Online safety and age verification must stay a priority

Keeping children safe online is one of our top priorities—it’s essential the issue also stays at the top of the government's agenda, says Dr. Julia Fossi 

The government announced in their manifesto earlier this year that they will work to Teenage girl on an iPadensure that all pornography websites are placed behind effective access controls.

We support this. Because at the NSPCC, we know the damage inappropriate content can do to children.

Many young people look at pornography to find out more about sex and relationships. But the extreme, violent or degrading depictions of sex they see can have a very harmful impact. Children often feel ashamed, guilty or confused by what they’ve seen online. And it’s concerning to learn that they often feel unable to talk to a family member, trusted adult or friend. In many cases, this isolation can even lead to self-harm.

"We all understand the importance of keeping children safe in the offline world. The same must apply in the online world. "
Julia Fossi / Senior Analyst: Child Safety Online, Policy and Public Affairs Team

In fact, ChildLine carried out 1,229 counselling sessions last year in which children were concerned about being exposed to sexually explicit online content. Viewing online porn often has a harmful impact on children’s self-esteem and body image. It changes their sexual expectations. And it can warp their understanding of consent and relationships. Adult content can even make children and young people feel pressured to make sexual videos of themselves which are then shared online, often without their consent.

Listening to children

Children and young people should be at the heart of online developments. They are active users of this space and their voices must be heard. To make sure they’re included in age verification discussions, we recently carried out a small-scale study with 211 young people. They believe more needs to be done to protect them online.

  • 80% of young people felt that age verification was needed for sites that contained adult content
  • 72% felt that social media sites needed to take more responsibility to protect young people from accessing adult content.

And there are many other online risks to children – like blogs which encourage self-harm, websites that give tips on being anorexic, or videos and images of extreme violence.

The issue must be treated with urgency. Content rated over 18 should simply not be accessible to children.

Our ChildLine service is always hearing from children about the negative impact of viewing inappropriate content. So we welcome the government’s pledge to ensure that online content providers and services apply age restrictions on harmful content, content that sometimes even an adult couldn’t begin to comprehend. 

What we're doing

We're doing a number of things to protect children from accessing inappropriate content online, including:

  • Actively engaging and consulting with the government to ensure that they deliver on their promise to protect children from accessing adult content online.
  • Working with and challenging social networking sites to make sure that they are held accountable for the content on their platforms.
  • Commissioning research alongside the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and the British Board of Film Classification, to get a more in-depth picture of the impact of pornography on young people.
  • Pressing government on the importance of statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) within schools, and showing that this should be seen as a safeguarding priority.
  • Updating our Net Aware guide to help parents know more about what their children are doing online and how to keep them safe. 

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