08 December 2023

Online Safety – Time to Act

Online Safety – Time to Act image
Image: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com.

England’s 11,700 local authority-funded schools still have work to do despite onus being put on online platforms to conform to new safeguarding legislation, says Mark Bentley, Safeguarding and Cyber Security Lead at edtech charity LGfL–The National Grid for Learning.

The scale and nature of children’s experiences of potentially unwanted and inappropriate contact online is shocking. According to the online safety regulator Ofcom – in its research Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes – ‘three in five secondary-school-aged children (11-18 years) have been contacted online in a way that potentially made them feel uncomfortable. Some 30% have received an unwanted friend or follow request. And around one in six secondary-schoolers (16%) have either been sent naked or half-dressed photos or been asked to share these themselves.

Under its draft Codes published this November by Ofcom for the Online Safety Bill, large platforms with higher-risk services should ensure that, by default:

• children are not presented with lists of suggested friends

• children do not appear in other users’ lists of suggested friends

• children are not visible in other users’ connection lists

• children’s connection lists are not visible to other users

• accounts outside a child’s connection list cannot send them direct messages, and

• children’s location information is not visible to any other users.

Ofcom is also proposing that larger platforms with higher-risk services should:

• use a technology called ‘hash matching’ – which is a way of identifying illegal images of child sexual abuse by matching them to a database of illegal images, to help detect and remove child sexual abuse material (CSAM) circulating online

• use automated tools to detect URLs that have been identified as hosting CSAM

• provide crisis prevention information in response to search requests regarding suicide, and queries seeking specific, practical, or instructive information regarding suicide methods.

The bottom line is that this will only work where platforms know the age of their users. To date, platforms only need to say that their site is not intended for under-18s and it is fairly easy to give a false date of birth or answer yes to ‘are you over 18?’ The new law however brings in a duty for platforms to have ‘highly effective’ age checking, especially for the most harmful content – ‘primary priority content’ such as pornography and the encouragement of suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.

Hopefully in the future we will see a new ecosystem of apps which are appropriate for children, keeping them safe from many other harms too – helped by new duties of care that apply to all sites likely to be used by children.

The good news is that some companies are already quietly releasing new systems for age and identity verification to test the waters – mostly voluntary so far – ahead of enforcement and fines of up to £18m or 10% of revenue which begins towards the end of 2024.

I would like to see more focus on parental controls, which are often difficult to use. I’d also like to see smaller sites brought into the fray – such as sites that encourage eating disorders which have by nature a niche user-base but can cause enormous harm.

It’s hoped that previous reliance on parents and schools will be bolstered by industry’s best efforts. In the meantime, England’s 11,700 local authority funded schools - who have a responsibility to keep children safe – must continue to hold honest conversations with young people and parents, regarding the risks and harms presented by the online world. Change will not happen overnight, but the new legislation means the future is brighter.

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