Parents, the social dilemma and human flourishing in the digital age: Key findings from a new survey

A new survey conducted by Yonder and commissioned by the Jubilee Centre has found that three quarters (75%) of parents of children aged 13-17 think that internet and social media companies like Google and Facebook put profit ahead of promoting the social good. Eighty-three per cent of parents, in addition, think that these companies have high levels of responsibility to ensure that children and young people use the internet safely.

Less than a year ago, Netflix released a documentary titled the Social Dilemma. While this documentary was challenged by Facebook for being too sensationalist, it raises legitimate questions about the impact of social media platforms on humanity. Undoubtedly, the internet can be a force for good as it enables users to benefit from opportunities for learning, for entertainment, for keeping touch with relatives and friends, and, among others, for participating in public debate. At the same time, though, it also contributes to risks that include, for instance, forms of online abuse, issue of privacy and financial safety, misinformation and the polarisation of public debate.

In the last few years, we have witnessed how detrimental these risks can be for society, as exemplified by the degree to which both misinformation and polarisation have become rampant online during key political elections. This is problematic because democracy must rely on a well-informed citizenry. But what is even more alarming is that many online risks, including online misinformation and polarisation, are exacerbated by the ways in which internet and social media companies operate. On the one hand, the extent to which these companies self-regulate online content has been criticised for failing to curb the spread of hate speech on their platforms. On the other hand, their use of algorithms to collect and track users’ data for adverting purposes has been called into question. The problem is that their algorithms personalise online content by exposing users to information that, irrespective of its accuracy, reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. Issues of surveillance and data breach, furthermore, have become typical of the digital age, with companies like Cambridge Analytica harvesting illegally millions of users’ data on Facebook for political microtargeting.

The Netflix documentary the Social Dilemma captures the extent to which we, as a society, are faced with an ethical dilemma: to accept how the digital environment operates or, hopefully, to find ways to re-imagine, re-design and regulate it in ways that can enable us to tackle online risks while taking advantage of online opportunities.

Key findings from the survey

The latest survey commissioned by the Jubilee Centre found that most UK parents of children aged 13-17 think that the digital environment needs to be better managed in order to contribute to, rather than undermine, human flourishing – i.e., our ability to live well and thrive collectively. Collecting responses from 1,515 parents in the UK, the survey focused on questions about the role and responsibilities, in terms of promoting internet safety, of parents themselves, the education system, tech companies and the government.

Key findings include: 

  • Almost half of parents (48%) think that internet and social media companies contribute more to online risks than to opportunities.
  • 80% of parents think that search engines and online platforms should be redesigned to enable users to stay safe online.
  • Only 22% of parents trust internet and social media companies to self-regulate the digital environment. By contrast, almost 80% think that the government should make more efforts to tackle online risks.
  • 69% of parents think that the government has a responsibility to appoint an independent body to regulate online content.

In addition:

  • Parents are most concerned that their children are at risk of being exposed to violent, hateful or racist content or activities that show a lack of compassion and respect for others, with more than half (51%) choosing this, out of many online risks, as one of their top three concerns.
  • The quality that parents most want their children to show online is the ability to make wise decisions online, with 56% of parents choosing this as one of their two top qualities.
  • 77% of parents think that schools should make more efforts to teach about good character, wisdom and virtues in relation to the internet

Re-imagining the digital age

These findings suggest that tech corporations and governments have a responsibility, respectively, to re-design and to regulate the digital environment in order to promote internet safety. At the same time, what they also suggest is that parents, schools and teachers have a responsibility to equip children with the skills, knowledge and values they need in order to use digital technologies both wisely and responsibly. This means, in practice, that parents and educators need the support of governments and civil society in terms of accessing resources. The Cyber-Phronesis project, which is currently being undertaken by the Jubilee Centre, focuses on how to promote wisdom online among adolescents aged 13-16 via formal education. What is clear from the survey, however, is that the task of promoting internet safety to facilitate human flourishing does not lie exclusively in the hands of educators, or parents themselves, but requires concerted efforts from governments and tech corporations alike.

Promisingly, what emerged from the survey resonates with the work of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which has recently developed a code of practice to encourage children’s data protection on the basis of promoting age-appropriate design of online platforms and services. Meanwhile, the extent to which parents in the UK think that the government should intervene in promoting internet safety echoes the decision of the UK government to give Ofcom – the UK’s media regulator – new regulatory powers. As stated in the government’s initial response to the online harms White Paper published in April 2019 by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), such powers would range from regulating online content to ensuring that internet and social media companies operate in transparent and accountable ways.

While ICO’s code of practice has come into force but requires organisations to conform to it from September 2021, the UK government’s decision to appoint Ofcom as the UK’s internet regulator has not been implemented yet. The government is expected to publish a final response to the online harms white paper by the end of the year. Will these initiatives be sufficient in promoting internet safety and human flourishing in the UK? Only time will tell. For now, what is clear is that collective efforts are needed to re-imagine the digital age.

Dr Gianfranco Polizzi, Research Fellow

About the author:

Dr Gianfranco Polizzi is a Research Fellow in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, where he works on the Cyber-Phronesis project. Prior to joining the Jubilee Centre in September 2020, he completed his PhD in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Gianfranco’s academic interests, which lie at the intersection of media studies and education studies, include digital literacy, digital resilience, digital citizenship, civic engagement, and character education in the digital age.

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