OPINION: Big tech companies are failing to protect children online

The NSPCC launches its internet safety campaign five years ago

The NSPCC launched its internet safety campaign more than five years ago. They believe more can be done by big companies to keep children safer online - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

NSPCC regional campaign manager Anna Collishaw-Nikodemus explains why the charity are pushing for an Online Safety Bill

The internet has proven to be an invaluable resource for our children and young people, especially since the start of the very first lockdown. It has kept them entertained, connected and helped with their learning. But the internet wasn’t designed with children in mind. So along with the benefits we also have to be aware of the potential risks in our children’s online harms.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on these risks as unfortunately it created the perfect storm for potential online abuse.

The saddest truth is that big tech companies have had the opportunity and resources to ensure their apps, games and platforms are designed to be safe for children. There is no excuse not to put our children’s safety first. But even today many popular tech hubs continue failing to put these safeguarding measures in place.

It is completely reasonable for all of us to expect these companies to put our children’s safety first on their list of priorities and it seems for far too long this had been put on the backburner, compromised by their own corporate requirements.

The UK Government has an opportunity to take action after the recent announcement of the Online Harms Bill, which could potentially alter our children’s online world with considerations for their safety first and foremost.

However, there is a real possibility of a missed opportunity here. It simply isn’t right that tech companies only act after serious harm has occurred.

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The Online Safety Bill proposes a regulator to some of the world’s largest tech companies and in order for it to achieve its intention, in keeping children safe, there needs to be further action opposed to just a simple fine.

We are asking for the Government to make a commitment to senior management liability, which means that senior managers will be held personally accountable if they fail in their duty to safeguard and protect children and young people and this could lead to criminal prosecution as a last resort.

The risks are very real. We know that predators have taken advantage of the pandemic to exploit our children online and cyberbullying simply hasn’t stopped. NSPCC research found that lonely children are more vulnerable to being groomed online and during the pandemic many children have been cut off from their usual support networks. On a national scale, online sex crimes against children recorded by police in the first six months at the start of lockdown increased by 17% on the previous year.

And from April to September last year 17,699 online child sex offences were recorded by police in England and Wales, which is in an increase of almost 2,500 offences compared to the same period in 2019.

This is why we will continue to push for a thorough and robust Online Harms Bill. This new piece of legislation must be transformative and work for children and families and we will continue to press our MPs and culture secretary to ensure this is at the forefront of their minds.

But we all have a role to play in helping to keep our children safe online. Key to this is having regular online safety chats.

Why not explore their online world together, be open and honest about your concerns, building their confidence in feeling able to come to you, a trusted adult or Childline for support.

For more information about your child’s online world, reviews and advice on the most popular aps, sites, channels and games and the safety measures they have in place visit www.net-aware.org.uk