Content note: this post discusses child abuse, homophobia and transphobia
A new search engine for kids has been launched, and my goodness, it’s terrifying.
Kiddle is supposed to help kids navigate the internet safely, using a combination of human editors and Google’s Safe Search. However, it’s also been criticised for blocking searches relating to LGBT issues.
Last night, when I had a bit of a fiddle with it, it seemed to have a bit of a double standard regarding what it just wouldn’t provide results for, and what it decided was Bad:
Before you ask, it wasn’t down to what’s known as The Scunthorpe Problem, a product of automatic filtering which causes innocent words to be blocked.
However, more has changed since last night. While last night, a search using Kiddle for “transgender” returned some results, today it’s been deemed A Bad Word, with the judgmental robot wagging his metallic finger.
Blocking searches pertaining to LGBT issues is dangerous. It keeps young people from accessing resources to help them better understand themselves. Telling them words they’ve heard that they feel might apply to them are bad is more dangerous still: it feeds guilt and shame.
Kiddle’s solution to some (but not all) LGBT-related searches is woefully inadequate and, again, could turn out to be dangerous. Instead of just not returning any results, it now tells children to ask their parents.
Eagle-eyed readers may spot an issue here: a young person is using the internet to seek answers, they’re probably not in a position to ask their parents the questions they have. Asking could, in fact, put children at risk of violence–physical violence, emotional violence, conversion therapy.
It’s not just LGBT-related searches that are blocked, though. Dr Jill McDevitt tried some common queries that children and young people may have, and found that information about puberty, is-my-body-normal type questions, searches related to menstruation, and searches about abuse were also blocked, sometimes with the Bad Words robot appearing.
The Bad Words robot appears on a search where anything judgmental definitely shouldn’t appear.
When dealing with child abuse, a sensitive approach is necessary. Children are likely to feel shame and guilt, and being told off for using bad words is hardly going to alleviate this.
It gets worse. Say an abused child was looking for contact details of someone who could help. Too bad.
Apparently other helplines and services are similarly blocked, the stern robot repeating over and over that these are bad words that should not be used.
This site is an abusive, controlling parent’s dream, barring their child from access to any possible sources of help. If, by accident, something useful does slip through the net, parents can request blocking a search. I assume that this is what happened within the last 24 hours to the search term “transgender”, which returned results last night, but is A Bad Word today.
So who actually owns Kiddle? In truth, we don’t know. All we know is that it isn’t Google–which is hardly helpful information considering more than 7 billion people on this planet aren’t Google. It’s all very fishy. There’s no transparency on who owns the site, or who’s involved in editing it. Do they know that they are enabling child abuse? Would they be mortified if they did know, or is it their goal all along? For all we know, Kiddle could be run by a paedophile ring hoping to keep kids blissfully ignorant that what’s happening to them is not OK.
In theory, a child-friendly search engine using safe searches and human moderation is a good one, but it cannot and must not block things which parents find unsavoury. Instead, if a child searches for information about sexuality, they should be able to access it. If they want to know about what’s all right and what isn’t, they should damn well be able to access it. Keeping children ignorant only opens them up to abuse. Question why parents (or perhaps just the owners of Kiddle) don’t want children to access information about being queer, or resources for child abuse.
The view of parents as an all-powerful authority over their children, able to control what they see and do not see is a dangerous one in and of itself, but sadly all too prevalent. The only source of hope we can perhaps draw with this Kiddle incident is maybe they won’t be supervising their children online so much, so young people can go about being more digitally-savvy than their parents and find the information they need online themselves.