Broadband Internet access and the generalization of smartphones have disrupted our personal interactions, our consumption patterns, our interactions with the authorities, our work environment, and more generally, our lives. Yet, this upheaval, with all its positive aspects, has been accompanied by a dark side: scams, data theft, harassment, violent content, propaganda, blackmail, fake news, pornography, darknet, etc.
For example, the significant rise in energy prices in recent months has indeed resulted in a wave of scams offering attractive deals on seemingly very professional websites. The goal: to steal people’s bank or identity data and loot their bank accounts. This is a phenomenon that is currently blowing up.
In addition, younger people are increasingly addicted to a few social media. Ofcom, the British telecom regulator, published a study in March 2022 in this regard. We learned that the average age of access to TikTok is 8 years. In the same study, one can read that 16% of 3-4 years old have seen content on this same social media site.
As for the average time spent on social media, it is only growing. It stands at 75 minutes per day globally, and 87 minutes in the United States in 2022 according to a study by Qustodio. These figures far exceed the time spent on other social media sites like Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook.
In December 2022, Emmanuel Macron expressed numerous reservations about TikTok and the content it offers. He mentioned propaganda, addiction, and psychological disturbance, describing the social network as “confoundingly naive”. The most paradoxical thing about TikTok is that the Chinese application is very controlled in the Middle Kingdom: the content, filtered, is mainly about education and culture, with controlled time slots for young people.
The United States is considering whether to ban it. The issue is also on the table in several states. For example, Seattle Public Schools officials have filed a complaint against the social networks TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube for harming the mental health of young people.
Not to mention access to pornography, which is so easy today, and whose catastrophic effects are known in the medium term (sexual behavior disconnected from any affect, “dominant-dominated” stereotypes, sexual abuse, consumption of psychoactive substances or alcohol, depression…). We are at a crossroads, and even if the European and French authorities have been talking about these issues for some time, firm and clear decisions are slow to be put in place.
In France, threats to block sites or formal notices punishable by 75,000 euros in fines and three years in prison have been issued in 2021. But unfortunately, enforcement is almost technically impossible due to the lack of clear or imposed guidelines. A new report from the Senate was presented in September 2022, stating that the current technical processes all had limitations.
What can be done concretely?
Concerning the attacks of all kinds on citizens, there is mainly a need for education. These subjects should be treated and broadcasted massively at prime time (radio, television, written press), for public utility purposes. As a reminder, out of 40 million e-buyers in 2021, FranceVerif has counted 26 million victims.
It is therefore necessary to reiterate, give concrete examples, and invite everyone to be vigilant. And of course, invite individuals to protect their equipment, to manage their passwords, etc. All this would also have positive consequences on companies and public institutions which are particularly affected by cyber attacks.
Concerning children, their protection must be a political priority. They are often exposed on the web to violent, malicious, or age-inappropriate content such as harassment and propaganda. Education is, again, crucial from a very young age. We used to have civics classes, so we should be teaching kids about the Internet. And parents have a crucial role to play in controlling these uses and avoiding excesses. There are many parental control solutions offered by operators or other security software providers.
It is surprising that the legal age for registering on social media or pornographic sites is generally between 13 and 18 years old, whereas in reality, it is between 5 and 10 years old that everything starts, which is quite dramatic. However, today there are technological solutions. It is therefore up to politicians not to limit themselves to reports and threats but to ensure that technical solutions exist and to force platforms to implement them. Also, they must agree with the regulatory authorities not to fall into excesses of precaution that would prevent these technical solutions from being used.
For example, we all have cameras on our phones or laptops that can perform facial recognition. And technologies exist to allow age assessment via these cameras without storing the data. So instead of just asking “Are you over 13 or 18?” (to which an eight-year-old will answer “yes” and thus be able to access the content), it should go through an age assessment via the camera.
This would ensure, at a minimum, that no child under the age of 13-14 could register and access this content. This would be a major step in child protection. Let’s hope that 2023 will be the year when concrete decisions will be made and not just commissions reporting to other commissions.