Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Rolf Smith

Background to Submission

Firstly, I would like to thank the Government for giving me the opportunity to provide this submission to the Committee.

I am 33 years old and am happily married to my wife; of whom we have two children aged seven and five. I am writing therefore in my capacity as a father with some experience, as well as with feelings for all fathers and mothers of children throughout the UK and across the globe. As a parent I am acutely aware of the many potential threats to our children’s safety, of which the internet is an ever present and increasing one; hence the reason for this submission.

Whilst I am not a professional or seasoned campaigner, I can honestly say that the following information is given in good faith and is believed to be correct. Any data provided was taken from Ofcom reports.

Personal Experiences as Father of a Young Family

Computers and the internet are a fundamental part of life for our children, as they are for any children in the UK today. In a way that we adults did not, they are growing up with computer technology all around them. Indeed, it is astounding how quickly—almost naturally—they pick it up. My daughter has just turned five and cannot yet read, but even she can navigate with remarkable speed through websites she knows to find the part she wants, simply by memorizing the position of the links and buttons! It is abundantly clear and proven that the internet appeals to a child’s inquisitive nature and their exploratory learning style; certainly that has been our experience, and it won’t be long before they are better at it than us.

There is no doubt that the internet can be useful for children, particularly we have found it helpful for improving parts of our older child’s education. But we are very thankful for the strong filters we have in place which allows access to approved sites only. This gives my wife and I the opportunity to check the content of sites carefully before allowing them to be visited by our children. Even so, our children are only allowed to access the internet for timed, monitored periods and we certainly wouldn’t leave them alone during this time. I know and they know—as we have taught them—that the internet has hidden dangers that they are not able to cope with.

In addition, too much computer activity tends to make our children less interested in outdoor activities and other necessary skills like writing and drawing.

The National Situation Regarding Online Safety

The Committee will no doubt be aware of the many statistics published by Ofcom on the subject of children and safety online. Therefore it is not necessary for me to go into too much detail regarding the national situation; however I must point out that it is very clear from data gathered that many parents in the UK, unlike myself and my wife, are relatively unaware of how potent the hidden dangers of the internet are. While most parents acknowledge that there should be some form of parental control, many do not view the potential dangers as particularly serious so are not pro-active in controlling their children’s use; therefore they allow their children to spend long periods online alone without supervision and without controlling software. This key fact could have a serious negative impact on UK society in the future if it is not properly addressed now. This is of great concern to me. A few key Ofcom findings bear this out:

54% of parents in the UK do not use parental control software on their home internet.

46% of parents agree that their children know more about the internet than they do.

81% of children aged 14–16 have viewed adult material online.

Only 17% of parents say they are concerned about the internet.

25% of 8–11 year olds and 34% of 12–15 year olds are likely to communicate with people not directly known to them via social networking sites, these figures rose greatly in 2012 report.

Why Online Safety for Children is an Issue which needs Action

It is undoubtedly a necessity that children are kept safe from harm wherever they are, and this must include when they are on the internet. The proliferation of social networking, video sharing, personal smartphones etc has made it even more vital that this issue is viewed seriously. The reality is that practically every UK child is using the internet, and 80% of 12–15 year olds in the UK have an online profile. Therefore children must be actively protected from the following (among others):

Access to explicit adult material.

Online grooming and other harmful communications.

Cyber bullying.

Online stranger danger.

Uncontrolled spending.

It seems from Ofcom data that the issue is twofold:

lack of awareness.

parental control software, which is essential to maintain safety for children on all online devices, is not used nearly as widely as it needs to be.

Suggestions of Actions that could be Taken to Improve Online Safety

As is the case for the care of children generally, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring children stay safe online lies with their parents. Parents need to speak to their children about online safety, impose restrictions and controls, and maintain supervision at all times. However, there are two things that I feel Government must do fulfil their part in addressing the issue of Online Safety for children:

Increase parental awareness—the dangers of the internet do often seem remote and hypothetical, whereas they are in fact very real and present. Government can use its considerable influence to help parents across the UK to realize this. Parents need to be helped to understand that it is a basic responsibility to protect their children online, as much as it is basic to teach them how to cross the road safely.

Insist on parental control software—rather than leaving parents to investigate and install some kind of control software, Government must insist that every online device sold in the UK for personal use must come with parental control software pre-installed. Ofcom’s findings absolutely support this suggestion. They found that the primary reasons given for parental controls not being used were as follows:

In addition to this, Ofcom reports that “when parents were asked whether they would install parental controls if the process was made very easy, almost all parents said they would do so.”

I look forward to hearing the results of the Committee’s inquiry, and look forward to hearing about the Government action which is sure to follow.

Many thanks again for the opportunity to provide this submission.

September 2013

Prepared 18th March 2014