Algorithms can hurt your children

Search engines have given us easy access to more and seemingly ever-new sources of content that have the potential to be just as, if not more, harmful than cyberbullying. Of course, search engines, like most technologies, aren’t inherently bad, but they aren’t neutral either, which means there are good reasons to be cautious.

Paradoxically, while one of the biggest areas of advancement in computing is in search engine algorithms, some of the most concerning problems are also rooted there. With greater use of search engines, their design has largely evolved around deep learning, location and more data processing power. This combination has made them more powerful, making it easier for users to find the content they are asking for. However, it also increased the possibility of unwanted or harmful content appearing or being requested and potentially disturbing the user.

The first search engines

The first web search engines were built in the 1990s, and many of their key developments took place around the same time. However, modern search engines, like googleare now self-optimizing, with real-time tuned algorithms and daily user experience improvements to adapt to the “modern” user.

Over time, search engines have become more sophisticated and are now entering our pockets via our smartphones. Users, many of whom are children, have access to the entire Web at all times. This means that accessing or receiving inappropriate or harmful content is very likely. The Internet is a vast space that provides opportunities for diverse groups and communities to meet and expand their influence, for better or for worse.

Not your neighborhood library

It is extremely easy for a child, older minor, or even an adult to deliberately stumble upon, attract, or view harmful content. This is a pervasive reality that becomes all the more worrying given the effectiveness of search engines and the proliferation of inappropriate or harmful content on social media, online forums, websites and digital advertisements.

To better serve users, the Internet has evolved rapidly with the introduction of predictive research and monetization; as such, the algorithms operated by search engines have begun not only to locate content, but also and more importantly to suggest content. Large social platforms and search companies not only use these developments to generate profit via advertisements (for example), but also to “feed” users with content that can (artificially) broaden their interests. In this way, search behavior informs users of “for you” or “suggested” pages. This may be particularly problematic for children and young adultswhose interests and personalities may not be fully formed.

When research becomes personal

Parents and educators must be aware of the dangers that await minors online and be educated enough to help them. To underscore how much of a direct correlation there is between behavioral-based research and the results provided, consider how easily a “What I Eat in a Day” video can land you on a pro-ana (pro-anorexia ) online foruma thin inspiration message board, or even a thread full of self-harm tips or other explicit content.

Algorithms work tirelessly to deliver content to users that they might enjoy and interact with. Even though major social media platforms strive to protect their users following high level investigations in what technology platforms know about its effects on children’s mental health, efforts often lag behind technological developments.

A prevention toolbox

It’s natural for children to want to spend time on the internet, but they should never be totally unsupervised. A great tool to help you keep an eye on your child’s behavior online is to use a reliable parental control solution, such as ESET’s Internet Security for Advanced Protection, which guarantees child-safe web browsing. In addition to providing limits on how long your child can access certain apps and websites, it can also block specific types of content and URLs for PCs and mobile devices.

A good quality internet safety and parental control solution categorizes websites to block dangerous and inappropriate categories for children. Safe Search features can also filter search engine results so parents can rest assured that search engines won’t suggest inappropriate content to children. When selecting an internet security solution for their family, parents should ensure that it also has a feature that allows them to manually blacklist websites and apps so they can get through a call on the appropriate content. The same goes for whitelisting the appropriate resources.

Whether you as a parent start using a parental control package, an even more important task remains: learning about the content that is on the web and having regular conversations with your children about the online and offline world. line. Talking to your children is one of the best tools you can give them to protect themselves. Education on any subject should start in the family, and this is especially true for personal and private matters and our online presence.

Children and minors deserve to be treated with respect and informed of the choices we make about or for them. Talking to them about their online behavior can make them feel like we’re invading their privacy, so be sensitive and make sure they feel heard and understood.

Sharon D. Cole