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‘Today’s green paper is an important marker in our journey towards a safer digital society’

Image: Geralt, CC0

Parent Zone CEO Vicki Shotbolt responds to today’s government green paper on internet safety

Once upon a time, we hoped that one of two things would happen to make the internet a place that children could enjoy safely.

Either a very clever person would invent a widget that would ensure that children could be kept safe online: a filter, a blocking tool or something even smarter that would protect children from many of the challenges they face in the digital world. Or we would reach a point where parents had so much understanding of the internet, they’d be able to raise children with the digital resilience they need. 

Of course, we know better now. Both of those scenarios seem ridiculous on reflection.  To be fair to our optimistic younger selves, we were hypothesising about these things before The Facebook became Facebook and everyone had access to the internet via a smartphone. We’re talking about the days of the flip phone and dial up.

The reality is that the internet keeps changing. New apps and services emerge, new behaviours follow and different risks bubble to the surface.

What we understand now is that helping children to benefit from the internet and all it brings involves a major collaborative effort. There is a role for everyone.

Industry needs to get better at designing services with safety at their core.

Parents need to continue to stay informed and provide the supportive parenting that works.

Educators need to work hard to teach children the skills they need to be good internet citizens.

Children themselves have to be part of a digital ecosystem that is safe and positive. On many levels they shape the world that adults then try to keep safe.

‘Companies need to think safety by design’

Today’s green paper is an important marker in our journey towards a safer digital society. Not only does it demonstrate this government’s commitment to making the UK the safest place in the world to go online, it provides an opportunity for us all to reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t.

It will undoubtedly lead to a lot of debate and discussion and there are certainly some interesting ideas in it. The proposal to require social media companies to pay a levy is eye catching. The more interesting question is what the levy will achieve. We know that responsible companies are already investing heavily in education and in developing more sophisticated safety tools. The problem with a levy is that it risks being little more than a tax whilst business goes on as usual. The gambling industry has taught us that.

More interesting is the proposal that companies need to think safety by design.

The concept of minimum safety standards isn’t a new.  Every other industry has standards they need to follow – imagine a toy with eyes that fall out or stuffing that is flammable. We don’t have those because we have safety standards that require toy manufacturers – no matter how small – to apply basic standards of safety. Getting the tech industry to the same place would be a major step forward.

‘Information is good – vital even – but on its own it isn’t enough’

Perhaps the biggest disappointment – or perhaps the biggest opportunity – is the lack of clarity about what parents need.

We keep hearing about parents needing support, but too often that simply means more information. Information is good – vital even – but on its own it isn’t enough.

Parents need proper support: services for their children when things have gone wrong; someone to speak to when the question is more complicated than ‘where is the SafeSearch button?’ 

Technology has had a profound impact on parenting and parents need proper guidance to navigate their way through parenting in a digital age. Every parent should have access to a digital parenting course if they want it. The Green Paper could and should have gone further and we hope that the consultation process will enable parents’ voices to be heard so that we can start to develop the services they need.

This isn’t going to be the end of the journey. This particular journey doesn’t have an end point because, as with the real world, the virtual world will always carry some level of risk and we will always need to find new ways to mitigate that. But it is an important marker in the sand.

The Internet isn’t new and emerging any more. It’s here and we need to make sure that our laws and policies are keeping up.

Further reading: The Internet Safety Strategy green paper