During the coronavirus pandemic, the need to safeguard children online cannot be understated
When a child logs onto their computer or tablet, their world is opened up to a myriad of digital dangers, writes Chris Elmore MP. | PA Images
Social media giants won’t adopt the changes to online safety we need without them being written into law. While the UK Government has a limitless in-tray at the moment, it’s vital that online child protection issues don’t go unchecked.
So much about the way we live our lives has changed over the past few months. Seemingly at the flick of a switch, day-to-day routines have been completely transformed – and we know this same switch can’t be used to reverse these changes as quickly. This much has been clear to us all for weeks now. And while some of the most visible direct impacts this is having on our mental health, wellbeing, and quality of life are quite clear, several of the hidden effects of these radical changes are deeply unsettling.
Perhaps inevitably, the lockdown has led to a significant increase in screen time for many of us. Whether it be catching up with loved ones, scrolling through Facebook, or binge-watching the latest boxset on Netflix, technology is helping us all to keep connected at a time when the collective health of our nation demands that we must remain physically apart. Indeed, we’ve also seen some overwhelmingly positive examples of how online platforms – and particularly social media – can be used to help keep us informed at a time when having reliable information is crucial.
All of us will have seen the prompts to official Covid-19 advice that have been prominent across multiple sites including YouTube, Twitter, and Google. But despite this, we can’t afford to ignore the stark dangers which still exist online and have the potential to put large numbers of people – and particularly children and young people – at risk.
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media, I’m acutely aware of the pressing need to improve the ways through which young people are protected online. When a child logs onto their computer or tablet, their world is opened up to a myriad of digital dangers which have the ability to harm their physical health, mental health, and wellbeing. From cyberbullying, to online sexual abuse, the need to safeguard children online cannot be understated. Indeed, Unicef has warned that millions of children are now at an increased risk online due to the current global public health crisis.
Earlier this week, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) revealed that there has been an almost 90 per cent reduction in the number of suspicious web addresses being taken offline since the pandemic began. This startling reduction, which likely means the availability of child abuse images has increased online, is thought to have been caused by a fall in the number of staff tech firms have available to take these malicious sites down. If this wasn’t concerning enough, the IWF’s annual report also now considers Europe to be the global hub for child sexual abuse photos and videos.
While I understand that the UK Government has a limitless in-tray at the moment, it’s vital that child protection issues like this don’t go unchecked.
On Tuesday, in our now-digital Parliament, I raised the IWF’s startling assessment with Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, and called for urgent action to ensure children are protected online throughout this pandemic. I’m pleased that he responded so receptively to this and has assured me that the government will take action. But this stark example underlines how much more vigilant we all need to be online both during this pandemic and in “normal” times.
The need for the UK Government to act on internet safety has never been more apparent. The Online Harms White Paper published last year was certainly a step in the right direction but this pandemic has underscored the need to act with urgency and with a meaningful purpose.
We know that the social media giants won’t adopt the changes we all need without them being written into law. Only yesterday, we’ve seen Facebook poach senior Ofcom executive, Tony Close, in an apparent bid to help the site respond to the rules he helped to draw up to keep tech giants in check. This just further highlights the need for the government to be on the front foot because the tech giants will always try and stay that one step ahead.
We all have additional things to worry about during this incredibly precarious situation we all find ourselves in. Despite the additional pressures on our lives, it’s essential that we are increasingly vigilant about the impact our own online activity, and that of our children, is having on our physical health, mental health, and wellbeing. This is something which has the ability to have a long-term impact on an individual.
This pandemic will define the foreseeable future of all our lives – let’s all commit to do everything we can to safeguard against the very worst consequences it could have.
Chris Elmore is the Labour MP for Ogmore and chair of the all parliamentary group on social media.