TikTok expands STEM education focus in EU amid regulatory scrutiny

TikTok is intensifying its focus on educational content amid mounting scrutiny in the US and the UK. The platform is rolling out its STEM feed across Europe, starting with the UK and Ireland, following its successful launch in the US last year. This dedicated feed, featuring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics content, will now be integrated alongside the main feeds for users under 18 and can be enabled by older users through the app’s settings. Since its US debut, one-third of teens regularly engage with the STEM feed, with a notable surge in STEM-related content production.

The expansion comes with enhanced measures to ensure content quality and reliability. Namely, TikTok is partnering with Common Sense Networks and Poynter to vet the content appearing on the STEM feed. Common Sense Networks will assess appropriateness, while Poynter will evaluate information reliability. Content failing these checks will not qualify for the STEM feed, aiming to provide users with credible educational materials.

This move arrives amidst growing criticism over TikTok’s handling of harmful content and its impact on young users. Concerns have been raised about addictive design tactics and inadequate protection of minors from inappropriate content. In response, the EU is investigating TikTok’s compliance with online safety regulations.

By emphasising its educational initiatives, including the STEM feed, TikTok aims to position itself as a constructive platform for youth development, countering regulatory scrutiny and public concerns.

Why does it matter?

TikTok’s push for educational content aligns with its recent efforts to present a positive global image to lawmakers and stakeholders. The company has showcased the STEM feed in congressional hearings to refute accusations of harm to young users. Through initiatives like this, TikTok seeks to demonstrate its commitment to promoting learning and responsible content consumption while navigating regulatory challenges in multiple jurisdictions.

Schools and lawmakers ramp up media literacy education

As concerns grow over the proliferation of AI-generated disinformation, schools and lawmakers are doubling down on media literacy education. The push, already underway in 18 states, aims to equip students with the skills to discern fake news, which is particularly crucial as the 2024 presidential election looms. Beyond politics, the harmful effects of social media on children, including cyberbullying and online radicalisation, underscore the urgency of these efforts.

States like Delaware and New Jersey have set the bar high, mandating comprehensive media literacy standards for K-12 classrooms. These standards promote digital citizenship and empower students to navigate media safely. Yet, disparities exist among states, with some, like Illinois, implementing more muted forms of media literacy education, focusing primarily on high school instruction.

In response to the lack of federal guidelines, bipartisan efforts in Congress, such as the AI Literacy Act, seek to address the gap. Introduced by Rep. Lisa Blunt-Rochester and Rep. Larry Bucshon, the bill aims to integrate AI literacy into existing education programs, emphasising its importance for national competitiveness. However, progress on the bill has stalled since its introduction, leaving the federal approach to media literacy uncertain.

Despite variations in implementation, students across states are embracing media literacy education positively. For educators like Lisa Manganello in New Jersey, the focus is on fostering critical thinking and information literacy, irrespective of political affiliations. As misinformation continues to increase online, the need for media literacy education at the state and federal levels remains paramount to empower students as responsible digital citizens.

Belgian EU Council presidency unveils framework for online child protection law

A newly revealed document from the Belgian EU Council presidency sheds light on the risk assessment framework crucial for drafting a forthcoming law aimed at detecting and eliminating online child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The document, shared with the Council’s Law Enforcement Working Party (LEWP), underscores the Coordinated Authority’s pivotal role in receiving risk assessments, implementing mitigation measures, and orchestrating efforts to detect, report, and remove CSAM across the EU member states.

Building upon earlier approaches by the Belgian presidency, the document delves into categorising potential risks associated with online services, offering detailed methodologies and criteria for practical application. These methodologies include evaluating service types, core architecture, effectiveness of safety features, and user tendencies. Notably, the categorisation spans various parameters, such as service policies, user behaviour patterns, and safety protocols, emphasising safeguarding child users.

Proposed scoring methodologies within the risk categorisation system aim to streamline assessment processes with options like binary questions, hierarchical criteria, and sampling methods. These practices, integrated into a multi-class scoring framework, evaluate the efficacy of service policies and features in preventing child sexual abuse, facilitating a nuanced understanding of risk levels across different platforms.

Why does it matter?

The document signals a clear approach to refining the CSAM legislation, emphasising alignment with fundamental rights and the need for robust safeguards. As discussions progress, the focus remains on extracting fundamental principles and identifying core aspects crucial for effective risk assessment and mitigation strategies in combating online child sexual abuse.

UN Secretary-General issues policy brief for Global Digital Compact

As part of the process towards developing a Global Digital Compact (GDC), the UN Secretary-General has issued a policy brief outlining areas in which ‘the need for multistakeholder digital cooperation is urgent’: closing the digital divide and advancing sustainable development goals (SDGs), making the online space open and safe for everyone, and governing artificial intelligence (AI) for humanity. 

The policy brief also suggests objectives and actions to advance such cooperation and ‘safeguard and advance our digital future’. These are structured around the following topics:

  • Digital connectivity and capacity building. The overarching objectives here are to close the digital divide and empower people to participate fully in the digital economy. Proposed actions range from common targets for universal and meaningful connectivity to putting in place or strengthening public education for digital literacy. 
  • Digital cooperation to accelerate progress on the SDGs. Objectives include making targeted investments in digital public infrastructure and services, making data representative, interoperable, and accessible, and developing globally harmonised digital sustainability standards. Among the proposed actions are the development of definitions of safe, inclusive, and sustainable digital public infrastructures, fostering open and accessible data ecosystems, and developing a common blueprint on digital transformation (something the UN would do). 
  • Upholding human rights. Putting human rights at the centre of the digital future, ending the gender digital divide, and protecting workers are the outlined objectives in this area. One key proposed action is the establishment of a digital human rights advisory mechanism, facilitated by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to provide guidance on human rights and technology issues. 
  • An inclusive, open, secure, and shared internet. There are two objectives: safeguarding the free and shared nature of the internet, and reinforcing accountable multistakeholder governance. Some of the proposed actions include commitments from governments to avoid blanket internet shutdowns and refrain from actions disrupting critical infrastructures.
  • Digital trust and security. Objectives range from strengthening multistakeholder cooperation to elaborate norms, guidelines, and principles on the responsible use of digital technologies, to building capacity and expanding the global cybersecurity workforce. The proposed overarching action is for stakeholders to commit to developing common standards and industry codes of conduct to address harmful content on digital platforms. 
  • Data protection and empowerment. Ensuring that data are governed for the benefit of all, empowering people to control their personal data, and developing interoperable standards for data quality as envisioned as key objectives. Among the proposed actions are an invitation for countries to consider adopting a declaration on data rights and seeking convergence on principles for data governance through a potential Global Data Compact. 
  • Agile governance of AI and other emerging technologies. The proposed objectives relate to ensuring transparency, reliability, safety, and human control in the design and use of AI; putting transparency, fairness, and accountability at the core of AI governance; and combining existing norms, regulations, and standards into a framework for agile governance of AI. Actions envisioned range from establishing a high-level advisory body for AI to building regulatory capacity in the public sector. 
  • Global digital commons. Objectives include ensuring inclusive digital cooperation, enabling regular and sustained exchanges across states, regions, and industry sectors, and developing and governing technologies in ways that enable sustainable development, empower people, and address harms. 

The document further notes that ‘the success of a GDC will rest on its implementation’. This implementation would be done by different stakeholders at the national, regional, and sectoral level, and be supported by spaces such as the Internet Governance Forum and the World Summit on the Information Society Forum. One suggested way to support multistakeholder participation is through a trust fund that could sponsor a Digital Cooperation Fellowship Programme. 

As a mechanism to follow up on the implementation of the GDC, the policy brief suggests that the Secretary-General could be tasked to convene an annual Digital Cooperation Forum (DCF). The mandate of the forum would also include, among other things, facilitating collaboration across digital multistakeholder frameworks and reducing duplication; promoting cross-border learning in digital governance; and identifying and promoting policy solutions to emerging digital challenges and governance gaps.

University of Buffalo to create new AI systems to help young children with speech and/or language processing challenges

The National Science Foundation has given the University at Buffalo (UB) a grant of $20 million for launching a national centre to create artificial intelligence systems that can recognise and help children with speech and/or language processing difficulties. Children ages 3 to 10 who are more likely to lag behind in their academic and socioemotional development—problems made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic—will receive services due to this endeavour.

Epic Games to pay $520 million penalty in USA over privacy violations and ‘dark patterns’ cases

The US Federal Trade Commission and the creator of Fortnite, Epic Games, have reached a settlement which would see the company pay a total of US$ 520 million in penalties over allegations that it had violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and used dark patterns to trick players into making unintentional purchases.

For allegations related to collecting personal information from Fortnite players under the age of 13 without getting consent from their parents or caregivers, Epic has agreed to pay a US$ 275 million penalty. Furthermore, the FTC determined that Epic’s default settings for its live text and voice communication features, as well as its system of pairing children with adults/strangers to play Fortnite with, exposed youngsters to harassment and abuse. Epic is also required to adopt strong privacy default settings for children and teens, ensuring that voice and text communications are turned off by default.

In a second case, the business conceded to pay US$ 245 million to refund users for its dark patterns and billing practices.

Frequent use of digital devices for calming young children might affect their development

Mobile devices are frequently used to keep young children entertained or calm. A new study by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health investigates the longitudinal, bidirectional associations between the frequency of using mobile devices to calm young children as reported by parents and children’s executive functioning (EF) and emotional reactivity.

Increased use of mobile devices for calming children aged 3 to 5 years was found to be associated with decreased executive functioning and increased emotional reactivity at baseline in this cohort study of 422 parents and 422 children. However, only emotional reactivity had bidirectional, longitudinal associations with device use for calming at 3 and 6 months of follow-up. The associations were discovered to be stronger in boys and children who had a higher temperamental surgency.

The findings of this study suggest that using mobile devices to calm young children may displace their opportunities to learn emotion-regulation strategies over time.

New evidence reveals disparity in internet access for children in five African countries

A recent UNICEF research brief estimated the level of internet access for children in Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania, as well as the most common barriers to connecting children to the digital world. The report classified these common barriers into three categories: infrastructure-related, resource-constrained, and adult permission-related. According to the findings, 90% of children in the five surveyed countries reported having at least one barrier to regular internet access. The most frequently mentioned barrier was the high cost of data.

The report identified three priorities for addressing the digital divide and enabling equal access to digital connectivity: investing in electricity and connectivity with a focus on marginalised communities and users; lowering the cost of connectivity and devices; and addressing cultural and social norms as barriers that prevent children and adolescents from using the internet.

New evidence revealed the disparity in internet access for children in five African countries

A recent UNICEF research brief estimated the level of internet access for children in Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania, as well as the most common barriers to connecting children to the digital world and their consequences. The report classified these common barriers into three categories: infrastructure-related, resource-constrained, and adult permission-related. According to the findings, 90% of children in the five countries surveyed reported having at least one barrier to regular internet access. The most frequently mentioned barrier was the high cost of data.

The report identified three priorities for addressing the digital divide and enabling equal access to digital connectivity: investing in electricity and connectivity with a focus on marginalised communities and users; lowering the cost of connectivity and devices; and addressing cultural and social norms as barriers to address for children and adolescents.