to the Federal Trade Commission some essential ways to protect ourselves online is by (FTC, 2022):

  1. Keep personal information personal using strong passwords 
  2. Be wary about messages from strangers 
  3. Watch out for phishing scams 
  4. Never arrange to meet with someone you met online alone for the first time
  5. Contact Campus Safety to handle online harassment safely 
  6. Be wary of your digital footprint- be mindful of what you post on social media 
  7. Check bank statements frequently to ensure all transactions are legitimate 

As the torchbearers of the future, we have the responsibility to cultivate our digital skills; so that we may afford some help to prevent these online crimes from occurring, and to raise awareness for the younger generation.

Works Cited 

  • Big Tech and the online child sexual exploitation crisis | United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. (2024, January 31). United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/committee-activity/hearings/big-tech-and-the-online-child-sexual-exploitation-crisis
  • Blackburn to Zuckerberg, big tech CEOs: How much is a child’s life worth to you? (2024, January 31). U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. https://www.blackburn.senate.gov/2024/1/blackburn-to-zuckerberg-big-tech-ceos-how-much-is-a-child-s-life-worth-to-you
  • Five things to do to protect yourself online. (2022, November 23). Consumer Advice. https://consumer.ftc.gov/consumer-alerts/2022/10/five-things-do-protect-yourself-online
  • Government of Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (2024, February 6). Sextortion – a public safety crisis affecting our youth. Royal Canadian Mounted Police. https://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/news/2024/sextortion-a-public-safety-crisis-affecting-youth
  • Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH). (2023, May 23). Surgeon General issues new advisory about effects social media use has on youth mental health. HHS.gov. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/05/23/surgeon-general-issues-new-advisory-about-effects-social-media-use-has-youth-mental-health.html
  • Swant, M. (2024, February 1). At Senate hearing, lawmakers create new tensions with Big Tech execs. Digiday. https://digiday.com/media-buying/at-senate-hearing-lawmakers-create-new-tensions-with-big-tech-execs/
  • The protection of children online. (2011). OECD Digital Economy Papers. https://doi.org/10.1787/5kgcjf71pl28-en

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