On Campus

Children's singer Raffi advocates for social media safety

Red Hood Project is response to death of Amanda Todd

Children’s entertainer and advocate Raffi says he was “shaken” and “angry” when he heard about the death of Amanda Todd, a British Columbia teen who committed suicide in October following years of Internet sexual exploitation and bullying by her peers, and that’s why he co-founded the Red Hood Project.

Billed as a movement to make social media safe for young users, the project includes a website, a Facebook and Twitter page, and a letter the beloved “Baby Beluga” singer-songwriter co-wrote and sent to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on Nov. 14.

The letter, which includes Todd’s mother’s signature, says that the 15-year-old was blackmailed through Facebook and urges the social media company to correct “the security failures that made such victimization possible.”

“Of course education of parents and young users is important, we recognize that, but we think the onus ought to be on those businesses — social media companies who create the risk in the first place — to do all that they can,” Raffi Cavoukian, who goes by just his first name onstage, said in a recent interview.

“The Red Hood Project comes from Little Red Riding Hood. Our young are alone in the cyber woods, so to speak, vulnerable to the wolves out there. The Red Hood Project says the responsibility, social media companies, is on you to fix the security gap systemically.”

The founder of the non-profit global awareness group Centre for Child Honouring said he’s also writing a book about the perils of social media for young children as he continues his recently launched “#belugagrads — Family Concert” series, which hits Toronto on Sunday and Ottawa on Monday.

“What I say to people is: ‘This is not a phone — this is a car on the information super highway … and nobody who’s not old enough to drive should have one of these things,'” Raffi, who published an autobiography over a decade ago, said as he held up his smartphone.

Proceeds from the shows — which also include stops in Calgary and Edmonton in March — benefit Raffi’s Centre for Child Honouring.

“I’ve been away from the concert stage for 10 years, but now that I’m making a comeback and the fans are loving it, I think I could run for prime minister. I think I’d really have a shot at that,” the 64-year-old said jokingly.

“No, I’m kidding. But I’m having a wonderful time in the concerts. It’s just great, and to know that I can do it, I feel good — tall in the saddle.”

Raffi said he took a break from the stage for so long in order to develop his Child Honouring philosophy through his centre on Salt Spring Island, B.C., where he lives.

In recent years, he’s co-edited the book “Child Honouring: How To Turn This World Around,” released two CDs for adults and recorded a couple of new tunes, including “On Hockey Days” and “Letter to a Nation,” which was inspired by the late MP Jack Layton’s parting letter to Canadians.

Last year Raffi also posted a video entitled “Raffi 4 Canada” to YouTube to encourage “Beluga grads” to vote in the federal election.

“The Child Honouring message has always been in the songs,” said Raffi, whose other cherished tunes include “Bananaphone” and “Down by the Bay.”

“In concert I don’t get into Child Honouring in terms of a message for parents who are there. In concert, we’re just having fun and singing.”

Respecting children is a principle that has guided the Egyptian-born musician’s entire career and is why he rejected a request from the producers of “Shrek” to turn his “Baby Beluga” classic tune into an animated film six years ago.

“We asked the producers of ‘Shrek’ two questions. One was, ‘Will you market this film directly to young children?’ and they said, ‘Yes, we will.’ We said, ‘We don’t like that, it’s unethical,'” recalled the founder of the record label Troubadour Music Inc.

“The other question was, ‘Will you make a whole bunch of ancillary products, cheap products mostly made of PVC materials and so on, cheap plastics, toxic?’ And they said, ‘Well, yeah. Products, merchandise, that’s got to be part of the deal.’ We said, ‘No, we don’t like that, not good for the children, not good for ecology.'”

“So we turned down a potentially hugely profitable offer on principle, and that’s what I’ve been doing throughout my whole career. I just do not take part in anything that exploits the innocence of the young, I’ve never marketed directly to children and I wouldn’t do so now.”

—Victoria Ahearn

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