Putting Children at the Centre of the Digital World

Digital Media and Developing Minds Scientific Congress, Washington
September 2023

First may I say what a privilege it is to be with you at such a hugely important conference with such an impressive set of contributors.  My thanks for the generous introduction let hope I can live up to it. 

The title I chose for this keynote is ‘Putting Children at the Centre of the Digital World’ which is what we must do if we are to make the necessary change from their being survivors of a world built for adults – to claiming their rightful place as beneficiaries of the digital world.  

Some of my remarks allude to concepts in which many of you are expert and I am not.  I spent many years as a film director (more of which soon) and the last decade as a legislator and as such come to you fresh from the fight of the Online Safety Bill – which happily after 6 years in the making passed its final legislative hurdle yesterday – so will in a matter of days become UK law. My intention in stepping gingerly into your world is not to expose my own lack of expertise but rather point a spotlight on the huge relevance of yours.  A relevance that has been largely overlooked in designing digital products and services and which we need to harness if we are to put Children at the Centre of the Digital World.


Childhood is the word we use to describe the journey from dependence to autonomy, from infancy to maturity. And whilst different individual children – and different personal, social and economic circumstances – impact hugely on that journey, we have, over time, established an understanding of this transition in terms of childhood needs and childhood norms that make up a series of ‘childhood development milestones’. 

A development milestone is widely understood to be an age, or more commonly, an age range, by which certain maturities and understandings are likely to be achieved and conversely an age or age range when certain maturities and understandings are ‘unlikely’ or ‘not supposed to be’ in place. For example, whilst a child at 3-5 years is beginning to understand that others feel and experience life differently to them, they are not yet able critically to evaluate that information and will take what they are told at face value. It is not until between their 13th and 15th birthday that a child will develop a heightened sensitivity to risk; at that age some will embrace risk and some will shrink from it, but until then they are unlikely to anticipate or perhaps even see it.  

It is our understanding of the physical, neurological and emotional changes that take place during childhood that has shaped society’s response to children.   

Although we take the view that parents and those with parental responsibility offer the first line of both care for and defence of children, we have also concluded that children by virtue of their age, and the vulnerabilities associated with that age, require a broader set of inputs, privileges and protections beyond that offered by their immediate families.  These inputs include a complex but widely understood – and respected – set of social norms, educational frameworks, advisory bodies, regulatory interventions and national and international laws.

Outside the US the most recognised expression of our common understanding of the rights and privileges of childhood is the UN’s Charter on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It is the most ratified treaty in the world, with 196 signatories. The US being a glaring exception –frustrating as it is also the country home to most major tech companies.

Nonetheless the UNCRC provides a conceptual and practical framework for the idea that the state holds responsibilities to children.

In addition to the children’s rights, we design and mitigate for childhood in multiple ways across all aspects of our society. We educate, we consider paediatric medicine to be a distinct speciality and require doctors to obtain additional skills and expertise; we don’t criminalise very young children, and in the UK at least we impose a public interest test when considering prosecuting older children; we don’t allow adults to hold children to contractual obligations; we put traffic calming measures near schools; we rate films according to the developmental stages of childhood; children have special protections in the labour force; and we make it illegal for kids to smoke, drink and gamble and even take steps to protect them in environments where adults smoke, drink and gamble.

In short, the overriding understanding is that society must, above any other consideration, act in the ‘best interests’ of a child.

This reflects a global consensus that the capacity of a child to understand and act is necessarily limited by vulnerabilities and immaturities associated with their age.

The digital environment is almost unique in failing to reflect this consensus.

The digital environment

My involvement in the world of digital tech and kids started somewhat accidentally. For the first 30 odd years of my professional life, I was a movie director, both in the UK and here in the US.  Towards the later part of my film career, I started a charity that uses film to educate and ignite the imagination of school children – and as the charity grew – I was regularly in and out of schools and engaged with literally hundreds of children.  So, it was very noticeable to me, in 2012 when smartphones reached the price point that parents were willing to buy them – that the children around me went quiet.  These silent children poking away at their phones were no longer just ‘here’ – but both here and elsewhere, and I wondered what that meant. And because I was a filmmaker, I made a film; InRealLife. 

For a year I spent hundreds of hours filming in the bedrooms of teenagers – gaming, gambling, watching porn, making music, posting, preening, falling in love – witnessing many things that benefited them and many that did not.   With my camera I followed the cables, from those children’s bedrooms, under the ocean, up into New York – to server farms as big as a small town – in middle America – and then on to Silicon Valley – where I was thrown out of several of the tech HQ’s – it seemed that the dominant culture of harvesting and sharing information – did not extend to sharing with woman in the carpark with questions and a camera.   

All across America I interviewed tech leaders and commentators who universally valorised the democratising nature of the digital world characterising it as a battle against the gatekeepers – including a founding father of the internet – who explained that the utopian vision of the digital world was that all users would be treated equally.   

That statement caught me up short…arguably it changed the trajectory of my life – this was a category error – because however good it first sounds – if you treat everyone equally – then de facto you treat a child as if they are an adult.  And a child is a child until they reach maturity – not until the moment they reach for their smartphone. 

Without thinking, we had invented a technology that was increasingly becoming the organising technology of society – that did not uphold the established rights, privileges, legal frameworks, and protections of childhood – indeed it did not recognise the concept of childhood.  In that moment I understood the problems beginning to emerge in the bedrooms and lives of children I had been filming were a direct result of them being treated as adult. 

Before they have the skills, before they have the experience, and before they have the emotional capacity to make the adult judgements and choices demanded of them.  

As a 12-year-old boy once said to me.  “In the digital world I am not allowed to be a kid I am just an underage adult.  And once I have been an adult I cannot go back to being a kid offline” 

The founders’ utopian vision – of a network of open-source small holders with a chain of active and equally empowered (largely highly educated western white cis male) adult participants – had been rapidly replaced by a handful of powerful companies that immediately closed ranks making the digital environment more powerful, less responsive,  more autocratic and less accountable than the gatekeepers that they had promised to replace.

In the same brief time – the one in three participants were under 18 years old yet online they were being treated as adult.

The ‘move fast and break things’ culture had failed to anticipate that the digital world would be where much of childhood would play out which is probably why they never stopped to consider if some of the things they might break were our children.

In failing to consider children’s needs the tech sector has undermined hugely precious, cultural, social and legal norms of childhood.  Perhaps at first unconsciously, but for the last 10 years at least wittingly.   We have witnessed a denigration of the hard-won privileges and protections that a century and a half of careful consideration, research and law-making across the globe has afforded our children. In doing so the status of children, and childhood, has been changed in the plain sight of parents, media, civil society and governments. 

How they do it  

One of the most difficult things that parents, legislators, teachers and children themselves struggle with is identifying exactly what is wrong. Indeed, there is a pervasive if a little embarrassed view that we can leave it till the kids grow up because they understand the tech.  So let me quickly kill off the myth of children as ‘digital natives’ – a term which implies that they have grown up in some exotic land, which they alone understand and embrace in a manner that we adults never will.  

It has been many years since the longitudinal study, EU Kids Online (which is actually global), showed that children persistently remain on the lowest ladder of digital opportunity. Children spend the most time on a few highly commercial sites and have the least facility to understand, organise or use the information they are presented with online whilst simultaneously having the least experience of – and resources to – gather information from other sources.  

An eminent psychologist once said to me ‘Using technology with two fast thumbs cannot, in itself, be taken as evidence that a child is a creative participant in the digital environment with full literacy, citizenship and agency.’  

In plain language – just because you can use technology it doesn’t mean that you can control it! 

The idea that we can let a generation go by before we address the issue is in direct contrast to how we approach harm to children from any other sector.  It accepts and embeds the exceptionalism that the tech sector claims.  Arguing as they do that they should not be subject to the cultural and regulatory rules of society – even if they look like, operate like and make money like other corporate entities. It is Silicon Valley’s army of lobbyists who would have us believe that that while we are in a moral panic the ‘kids are ahead of the game.’ When on the contrary they are the pawns.   

A child that has ‘agency’ has the ability to make choices based on information that has been provided in a way they can understand in conditions in which that choice is meaningful. 

With that in mind let me list a ‘bundle’ of technological methods used to capture and hold attention online – particularly pervasive on gaming, streaming and social digital services where children spend the bulk of their time. This bundle variously referred to as sticky, addictive, reward loops, dark patterns, manipulative design was first listed for me by the head of IT of a major mobile phone company who referred to it as captology; the science of capturing a person’s attention by keeping them in ‘rapture’, which can include:   

  • soft rhythmic sounds or music to block out real life;
  • sharp, narrative sounds to pull user attention to what is happening on screen; 
  • bright intense light that vibrates intermittently at high speed;
  • cycles of intense activity followed by a slow end – like changing an avatar, or responding to a message, or being congratulated – only to be interrupted by something fast and even more intense to drag the user back just as they are ready to quit (this, she explained, is because if you think you are getting off, but come back at the last minute you will stay longer than if you are attached for a single exhausting session at the same pace);
  • vibrating devices;
  • Confirmation signals from peers – the heart/like/share buttons;
  • random notifications – from algorithms that feel your waning activity;
  • personal streaks – not breaking a ‘run’ irrespective of any intrinsic value in the exchange; 
  • community streaks – not breaking a ‘run’ with someone else so that you are not guilty or embarrassed, irrespective of your desire to be in contact with that person; 
  • creating false scarcity or time limits; 
  • updating with new, urgent or partially hidden information; 
  • attracting your attention with a key word or image that you have just used in another setting;
  • attracting your attention with an extreme word or powerful image;
  • attracting your attention by showing you that others in your circle are online, getting more attention, posting more, etc.;
  • the colour blue.

Colleagues, this list, though exhausting, is not exhaustive! 

Children’s developmental capacity

The impact of this rapture is non-trivial.  It is the technology behind tech tantrums, lost time colloquially known as doom scrolls, sleepless nights, diverted attention, compulsive behaviours, gaming nappies – that is for the uninitiated the incontinence diapers you put on so you don’t have to get up to go to the toilet during a gaming session – and a whole lot of conflict.  In 2017 tech related conflict rose to the top of causes of familial discord in the UK – it has stayed their ever since. 

The UNCRC in article one says a child is a person under 18.  The tech sector presides over a system in which the age of adulthood is set at 13 and practices wilful blindness to millions of children far younger than that. 

 A child, not yet fully-formed, does not have the developmental capacity to resist one or another or a combination of these pulls. The algorithms follow their behaviour on such tight loops that they can, in real time, provide the ‘exact’ personalised mix to keep them clicking.   So, if one child is more responsive to image and confirmation from peers but another responds to sharp sounds and being set challenges, each will get the loop of events that will most entice them to their own ‘personalised’ state of rapture. 

These techniques are industry norms recognisable from our own adult digital experience, but they are especially potent when deployed against children. Most importantly, they deliberately orchestrate a context in which a child cannot make a meaningful choice whether or not to engage– i.e., to exercise their right to agency. They are in the digital sweetshop, which most certainly has its pleasures but it does not provide a balanced diet.  

Being stuck in a state of ‘rapture’ is not in the ‘best interests’ of the child and the degree to which a child’s language, behaviour, environment can be mirrored and re-presented to them with no reference to or friction from familial, social, societal norms is now – with the advent of immersive worlds and increasingly sophisticated AI is almost infinite.  With a few prompts they can change their favourite pop star into a child, change what they wear or make them wear nothing at all, put words in their ‘famous’ voice and go hang out in an environment of choice – a hugely powerful experience with no known edges – and of course the reverse is true – someone, in friendship, humour or with malevolent intent can control a child’s image, voice or behaviour – in private – or in the full glare of public gaze.   

My own personal focus is on the harms created by the design norms of the system, but  it is simply a fact, that treating children as if they are adults in an advertising driven business model – means that it is in the service providers interests to give children unfettered access to content irrespective of its suitability because in an attention economy it is keeping the engagement and availability of eyeballs that matters – at any cost.  And while much is made of children accessing adult, violent or harmful material, Children report that much of that material is thrust upon them rather than searched out – and of course once it lands on their screen the rapacious algorithms set to maximise engagement – make sure it just keeps on coming – at speed, in volume and ever-increasing extremity.

Children are paying the cost of the vast rewards gained by others elsewhere. 

What is to be done

So, what we should do? 

I share the opinion of Professor Sonia Livingstone and no doubt many in this room, that it is inadequate to look at how long children are online. What we should be looking at is what they are doing online and most crucially what is being done to them. The digital world is 100% engineered, it could be anything, it does not in and of itself, have to be bad, risky, unhealthy or negative in any other way.  But it does have to be designed with children in mind. 

Almost every aspect of a child’s life is mediated by technology – their education, their entertainment, their social, sexual and familial relationships, the information that helps them understand the world around them – and increasingly also it impacts on their health, the emotional state, their diet, even their physical movements.

For many years child development, experts have referred to the three agents of socialisation; family, school, peers,- these are  the key contributors that instil in the child behaviours and values expected that define how we live with one another – socialisation happens throughout our life – but the most influential period is that of childhood – in which habits and behaviours get ingrained in ways that define who you become as an adult.  More recently it has been argued that the digital environment has become the fourth. Each one indivisible from each other – so that a child’s development is influenced by all four environments – including the digital environment.  But this is the same digital environment that is legislated to believe that a child is adult at 13, that a company can provide those same services for children who are underage without penalty, an environment which the very concept of childhood does not exist. 

Let me make clear the answer is not to kick children out of the digital environment. But the commercial environments, largely designed for adults, that demand significant levels of interaction, that normalise the spread of personal information and supercharge the most outrageous, popular and shrill material are not environments for children to spend the bulk of their time. Children are emerging from this experience sleepless, anxious, and overexposed.   

Over the last ten years myself and colleagues in parliament, in 5Rights Foundation and in the Digital Futures Commission – have drafted a general comment – formally adopted by the council on the rights of the child –  that sets out how states should interpret their responsibilities to children in relation to the digital world, introduced the age appropriate design code a standalone  data protection law in the UK, which prompted radical changes to the design of many digital products – such as the introduction of safe search as a default by google, disabling adult users private messaging children on Tick Tok and Instagram, preventing adult apps from being downloaded from the play store by children under 18 – and there will over the next few months as the law comes into maturity be  regulatory action which will further drive design change.  And as I trailed at the beginning, the UK Online Safety Bill has a new set of requirements to protection and enhance children’s online experience.  These initiatives – alongside those in other jurisdictions in Europe and far beyond – bring to an end the era of tech exceptionalism.  I would be happy to answer detailed questions on the potential impact of any of the above and on yesterday’s court decision to block similar initiative in California – but in my final moments want to return to you and your expertise. 

A couple of months ago I talked to a large group of Canadian teenagers, as we talked it emerged that I had been the architect of the law that had resulted in Tik Tok stopping notifications after 9pm for 15-year-olds and 10pm for 16- and 17-year-olds.  A young man leapt to his feet grabbed the mic and went on a eloquent rant about how it had changed his sleep his concentration his grades and as he spoke all the others gave a standing ovation.  I don’t tell you this to bask in the glory – although I will admit it was a very lovely moment – rather to make the point.  In this room there are many of you that will have an extraordinary detailed understanding of what sleep means to a teenager’s emotional and physical wellbeing, there are others who may prefer to think about the young man’s lack of agency and what feelings he might have about being unable to resist the call of something he knows is harming him but whose pull he can’t resist, maybe some of you will be considering how busy childhood is and how unreasonable hold that Tik Tok had on this young boy represents an opportunity cost of physical, educational, social and other experiences essential to development and growth …. And maybe someone else is thinking about the educational implications – if a teacher can only teach as fast as the slowest – or is that the tiredness – person in the class then how does one young man’s night on TikTok impact on the rest of the class? 

The logic of fixing the digital world for kids is not a mystery –it flows directly from what you in this room already know, from your understanding of what children and young people need on their development journey.  And having established what they need seeing what features of technology get in the way.  And articulating why we should get rid of those things that are hurting and trapping kids, rather than once again ask them to adapt to the adult features of the digital world.

The solutions lie in rebalancing the asymmetry of arms between an individual kid in their bedroom trying to deal with the complex task of growing up while the most powerful companies in the world are hawking their attention in ever smaller fractions of a second to ever more millions of buyers with increasingly sophisticated pulls.

The persistent idea that each era of new technology is ahead of what we understand, is part of the deliberate narrative to exempt the sector from regulatory or moral responsibility. While we have different legal systems and regulatory environments, I can assure all US citizens that the safety by design measures being pursued in Europe are no more than the industry norms of any other sector – which is to say – they require products to be safe for the consumer. And that the companies are beginning to do the work to comply—a different digital world is possible.

And society must play its part.  It is a stark fact that not every child has an engaged parent, a loving parent or indeed a parent at all. In a 21st century children need (and want) access to the digital world, but they need it on new and improved terms.

Those terms must reflect the sates of development and make demands appropriate to their age; and above all ensure that children have ‘agency’ – meaningful choice in an environment that is responsive to, and respectful of, their full complement of rights and needs as children.   

Many times, over the last decade I get to the end of a speech like this and the first question is what services are ok for kids? or how long should they be online?  I don’t have the answers for those questions but I also would suggest they’re perhaps impossible to answer.  What I hope you find yourself discussing over the next few days of this conference – is what fundamental needs children have at different stages of childhood, and how do the services and products that they are using need to adapt to meet their needs. 

Until it is an industry norm to develop products that meet children’s needs then a billion children online are simply clickbait toiling in the fields of Silicon Valley. It must not be left to children to adapt to a digital world designed for adults and disdainful of their rights and needs but rather build the digital world that children deserve – one algorithm at a time – anything less is an erosion of childhood itself.

And I repeat this is a 100% engineered environment – it can be anything it wants to be.   

Thank you all for what you have already done in your work.   

And thank you for what you are going to do.