Tim Loughton looks at what parents and industry can do to keep children and young people safe online.
Thank you John. It’s a pleasure to be at this important summit which, as we all know, has the primary purpose of promoting children’s safety in the digital age. Secondary to that, we are keen to advance and encourage the continued work of UKCCIS partners as the recognised world leaders in the field of child internet safety.
The work of UKCCIS matters because it brings together some of the most powerful people and organisations in the industry today - and as always happens when individuals come together with real commitment, the sum ends up being greater than the parts. I know that I speak for James and Ed as well when I say that we’re proud to work with you in making such a difference to children’s wellbeing and safety when they’re online.
Such is the pace of change in technological developments today, the idea of an annual summit seems almost quaintly pedestrian. Perhaps we should be meeting every month rather than every year if we really want to stay ahead of the game. (This isn’t a serious suggestion by the way. Not yet.)
But to a large degree, of course, there is nothing very new here either. Understanding how best to protect children from bullying, pornography, and stranger danger has exercised parents since the year dot. The difference between now and then is not in the problem, but in the medium. And in the topsy turvy situation whereby children understand this new medium far better than their parents. The warnings we all absorbed such as “don’t take sweets from strangers”, might as well come from a bygone age to today’s internet savvy child.
And this is the worry for parents. Because while we all love new technology with its amazing ability to entertain, empower and educate in a way that’s never been known before - we can’t afford to shut our eyes to the inevitable dangers that are also present in mass digital communication.
As each day seems to bring with it a shiny new gizmo, or a software upgrade, or a trendy new social platform, you can’t really blame busy parents when they say they can’t keep up. Even professional techies admit they have trouble keeping tabs on all their home technology!
So it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect parents to take all of the responsibility for making sure their children are safe when they go online. The industry and retailers have to share a substantial slice of responsibility. They must do all they can to support parents and children in understanding how they can stay safe.
And, as technology becomes more complex, so the need to simplify the process of blocking out what’s wrong, becomes ever more pressing. Parents should not have to feel powerless to stop their child being exposed to explicit adult material online, or to cyber bullying on their mobile, or to grooming in an internet chat room. And parents are rightly looking to the industry - and to Government - to help them.
Which is why Reg Bailey’s review, published last week, is so important and timely. Nearly nine out of ten parents surveyed for his report into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children said they felt their children were under pressure to grow up too quickly.
Bailey says the pressure takes two related forms - there is the pressure to consume and there is the pressure to take part in a sexualised society. And no where do these two pressures link together more completely than in the online world.
One of his most urgent recommendations is a direct appeal to you in the IT industry, to make it easier for parents to block adult material on the internet from home computers and other connected devices, and to help parents understand how to detect and block content. He calls on you to act decisively to develop and introduce effective parental controls. And Government backs his calls.
We’ve been hearing in the past week, following publication of Reg Bailey’s review, from a few academics who complain there is no evidence to support the claim that exposure to pornography is harmful to children. I’m not sure why the experience of child protection organisations, schools, child psychologists, youth workers and so on, not to mention reports by Dr Linda Papadopoulos and Professor Tanya Byron, shouldn’t count as evidence.
But I do know that, as a father, I categorically do not want my kids assaulted by such images - and I welcome anything that helps me protect them when they’re online. Parents should not be made to feel that they are being prudish, or old-fashioned or irrational when they know in their gut what’s good and what’s not good for their children.
Just as we need to educate children to have the confidence to say no, we need to empower and engage parents so that they are not alone when objecting to what their children are being enticed to access.
So we need effective parental controls. And of course, if they are to be effective we need them to be simple enough for the average busy parent to use relatively easily.
One very good development is the work led by Mike Galvin of BT. BT, along with Virgin Media, Sky and TalkTalk have been working together on a new code of practice designed to give parents more control over the kind of material their children are able to download. The code to be launched in October 2011, will see parents making an active choice at the point of broadband purchase, about the content they want to allow in to their homes.
We’d like to see the idea developed further so that parents are reminded every few months - so they can’t be lulled into a false sense of security and can’t just forget about it.
And of course we have the fantastic news today, still hot off the press, that Dixons will be actively promoting the UKCCIS campaign ‘Click Clever Click Safe’ to customers. Dixons innovative approach will inform parents through in-store promotion and printing on till receipts, as well as specially created webpages. It’s another good example of how leading retailers can play their part alongside UKCCIS, in raising awareness among parents and children of the potential dangers online.
It’s great too that industry specialists are increasingly coming up with simple blocking devices for phones that put children back in charge of their own privacy, helping them take action against cyber bullies and stalkers.
I think it’s also worth pointing out to companies the market potential for simple, practical products of this kind. Those who just sit back and wait for legislation before doing anything might well find themselves missing a very profitable boat.
I’m extremely grateful to charitable organisations like Childnet, Internet Watch Foundation and South West Grid for Learning for the excellent work they are doing in this field. It’s especially helpful when these organisations partner up to hold educational events like the Safer Internet Day earlier this year.
But perhaps best of all is the enthusiasm of children and young people to be active in protecting themselves and each other. The CyberMentors programme, partly funded by my Department but also supported by many of your organisations, has trained over 4,000 young people aged between 11 and 16 to help victims of cyber bullying. More than one and a quarter million users have registered with the site, and schools who use it report an average reduction in bullying of nearly a third.
My last piece of advice is for fellow parents though, and it is this. And it’s really low tech. Talk to your children. Talk to them about these issues - bullying, stranger danger, adult content. And learn from them as well. Get them to show you the latest apps and parental control buttons so that you and they are fully aware of what is out there - and can enjoy using technology safely.
In the meantime, of course, we’re all looking to industry and to retailers to continue showing the way ahead in this. We urge you to continue to innovate, to help keep our children safe - and to maintain Britain’s place as a world leader in child internet safety.