You wouldn’t leave your 10-year-old alone in a night club and hope that they’d manage to avoid being “charmed” by any undesirable members of the clientele, not drink any appealing bright-coloured alcoholic drinks they were given or accept any “sweets” from the popular, cool dancer character centre stage on the dance floor… So why let them roam about freely on the internet without real-time guidance, rights or protection, just hoping for the best? Way back in around 1990 when the world-wide web was created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), it was intended as a mechanism to make it easy for scientists around the world to share information and research in real time. Nobody dreamed that, years later, children would be using it on a daily basis for hours on end. It’s evolved in ways that couldn’t possibly have been imagined and has utterly transformed how we live our lives today in terms of convenience, communications, finance, trade, travel – and so much more – but it’s essentially still a largely adult domain.

Company accountability
The Growing Up Digital report, written by the Children’s Commissioner and published in January 2017, calls for organisations and private companies to recognise the fact that children are using the internet more than ever before and take this into consideration when offering their services. Children need to know what they are getting themselves into when they download a new app or use an internet forum and suchlike. They need to know what those providers are doing with the information and photos they upload; what their rights are if they experience bullying or are exposed to inappropriate content while using that service; and how to report it.

A prime example is the Terms and Conditions used by many social media providers. Be honest: have you ever read through them when you’ve downloaded an app? The whole lot? Yep, thought so. You just tick the check box to continue because you know you need the app. They’re pretty hard to understand, even for us adults, so what chance do kids have? If all their mates have a certain app, they’re just going to download it too, so they don’t miss out. The Growing Up Digital report gives a great example of a study it carried out with young people into their understanding of Instagram’s Terms and Conditions: it showed a complete turnaround of their opinions of using the service once they were written in clear language they could actually understand.

Making the internet a safer place
The good news is that there are many organisations and charities campaigning for service providers and companies to acknowledge the huge number of young users who go online every day and who are working to improve the internet for young people. We’ve just had Safer Internet Day 2017; both the NSPCC and Childline do a fantastic job of supporting children affected by abuse online and offline; the Internet Watch Foundation removes hundreds of thousands of inappropriate images from the web each year; Childnet International offers tips and advice for young people, schools and parents for safe internet use – and there are many, many more doing this absolutely vital work.

Legislation is needed
However, we need help from the Government to set in stone the rights of children as they use the internet and to make companies and providers take more responsibility. The European Commission is working to better protect children using the web by “inviting ICT and media companies to engage in a self-regulatory process to tackle harmful content and behaviour online”. This will tie into the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for children across the EU when this is implemented in May 2018.

However, there is now a degree of uncertainty as to whether this will apply to the UK’s young people post-Brexit, so the Children’s Commissioner is asking the Government to implement a similar law in the UK as soon as possible, without waiting to see what the outcome of the Brexit talks will be. We need action now if we are to give our young people the internet they deserve. Let’s hope the Government will see fit to deliver.

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