Everyone is talking about the Age Appropriate Design Code – so how will this upcoming legislation protect our children online?

Last month, after lenthy campaigning, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) released their much anticipated Age Appropriate Design Code. You may have heard about this groundbreaking initiative, currently under consultation until 31st May 2019. But what exactly is it and why does it affect you?

Aimed at providers of social media platforms, content streaming services, online games, apps, devices, search engines and other websites, it outlines a code of practice for online services ‘likely to be accessed by children in the UK’. Through a set of 16 robust standards it ensures that the best interests of the child are the primary condition during the design and development phase. In doing so, it paves the way for parents and children to make informed choices and exercise control. This is vital, since many online services frequented by children were initially designed with adults in mind, well before the advent of new technologies when significant legislation around data protection and consumer rights enabled these services to bypass basic online safeguarding principles. It is worth noting also that the code is not restricted to services specifically directed at children, but are nonetheless likely to be used by under-18s, so even if the service claims to target adults, documented evidence is required to demonstrate that children are not likely to access the service in practice.

Why am I so excited?

As educators we have come a long way in raising awareness of risk and empowering pupils, parents and carers with strategies to stay safe online as part of our duty of care. Yet we all know that children are only as safe as the environment they occupy – their online world is a little like William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’, the only difference being that here they inhabit a virtual island, unregulated and lacking in adult supervision, where they are unwittingly manipulated into forfeiting their personal information by entities masked behind the anonymity of their screens. A recent report by the Norwegian Consumer Council, Deceived by Design, warns that many big tech companies currently employ psychologists to design ‘sticky’ environments that nudge children to spend more time online and thereby generate greater profits. Tactics often used include the use of ‘dark’ patterns, or tricks incorporated in web and app design to encourage them to make choices they may not have intended to, like buying or signing up for something.

So last year when a group of pupil cybermentors at Greenford High School were invited to partake in a focus group by Revealing Reality, commissioned by the ICO to inform the Code’s development, I was thrilled. Their concerns were evident from the start, ranging from a lack of clarity around default privacy settings on social media, and the adult terminology used in terms and conditions notices, to confusion about how their data was being used and indirect ways their location and personal information could be tracked. Many also pointed out the varied strategies employed to extend their time online, such as positive feedback loops, reward cycles and forfeiting points if they paused in the middle of a game. Some pupils also admitted compromising these concerns, believing they had to agree to certain terms at the cost of missing out on these services altogether, in order to socialise and benefit from the apps their peers used. Seeing that their voices along with several others nationally have not only been heard but taken on board in shaping this vital piece of legislation is therefore great news.

A summary of the 16 standards from the code

So what does the Code mean?

You can access the entire document here – but I’ve taken the liberty of summarising key recommendations and significant nuggets that you will find useful for your discussions with pupils and parents below. These include, but are not limited to ensuring providers take responsibility for:

  • Establishing a high privacy default setting on all sites
  • Introducing robust age verification checks on platforms or treating all users as children
  • Limiting how children’s personal data is collected, used and shared
  • Disabling geolocation tools by default and providing an obvious sign for children when tracking is active, which must default back to off when each  session is over
  • Removing targeted advertising as standard, unless there is a compelling reason not to
  • Discouraging ‘nudge’ techniques from inciting children to engage in a certain way and keep them online for longer. Examples include Snapchat ‘streaks’ or Facebook ‘likes’, luring them to click on preferred options through use of more prominent buttons, colours or fonts, or making it ‘difficult’ to manage their choices. Instead of driving users to share personal data, guidelines require providers to ‘nudge’ children towards healthy behaviours such as taking screen breaks
  • Ensuring privacy information, terms and condition are concise, transparent and in age-appropriate language, with bite-sized explanations about how data is used at the point of access
  • Requiring companies to show that all staff involved in the design and development of services likely to be used by children comply with the code of practice.

And that’s not all – it will be statutory, with companies facing legal action for failing to comply, and fines of up to £18 million or 45% of annual turnover for serious breaches of data protection in line with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

It’s worth noting that critics have pointed out that in treating everyone like children, the code invariably undermines user privacy by requiring the collection of credit card details or passports for every user, and is an attack on the business model of online news and many other free services, making it difficult to target advertising to viewer interests.

And whilst there are areas for clarification, I remain optimistic, and hope this has inspired you to discuss this ground-breaking code with your pupils – after all it will affect them and their insights are critical – so please collate their views, and respond to the consultation here. The safeguarding of our children online can only be effectively addressed through collective social mediation and critical thinking, focusing on the impact of online behaviour and environments. This requires a commitment by industry to take responsibility for safer online environments through improved design and monitoring, together with an inclusive and collaborative approach to education, with the child’s best interest at the heart of this. Furthermore, as technology rapidly evolves, it is vital for policy makers to keep abreast of these developments. Only then can we take an informed and consistent approach in addressing online risk, enabling young people to safely maximise the wealth of opportunities afforded by technology.

Introducing Mubina Asaria, our New Online Safeguarding Consultant – May 2019

Hello and welcome to my first blog post at LGfL! I’m honoured to have joined the DigiSafe centre of excellence in safeguarding and look forward to sharing our latest developments, top tips and best practice to support you in your role safeguarding young people online.

Mubina Asaria

Some of you may have seen me presenting at the LGfL conference and Bett Futures Stage – or you might have come across the Prevent Toolkit for Schools which I developed recently. I am passionate about empowering young people online and promoting wellbeing through the positive use of technology – so much so that I completed a Masters on a whole school approach to tackling cyberbullying, where I developed our school’s award winning CyberMentor programme, which reduced online incidents by 47% in the first year. And thanks to a generous grant from John Lyon’s Charity, we were able to roll it out across our partner schools in Ealing to develop their online safety provision, publishing the findings in a special edition of the Journal of Assistive Technology. More recently I completed a 2-year secondment with Ealing Council as their Prevent Schools Adviser, where I established the ARISE Network and Quality Assurance Mark, working in collaboration with the DfE, and a network of primary, secondary, independent, faith and special schools, to address challenges and develop best practice in implementing the Prevent duty.

Outside of this, I love travel, foreign film, tai chi, street food and going to the theatre. Interesting fact – exactly a year ago this week I was biting into a scone at the Royal Garden Party in Buckingham Palace – an incredibly humbling experience being surrounded by inspiring individuals from all walks – and I still have the napkin!

Must get back to work now, we are working on some exciting initiatives and training opportunities coming your way, so watch this space!

Pornography protections for children

October 2019 update. The government has announced that the age verification of online pornography will not be implemented.

They said it couldn’t be done, but AV Day approaches as the UK becomes the first country in the world to enforce age verification for online pornography, with a view to turning off pornography for under 18s. What will it mean in reality?

That’s the day when online commercial adult sites will have to start checking that their content is only available to over-18s.

It all started in April 2017, when the Digital Economy Act was passed, and with it the UK government’s plans to restrict access to online pornography. It has taken a while, but it’s about to happen! Although the Online Harms White Paper and consultation process continues, looking at other steps to make the UK “the safest place to be online”, the DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) has announced that age verification of online pornography will begin on 15 July.

This groundbreaking move is being watched closely around the world and may be copied in other countries, but why is it necessary in the first place? Whilst it is accepted that young people will find a way to access pornography if they are determined to do so, it is harmful for their development to learn about sex from pornography rather than sex education, and can damage them in various ways as they continue through adolescence. Add that to the fact that a lot of the time children and young people are not seeking out pornography but stumble across it or have it sent to them (not sure that’s true? scroll through the graphics below from our research!), and the reasons for the new law become even clearer.

There are all kinds of practicalities around the technology and how you prove your age safely and maintaining data protection and confidentiality. I could tell you more about that as I’ve sat on a policy group looking at the issues, but they are less relevant for schools as they work with under-18s.

The key thing to know is that the law applies to commercial sites only – this means ones where the user pays OR the primary commercial aim of the site is to offer pornography. That means not all porn will be blocked (so certain social media sites which have an enormous amount of porn on them are not yet covered by the law; but watch this space!).

With the advent of RSHE (Relationships, Sex & Health Education) coming soon as a statutory subject, and against the background of the new legislation coming into force and therefore becoming more of a hot topic than it is anyway (lots of schools are already doing great work here), it is worth pointing out the resources out there to support teachers. At LGfL we have put together a one-stop signposting area to multiple resources from a range of organisations – visit pornography.lgfl.net to find lesson plans, advice pages for pupils and parents, guidance from the regulator and much more.

One resource from the page which is particularly worth highlighting is
this ( ↑ ) amazing new package from Childnet called Myth or Reality (part of a full new RSHE toolkit). The pornography part of the kit is truly brilliant, with full lessons and discussion guides, excellent teacher notes and 3 powerful ‘talking head’ videos explaining young people’s experiences with porn. Take a look and get ready for the discussions that could help young people as the issue hits the headlines more and more over the coming months.