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Keeping children safe online: Parent Zone submits evidence to the House of Lords

By Ann-Marie Corvin 

Parent Zone has addressed a House of Lords Communication Committee looking at the dangers posed to children by the internet and has urged for more digital parenting support, as well as legislation that ensures children enjoy the same protection rights online as they do offline.

Submitting her evidence yesterday afternoon to the Children and the Internet committee, Parent Zone founder and CEO Vicki Shotbolt spoke alongside several children’s charities and experts in the field of internet crime prevention.

Vicki, who also represents parents as an executive board member on the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), told the committee how the internet has changed family life profoundly, with parents facing a multitude of challenges, many of which they feel ill-equipped to deal with.

‘This inquiry is an important opportunity for parents to be heard,’ said Vicki. ‘A great deal is expected of them when it comes to online safety - we are highlighting the need for greater transparency about the risks and harms children experience on different services, as well as the need for parenting support to be made more widely available.’

Vicki, who also provided written evidence to the committee, highlighted the challenges of parenting in the digital age, as well as suggesting realistic strategies and legislation changes to address these problems.

Some of the key challenges the evidence highlighted include:

  • The fact the internet treats children as adults from the age of 13 has created a legal abyss. For parents, this means they are routinely excluded from the interactions their children have with online services and are powerless to intervene should problems arise.
  • The only people who actually know which risks children signing up to online services are taking is the online services themselves, and that information isn’t made public. It cannot be right that online services are allowed to look through that window, observe a child experiencing harm and have no legal duty to do anything with that information.
  • The internet is forcing many parents to have conversations with their young kids that they hadn’t expected to have an an early age about subjects such as pornography, violent extremism and self-harm, while nearly two thirds of parents felt their children were exposed to explicit sex too early because of the internet.
  • The fear that the internet does children more harm than good is also harmful for children, who will never learn to navigate the internet safely if they are blocked or prevented from using it.
  • Filters may end up doing more harm than good, with evidence that more and more technically savvy children are either using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to navigate their way around blocks or by visiting untraceable services and sites available through the dark web. Getting the balance right between protecting children from online risk while preparing them for a digital future is a critical.
  • Parenting has lost its voice in government at a time when it needs it most. Perhaps it is because of this vacuum that 70 per cent of parents say they turn to their child’s school for support and information. The burden this places on schools, already struggling to deal with the impact of technology on the children in their care, is unacceptable.

Parent Zone’s key recommendations include:

  • A call for the Children’s Act and Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance to be reviewed to consider whether a legal duty of care could be included to ensure that services that identify a child experiencing harm are required to report the incident to the appropriate authority.
  • Taking steps to ensure that a child’s data has special protection needs to happen now - a child-focused data protection review for the digital age is urgently needed.
  • Parents need support to develop skills that are adequate to the task of raising digital citizens. We have a crisis that should be dealt with as a public health issue and the response should involve multiple stakeholders, including the Government, schools and industry.

Image: public domain