Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The Children’s Society

We are pleased that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee has launched this inquiry into online safety. We welcome the Committee’s focus on protecting children from accessing adult content; filtering out extremist material, including images of child abuse and material intended to promote terrorism or other acts of violence; and preventing abusive or threatening comments on social media. We also support the written evidence submission from the Child Internet Safety Coalition (CHIS) of which we are a member.

We believe that protecting children from accessing adult content can be done most effectively through educating and empowering children to protect themselves online. Whilst filters and blocking software are vitally important, but they will not rid the internet of inappropriate content and behaviour or young people’s access to it. In addition, teachers, parents or carers cannot monitor every single thing their children do online so children need to be taught to make judgements independently and keep themselves safe.

Educating and Empowering Children about Internet Safety

Only through teaching children about the dangers they may unintentionally expose themselves to online and about predatory individuals seeking to harm them, can we be assured that they will be able to use the internet safely.

The Children’s Society runs nine services that work with children at risk of sexual exploitation and/or have run away from home or care, supporting around a thousand children a year. Our services report that for many of the children we work with that have been groomed for sexual exploitation, this started online in chat rooms, through social media sites such as Facebook, apps or gaming sites. Such sites are a particularly common grooming tool for boys and some practitioners report that approximately 80% of boys are initially groomed in this way, as this example from The Children’s Society in Lancashire illustrates:

Joey (aged 14) met another young man online and they soon became quite close. When they met, Joey realised the man was older than he had initially said but they still began a sexual relationship. Joey believed he was in love and that they were in a loving relationship. Soon he realised he was not the only one and that this man was even older than he had claimed to be. The relationship became violent. We worked with Joey to support him before, during and after the court process and the offender was convicted.

Our practitioners also report that without tailored education and training on the effects of risk taking or displaying overtly sexualised behaviour, as well as the appropriateness of what to post online, young people unintentionally often expose themselves to risks and dangerous individuals who seek to harm and exploit them.

Our practitioners find that sadly most children will be exposed to pornographic images at some stage of their life. Therefore we endorse the Internet Watch Foundation’s statement that “the removal of material alone is not enough, but behaviour change is required through ‘education and awareness’”.

PSHE should be a Statutory Requirement and include Internet Safety

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) is also of the opinion that technical measures such as Internet Service Provider blocking and parental measures in isolation are not sufficient and recommended in a recent report that sex and relationships education (SRE) should be compulsory in all schools (“Basically Porn is everywhere”, 2013).

We agree and believe the government should make PSHE a statutory part of the national curriculum and should include internet safety and SRE. We are disappointed that the government has not accepted amendments proposed in the Children and Families Bill to this effect but urge them to accept the amendments at House of Lords stage.

Young people need comprehensive emotional literacy and to learn about sex and healthy relationships alongside digital literacy in order to manage risks online but also to be able to enjoy and use the internet as adults do. Many of our services provide group awareness raising training in schools on how to stay safe online including the signs and risks associated with online grooming, as well as what is appropriate behaviour online.

The government should also do more to ensure that practitioners who work with young people and parents are trained and up-skilled so that they can support and educate young people on online safety.

September 2013

Prepared 18th March 2014