Technology & Child Protection Insights by IT Expert Ryan Susana

He recalls: “Among my friends, I was one of the kids that got a laptop a little later. So, they were better than me at playing certain video games. I wanted to beat my friends, and I scoured the internet to find guides or cheats. Through YouTube and online forums, I figured out how to create bots (an automated software application that performs repetitive tasks over a network). These bots could play certain games for me while my friends and I were at school – improving my scores, while they could not play.”

At just twelve years old, Ryan became so good at creating bots that he gradually lost interest in playing video games and focussed on writing code – solving problems with technology.

Did your mom know about any of these online activities and the people, including adults, you interacted with?
Definitely not. I think it’s hard to give blanket advice on the topic of how parents need to protect their children in the online space. As I mentioned, those online spaces helped me develop professionally – I was already better at coding than most, once I went to college.

I am stubborn, and as a teenager, my mom’s or teacher’s advice went in one ear and out the other. I also had relatively thick skin and was, like many other teenage boys, looking for trouble and pushing boundaries.

Instead of focusing on what children should or should not see or do online, I think we should focus on helping them figure out who they are as soon as possible. What is their personality, and what are their weaknesses? Focus on what you can do as a parent to help a child strengthen those weaknesses. Give them the tools to protect themselves.

How can professionals or sectors, such as education and justice, keep up? 
No one is keeping up with all the technological advances, and I don’t think that should be our goal. The goal should be to utilise technology that is useful to you. This is what I tell my clients; you are not Apple or Google – what is it that you do and need?

If you are feeling stressed out about news reports about artificial intelligence, ask yourself why. Are you already insecure in the job you are doing, or just scared of the unknown?

People express the fear that technology is going to replace them, however, I doubt this. I went to a café once that was fully served by robots, believe me – they cannot replace the value of interaction with a smiling waitress that makes you feel welcome. Human interaction and human creativity, those who can drive emotion, are going to rise in importance. Technology can do our mundane, repetitive tasks, and we can focus on being creatives and creators.

So, this ‘new’ technology does not pose a danger?
There are upsides and downsides to most innovations. One of the aspects we can be mindful of, also concerning child protection, is the bias that can come into play using these automated programs.

For example, a few years ago, a phone company launched a feature that uses an AI that automatically ‘optimised’ your image to make your skin look better for example. However, this AI used images from the internet to generate these ‘improved’ images. The majority of images online are of white people. So, utilising this data, many darker-skinned people who used this ‘image optimizer’ were given a lighter or even white skin tone.

It’s not that the programmers themselves were racist, but the information available to us online, the historical data that we have, is biased and is not representative of all groups equally. So, your kids might also be affected by this negative bias, depending on the data an AI pulls from. Think about automated selection processes, medical diagnoses, or just simply your child thinking that they are prettier with lighter skin because that is how a filter ‘optimises their image’.

How can we help our children evaluate information encountered online, particularly in the age of AI-generated content? Throughout history, people have been tricked. Don’t focus on the technology that scammers or predators might use – put focus on teaching your children (and adults) critical thinking skills. Teach them that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. Show them how to find reliable resources, how to read research papers, and how to scrutinise information.

In my opinion, keeping our children safe has little to do with trying to control technological advancements but everything to do with helping our children develop their ability to evaluate information, make reasoned judgments, and approach problems thoughtfully – so they can protect themselves from dangers they might encounter offline or online.