11 May 2021

Proposals for the safety of the online environment: the protection of our youth in the EU

When it comes to the Internet, the positions of the public opinion and of the press are extremely swinging. With every event of cyberbullying with a tragic outcome, episodes of self-harm and hate speech, the mainstream media generally sound alarms about the dangers of the Internet and social media.  In several cases parents are not really aware of how technology actually works and they worry about their children. This fuels a panic about the dangers of digital technology. Politicians scramble to find cheap solutions to these problems, to prevent these tragic events, and, unfortunately, more and more often end up looking for a technological solution to what is in fact a social and cultural problem.

How the European Union protects our youth in the digital world? 

The European Union to make safer the online field approved in 2016 the EU General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 GDPR - on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing and free movement of personal data. The Regulation establishes that the minimum age for not being considered a minor with regard to consent for privacy is 16 years. It should be noted, however, that it is up to the Member States to decide where to place this threshold from the age of 13. The GDPR defines what are the fundamental points of the protection of personal data of those who have not yet turned 16. If it is necessary to give the consent of a child under 13, it is required the intervention of those with parental responsibility. 

The GDPR also stipulates that it is necessary to explain, in a clear and understandable way, how the personal data of the minor user is collected. Consent must be required when the processing of a minor's data relates to:

  • a contractual obligation;

  • an obligation under the law;

  • a vital interest;

  • a public service;

  • legitimate interests.

Unfortunately, there is still little transparency on the part of social networks in the way personal data are accessed, even though one of the cardinal principles of the European regulation is precisely the transparency of the processing, which must be verifiable by the user. But the risks for minors are present and amplified especially by the lack of awareness of the value of their personal and sensitive data, the same lack of awareness is often present in adults who should guide children in the use of digital technologies.

Some proposals for improvement and the role of GEYC as a non-governmental organization

To overcome these problems we recommend:

  • More rules with respect to the use of data of users whose age verification is not available.

  • Request for a rapid implementation of European and national regulations in terms of protection of user data with particular attention to the data of minors on social network

  • Invest in training and education programs on digital technologies (digital education) not only aimed at minors but with particular attention to the training of parents, training of school personnel and the reference figures of minors.

In many statements, the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, has highlighted the urgent need for greater regulation, both international and national, of online platforms, regulation based not only on free and fair competition, but also on the security and quality of information. Therefore, it seems necessary not only to reflect deeply on the issue of content that is conveyed on the most widely used platforms, but also greater transparency on algorithmic systems capable of defining the priorities of online content.

At the same time we know that a set of regulations and directives are not enough.The problem is primarily a social problem, to be solved mainly at the educational level. It is necessary to find the right balance between unrestricted access and prohibition, and it is the task of parents and educators to find this balance. The tools are there, companies make available a huge amount of Apps or parental control services, but it is clear that kids often find ways to get around the technical measures, so what is really essential is education. Parents should work alongside their children and understand how they use the internet, what sites they visit and who they communicate with, and gradually explain the risks and accompany them in their growth. If the State really wants to do something serious about this problem, it’s the right time to improve schools and give the right resources for a real digital education.

In this context the daily work of GEYC is endearing. GEYC has developed its own Child Protection Policy on the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols and the Romanian law 274/2004 regarding child protection and promotion of children’s rights. GEYC has implemented and strictly follows the General Data Protection Regulation. The organization has also been active for years in several programmes to enhance a responsible behavior of young people in the digital environment. 

We have actively participated in the No Hate Speech Movement, initiated by the Youth Department of the Council of Europe, from March 2013 until February 2017, with numerous activities to raise awareness about hate speech and equip activists with tools to tackle it. In particular we promoted the Balkan without hate project organized by 35mm NGO and co-financed by the European Commission through Erasmus+ Program, Key Action 2 - Capacity building in the field of youth. The main aim of this project was to explore how young people and youth work could benefit from creation of genuine youth documentaries on what kind of (multicultural) societies we want to live in. GEYC initiated the 2nd edition of the Fellowship for Human Rights, EQUALIS Campaign, Hate Speech Survey in Europe - HaSpe and the 2nd edition of the European Digital Youth Summit - EDYS 2016 in the frame of the dissemination activities of Balkans without hate Project. 

We have also taken part in the two editions of the Young Digital Leaders project of Google and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), from February 2018 until January 2020. YDL is a European educational programme that aims to empower young people across Europe through digital citizenship, critical thinking and media literacy skills, beyond the classroom, so that they can grow up safe, responsible digital leaders.

In the end GEYC is constantly working teachers through EDU.GEYC.RO a network that brings together secondary, high-school, college and university teachers from Romania, who have been actively involved since 2013, in campaigns and projects dedicated to the development of competences of teachers and youth, through non-formal education.