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Children’s online safety must be top priority in government

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

It has been reported that the Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, will present an amended Online Safety Bill in which the rules around ‘legal but harmful’ content will be watered down.

These rules would have required social media companies to address content that whilst legally allowed online is dangerous for children to be exposed to, such as content promoting suicide and self-harm. If this amendment should stand, it will significantly reduce the effectiveness of the Bill to save children who encounter this content online, just as Molly Russell did.

It’s only been a few weeks since the coroner in the inquest into Molly Russell’s tragic death concluded that the 14-year-old ‘died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content’. Molly died in November 2017 after viewing a large volume of posts on social media sites about suicide, posts that were categorised in the inquest as ‘legal but harmful’.

Many people had hoped that this monumental event would be a watershed moment for how tech giants are held responsible for the way they deploy algorithms, ignoring young people’s online safety and digital wellbeing. Disappointingly, rather than serve as an impetus to help drive forward the government’s agenda to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, it was announced that the Online Safety Bill has been shelved yet again and now weakened. Inconsistent leadership and continual change at the top of our government have slowed progress on this important Bill, with it now seemingly grinding to a halt. It had been due to return to parliament on 1 November, but now we are left with no commitment on a date it might return.

For too long tech giants and online platforms, in general, have been left to self-regulate. The outcome of this for children and other vulnerable internet users has been catastrophic, as companies have repeatedly put profit considerations ahead of safety. This failure has led to many children being put at risk of serious harms, including grooming for sexual abuse and exploitation and county-line drug gangs. In extreme cases, it has tragically led to the death of children.

In recent times we have seen the worst impact of an industry allowed to remain unaccountable, with Molly Russell’s story being just one example. Like Molly, in March 2021, 15-year-old Mia Janin took her own life after she was bullied online and in person. Olly Stephens, a 13-year-old schoolboy was fatally stabbed in a field close to his home in Reading in Berkshire in 2021, following an online row. Olly had been lured to the park by a girl whose communications with his killers through a popular social media platform depicted an obsession with violence. Archie Battersbee, a 12-year-old boy, was the subject of prolonged court hearings this year, to determine whether to continue his life support. It is believed that Archie had been participating in the dangerous social media trend called the blackout challenge.

If the systems operated by tech platforms were designed to limit harm to vulnerable young users and not simply pedal profits, then Molly, Mia, Olly and Archie, as well as the many others where social media’s influence goes undocumented, might be alive today. Instead, social media sites have been designed with algorithms that end up increasing children’s exposure to harmful online contents. There is only one way to change this, and it is to urgently pass the Online Safety Bill into law. The Bill will place a new statutory duty of care on platforms for children’s safety and it has overwhelming public support. It will be enforced through new powers to be given to Ofcom to act as an independent regulatory body.

As the internet becomes ever more ubiquitous, accelerated by the pandemic lockdowns, the need for change and quick action is dire. New figures obtained by NSPCC show that online grooming crimes recorded by the police have increased by 84% in just four years, reaching an all-time high in 2021/22. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has reported this year that there has been a shocking 235% increase in child sexual abuse material involving 7–10-year-olds since 2020.

The latest changes and delays to the Online Safety Bill are deeply concerning. The NSPCC has said there will be more than 3,500 online child abuse crimes for every month that the Online Safety Bill is delayed. These are children who will experience various forms of exploitation and abuse, and some whose lives will be potentially put at risk. Our organisation, Breck Foundation, is part of a coalition of around 40 children’s organisations, including NSPCC, 5Rights, Childnet International and Save the Children International, that has been calling for essential amendments to the Online Safety Bill, to give it the best chance of keeping our children safe, and for its return to Parliament.

The case for urgent governmental and wider societal action is very clear. Not only must the government bring back the Bill immediately and reverse the recent reported changes, but it must also be given top priority and its passage accelerated, because nothing could be more important than the safety and wellbeing of our children.

Written by Breck Foundation CEO, Michael Buraimoh


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