Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the NSPCC [EC 03]

The internet has brought considerable benefits to children as well as society in general. Children use the internet as a source of information, learning, advice, and as a safe place to provide support to and communicate with each other. However, the internet and new technologies can also expose children and young people to harm, for example by exposing them to age-inappropriate material or illegal content, or to sexual predators or bullies.

There should be a continued focus to make the internet a safe environment for children to use for entertainment, socialising and learning. The NSPCC wants to see children able to use the online world to thrive and develop, and have the support, guidance and resilience to cope with the risks and dangers it can present.

1. The NSPCC welcomes the opportunity to provide written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on the topic of e-Crime. E-crime affects people of all ages but children are particularly vulnerable to abuse and being exposed to inappropriate or illegal content. We know that children have access to and use the internet regularly. According to Ofcom 91% of five to 15 year olds have internet access at home and this age group spends an average on 90 minutes per day online.1 Our evidence will focus on the impact that the internet has on children and how children can be better protected from some of the risks and dangers that the internet poses to children.

2. What Children and Young People have told us about their Views on using the Internet Safely through Childline

2.1 The NSPCC runs ChildLine, the UK’s free, 24-hour confidential helpline for children and young people. Trained counsellors provide comfort, support and advice about any problem to children over the phone or online. Last year, children called the ChildLine phone line 1.3 million times. In 2011–12 the ChildLine website was visited by 1.9 million children and young people looking for help, information and advice. ChildLine’s website also provides children with a safe forum for peer-to-peer support on its message boards.

2.2 These contacts with children and young people provide a unique way for us to understand what issues they are concerned about. The NSPCC recently conducted an online survey of 851 children and young people aged five to 18 years on their use of the internet. The information we gathered in the survey gives us an up-to-date insight into the views of young people about the online world and internet safety.

2.3 In the survey children told us that:

The best things about the internet are games and fun sites, the availability and variety of information and social networking sites.

Over the last year children said they have started using the internet more safely, more for social networking and more for education.

69% of children said they access the internet via their mobile phone.

95% of children said they know how to protect themselves online (69% answered “Yes”, 26% answered “most of the time”).

2.4 However, the internet and new technologies can also expose children and young people to harm, for example by exposing them to age-inappropriate material or illegal content, or to sexual predators or bullies.

Children told us that the worst things about the internet include bullying, access to inappropriate material and being contacted strangers.

41% of children said they have seen or read something that upset them online.

2.5 We also asked children their views on who should be responsible for online safety and how this can be best achieved:

63% thought that primary responsibility for ensuring online safety rested with themselves, followed by parents/carers, internet companies and teachers.

43% felt that parents/carers should choose what you can access depending on age.

56% thought that all illegal or inappropriate things should be blocked automatically.

42% said that they would be safer if parents or guardians blocked inappropriate content.

2.6 As part of the survey, children and young people gave qualitative information about their experiences online and some of their concerns. Comments from young people included:

“You can liturally access anything and sometimes you end up coming across things by mistake and once you get on them/see them they can become addictive even though you never intended to go on.”

“It is way too easy nowadays for a child under 18 to click ‘Yes I’m over 18’ and view something they shouldn’t.”

2.7 Young people were pessimistic about whether anything could be done to prevent children accessing inappropriate materials online. However, the options that they considered that might be effective included better education about internet safety and blocking inappropriate material.

3. NSPCC Sexting Research

3.1 Mobile technologies have created new issues for young people. One of these is sexting, which involves the exchange of sexual messages or images between peers.2 We recently commissioned an in-depth piece of research into sexting and the use of mobile technology by young people.3 This was a qualitative study in two London secondary schools which has greatly enhanced our understanding of this new issue. The research found that:

The threat to young people comes mostly from peers, rather than strangers.

Sexting is often coercive, linked to harassment, bullying and even violence.

Girls are the most adversely affected by sexting.

Technology amplifies the problem by allowing the creation, exchange, collection, ranking and display of images.

Ever younger children are affected by sexting—year 8 (aged 12/13 years) children were worried, confused and in some cases upset by the sexual and sexting pressures they face.

3.2 The full report on sexting can be accessed here:

http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/sexualabuse/sexting-research-report_wdf89269.pdf.The issue of self-generated images should be explored further if we are to want to address this issue effectively. It would be beneficial to understand the norms or pressures that influence young people to produce and share these images. It is also important to understand why young people are motivated to do this, and whether they knowingly engage in risk-taking behaviour, or engage in this behaviour without knowing about the potential long-term consequences. Young people should not be criminalised for sexting and we agree with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that children and young people should not be prosecuted for sending sexually explicit pictures of themselves by text or email, colloquially known as “sexting”.

4. Key NSPCC Policy Calls to Tackle e-crime

4.1 We believe that there are a number of ways to help protect children from being abused or bullied online and to protect them from accessing inappropriate, illegal or harmful material online. It is important that children know how to use the internet safely and that parents understand the risks that the internet can pose so that they are better able to support their children.

5. Raising Awareness

5.1 There is a pressing need for more education and awareness raising of online risks for young people, with industry bearing a particular responsibility for funding and running such campaigns. In particular:

Children and young people should learn about online safety and sex education as part of the school curriculum.

Parents and teachers need support through more easily available online resources.

All professionals working with children need support and training to help keep children safe online.

Teenagers’ awareness of practices to reduce online risk from strangers indicates the success of e-safety campaigns. The focus of these campaigns now needs to shift towards reducing the risk from their peers.

Results and good practice from awareness raising campaigns should be shared to ensure we learn from successful approaches.

6. Opt-in Content Filtering Systems

6.1 The NSPCC supports the introduction of an opt-in content filtering system for all internet accounts in the UK, if necessary supported by Government regulation. This is where internet service providers (ISPs) should provide broadband connections into homes with filters already in place as the default setting to block access to adult content. Adults who wanted these filters removed from their service would have to inform ISP they wished to “opt in” to these sites.

6.2 We consider that such a measure would help support parents to protect their children online, we recognise and emphasise that technical tools have to form part of a broader package of measures to address online safety issues. It is noticeable that in the Childline survey that we highlighted earlier in the evidence that 56% of young people thought that illegal or inappropriate material should be blocked automatically which indicates that young people are in favour of an opt in content filtering system. We supported the work and findings of the inquiry into Online Child Protection led by Claire Perry MP and welcome the Government consultation on this issue. We think that involving parents in the consultation process was welcome and we look forward to the response to this consultation from the Government.

7. Age Verification

7.1 Providers of age sensitive services and products such as social networking sites should utilise robust age verification systems to protect children and young people from illegal activity.

7.2 Ultimately, what is needed is a framework for classifying content as adult or universal, and a widely used method of age verification so that users can prove they are old enough to access adult content. The mobile phone companies have already developed such a framework, as well as an age verification process, and so we know that this is achievable. Age verification systems are also already used by the online gambling industry. We accept that verifying the age of children under the age of 18 is more difficult, but this should not be used as a reason to delay the widespread roll out of age verification for content which is clearly aimed at adults.

7.3 Independent reviews commissioned by both the current and previous governments both favoured the use of age verification processes (Letting Children be Children: the report of an independent review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood (2011); Safer Children in a Digital World, the Byron Review (2008).

8. Future Research

8.1 We need to know more about the long-term consequences for children of online abuse In order to understand what their needs are and how to provide the best treatment and support. In recognition of this, the NSPCC will be conducting research on the impact of online abuse on victims over 18 months, starting in October this year.

9. In Conclusion

9.1 The internet brings huge benefits to children and society. However, this in turn also presents new risks and dangers to young people and work needs to continue to make the internet as safe as possible for children to use.

9.2 Young people’s views should also be taken into account as policy makers consider how to make the internet safer. Our contact with young people through ChildLine shows that the concerns that young people have about the internet and e-crime include issues like bullying and accessing inappropriate material which may be different to the concerns that adults have. We would welcome the opportunity for young people who have contacted us through our services and through ChildLine to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about their concerns and experiences in relation to e-crime.

About the NSPCC

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) aims to end cruelty to children in the UK by fighting for their rights, listening to them, helping them and making them safe.

We share our experience with governments and organisations working with children so together we improve the protection of children and we challenge those who will not learn and change. We campaign for better laws and we educate and inform the public to improve understanding about child abuse.

Our services include the NSPCC Helpline, for adults worried about a child, and ChildLine, the UK’s free, confidential helpline for children and young people.

August 2012

1 Ofcom (2011) “Children and parents: media use and attitudes report”

2 Sexting has been defined as the “creating, sharing and forwarding sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images’ through mobile phones and the Internet.” see Lenhart, A. (2009) “Teens and Sexting: How and why minor teens are sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images via text messaging”. Pew Research Centre Report. http://pewresearch.org/assets/pdf/teens-and-sexting.pdf

3 Ringrose, Jessica, Gill, Rosalind, Livingstone, Sonia, Harvey, Laura (2012) A qualitative study of children, young people and “sexting”: a report prepared for the NSPCC. London: NSPCC.

Prepared 29th July 2013