Gary Pope
7 mins

An introduction.

89% of under fives can find their own way around a tablet or smartphone yet only 14% of under 8s can tie their shoe laces.

There’s a reason for this.

Tying your shoe laces is really hard. It requires a level of hand eye coordination that the magnificence that is the child’s brain is not quite ready to enact. There is a level of precision and confluence about the act of tying one’s shoes that, when you step back and think about it from a developmental perspective, is beautifully fluid and complex.

Whereas navigating your way around a bright colourful, hyper intuitive TV screen that sits on your lap, and holds the promise of all your favourite characters and games just bursting to see you, is ridiculously easy and indeed pleasurable. It’s a positively inspiring thing to do if you are four. Or 40 come to think of it. It is designed to be so.

And therein lies the problem.

Katherine, one of our longest serving team members, has two children – William (six) and Nora (three). William is in Year 2 and he came home from school just the other day and said: “Mummy, the kids in class are talking about a thing called TikTok. What is it?”.

Now, Katherine is a producer of kids content and following a stint on Blue Peter, joined the digital team at CBeebies and via a kids content start-up, joined KI seven years ago. There’s not many that know the kids’ preschool space better than Katherine. But here she was having to negotiate with a six year old about what TikTok is and why it’s probably not a good idea for William to have it on his Kindle just yet.

I need to be honest. I have a very healthy cynicism about TikTok. Not of it per se, but the lack of transparency and accountability that the platform has exhibited over the last few years. Like many big tech companies, revenue and not the user is the true driver and when kids can get access that becomes a problem.

TikTok is an always on, dopamine driving, uncensored smorgasbord of unfiltered content. Yes, the algorithm will serve up stuff that it thinks you like, but it is always one swipe form showing things that little eyes should just not see. TikTok being mostly based on music and video, it’s a few small steps to some really questionable stuff.

TikTok’s terms of service excludes under-13s and its moderators have instructions to look out for content produced by younger users and to block their accounts. But we all know that this is a nonsense. If they have a device they can get TikTok and if their friends are talking about it in the playground – even if they are under five years old – they will be inquisitive. It’s called being a child. Media regulator Ofcom tells us that about 16% of three and four year olds view TikTok content. This rises to a third of all children in the five to seven year old age group.

TikTok’s Terms of Service also say that no one under the age of 18 should use the service without parent or guardian approval. Yeah, right. Users under 13 do get a more limited experience (they can’t post their own videos, search videos, message other users, or read or leave comments) but of course they have to be registered as Under 13. You can see the issue here.

It’s easy to think of an app as a walled garden – that it is somehow safer than the internet, but it’s. It’s not. Any social app, by its nature is plugged into the internet and all that it has to offer.

Depending on which survey you read, between 47 and 59% of parents report using parental controls. The keyword here is ‘report’. They say they do but, and I spend a lot of my day working with parents, parents like to say a lot of things that make them look good. I reckon it’s more like 20% and that’s me being generous.

So here’s a really simple thing. Turn on the parental controls. Tell the parents you know. They, the big tech monsters that care only for profit and glory, will do no more for us. They will not restrict an audience because users mean data and data means money and money means share price. The regulator will do nothing, not least in the UK for the next two years because they’re hamstrung by the incompetence of a government that seems to believe that if you let greedy people do what they want that everything will be okay. It won’t.

So again, as is the case with HFSS marketing, it is up to us – parents, carers, marketers and business owners – to do what we can to support the healthy future of our children.

You can tell a lot about society by the way it treats its children. Supporting their digital literacy right now is probably one of the best things we can do as a society.

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