E-safety

In the first few weeks of 2019, a series of desperately sad stories in the press and the publication of several new reports brought home to me the very real dangers and pressure children and young people can experience online. Social media, smart phones and the internet are ubiquitous in our everyday lives but it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the impact they have on mental, emotional and physical health.

Our children are more digitally connected than ever before yet growing numbers report feeling alone and isolated. New technologies can also be a gateway to bullying, self-harm, harassment or blackmail. Whilst the law struggles to keep up, our safeguarding responses to these risks are constantly evolving. As with child sexual exploitation several years ago, it is tempting to reach for a criminal justice response to online grooming, for example, or the distribution of indecent imagery, however, it’s vital we recognise young people involved in these activities can be both an abuser and a victim of exploitation themselves by unscrupulous adults.

The challenge for all of us is not just about getting better at spotting harm once it has occurred; a purely child protection approach isn’t helpful here. Instead, we need to empower young people with the knowledge and tools to navigate their life online in a way which protects and promotes their health, safety and wellbeing, and, if they’re too young to act with agency, then we should educate parents on digital dangers. It’s important that the tech giants generating huge profits from young people’s prolific use of their product accept greater responsibility too.

Research by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in 2017 showed high levels of public support for tighter regulation of social media companies, particularly in relation to the negative impacts on children and young people. The public also felt these companies - and the government - were not doing enough in this space. The introduction of a statutory code of practice for social media companies or the appointment of a digital ombudsman have both been floated as solutions. With parliament mired up with Brexit planning, this doesn’t seem likely any time soon. Online safety will feature in the new statutory relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum in all schools from 2020 onwards. There remains little research or evidence on the consequences of exposure to social media over time nor who is at risk of experiencing harm online, and why, yet the new RSE guidance is currently in development.

Multiple studies, including the one by RSPH, shows that young people themselves think social media has a negative effect on their mental wellbeing, something that health professionals put down to increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Indeed, 40% of the girls taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study who spent more than five hours a day on social media exhibit symptoms of depression. All too often children are an after thought, it’s time we put their rights and interests ahead of those of corporations and their shareholders.

Stuart Gallimore is the President of ADCS and Director of Children’s Services at East Sussex County Council.

This column was first published in CYP Now on 26 February 2019 | https://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/other/2006436/e-safety-policy-context


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