The UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Matt Hancock, has said that the government will be legislating to help make the Internet a safer place to be, particularly for children. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, along with the Home Office, will be releasing a White Paper that details what steps the government will be taking to legislate against harms that include cyberbullying and online child exploitation.
Hancock also urged schools to consider banning students from using their mobile phones during the day.
The Secretary of State was giving a speech at the NSPCC’s children safety conference in London this week, where he said that government, civil society, technology platforms, teachers and parents all had a role to play to ensure children could use the Internet without fear of harm. He said:
Throughout human history, the primary role of any government, of any community, has been to keep its members safe. Balancing safety and freedom has been the goal throughout the ages.
And we must reset this balance anew in this digital age. Because young people are different.
While we need to think about the balance between freedom and safety online for adults, we have a special responsibility to our children. Sadly, while the Internet brings these freedoms for young people, it also makes them more exposed to risks.
Hancock said that there have been 3,000 online grooming offences over the past year in the UK and that there is a “moral responsibility” to build an internet for the next generation that is exciting, free, but also that protects those who use it.
Las year the government published its Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, which according to Hancock, found that terms and conditions are either not being enforced by platforms or are out of line with what the public expects.
It found that six in ten had witnessed inappropriate or harmful content online, whilst four in ten had experienced online abuse. Which is what is leading the government to legislate. Hancock said:
As online communities continue to grow, industry-wide frameworks are not keeping pace. So I will be working with our bold new Home Secretary to publish a White Paper, setting out how we plan to tackle online harms.
Some of these proposals will be legislative, building on the successful legislation we have already brought forward. Two years ago, we legislated to make sure children cannot access pornography online.
And we have legislated this year to give people control over their data through the Data Protection Act. Internet safety is the next step.
The White Paper will set out legislative proposals to tackle a range of both legal and illegal harms, from cyberbullying to online child sexual exploitation.
Platforms must do their part
Aside from government legislation, Hancock said that technology platforms have a role to play. The likes of Twitter and Facebook have recently been called in front of MPs to explain what they’re doing to control abuse and harmful content online - with approaches varying between automation and increased resources.
Hancock believes that technology holds the answer to solving many of these problems and that platforms have a duty of care to keep their users safe. He said:
Tech companies have done incredible work in giving solutions whilst technology has been making waves and causing unbelievable change. Social media platforms are effectively public spaces. And the owner of any public space, online or offline, has a duty of care to the public who are invited in.
And just as safety and social impact has become a competitive advantage in other industries, I want safety to be seen as a driver of innovation online, not a barrier to it.
I want us to be seen as a global leader in Internet safety too, just as we are in fintech, cybersecurity and AI. For this to happen, tech platforms need to keep doing more when it comes to Internet safety.
Hancock also said that it is right for the government to use its education system to help children understand face-to-face relationships and what it means to be a citizen, but that these frameworks need to be updated to reflect the new challenges of the digital age and what it means to be a ‘digital citizen’.
Schools have a role to play to help students understand what behaviours are acceptable online and how they can contribute positively to the online world, he said.
The Secretary of State effectively called for schools to consider banning mobile phones. He said:
Whilst it is up to individual schools to decide rather than Government, I admire the many headteachers who take a firm approach and do not allow mobiles to be used during the school day.
A high performing comprehensive school not far from here is ranked as Outstanding by Ofsted.
And their policy on mobile phones says “We are convinced that mobile phones are a distraction and have serious concerns about the impact of their inappropriate use. We know their use is reducing our students’ ability to connect with one another socially on a day-to-day basis.”
A recent study by The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research has shown that mobile phones can have a real impact on working memory and measured intelligence, even if the phone is on a table or in a bag.
I encourage other schools to look at the evidence and follow their lead.