Equal protection for children online and offline Working towards a statutory code of practice to keep children safe wherever they are
For children, there's no difference between the online and offline worlds. One third of internet users are children - learning, communicating, developing, creating and exploring the world around them.
But the internet can also expose children to content that's inappropriate for their age. And this can be harmful to their safety and wellbeing. We know that what children can access online is largely unfiltered and there are minimal checks for age, safety and wellbeing.
We believe that child protection should be built into online services. There needs to be equal protection between the online and offline worlds - and consistent child protection and safeguarding practices across all areas of a child's life.
Keeping children safe online and offline
Childhood is a time to explore, play and learn. During these formative years children deserve to be safe, wherever they go. That's why the offline world has so many measures in place to protect them. But the same cannot be said for online. Think about this: the internet is like a playground to children – but is it a safe space? Let's take a look at the differences online and offline:
Setting up the space
Manufacturers prioritise safety when they design things like swings. Standards and regulations mean they can be held to account for any injuries caused during play – a strong motivator for safe equipment.
Some websites and apps are designed with safety features, but many popular ones could do more. When we asked children, 60% said social media sites need to do more to protect them from violent content (NSPCC, 2016).
Separating the space
The law means that most playgrounds have a fence separating children from dangers like dogs and traffic. This allows children to freely explore the space and reassures parents that the area is safe.
There just aren’t many barriers where there should be. When we spoke to over 1,000 young people, we found that just under half had been exposed to online pornography (NSPCC et al, 2016).
Supervising the space
Many activity groups, like Scouts and Girl Guides, are well supervised. Group leaders have to carry out criminal record checks and must uphold a responsibility to prevent and address issues like bullying.
While many websites do have moderators, we don’t know how effective their training is to help spot things like cyberbullying. But more and more children are talking to us about this – up 88% in the last 5 years (NSPCC, 2016).
Children deserve the same protection online and offline, so that they can grow up safely. In the offline world there are standards of protection, many legally binding. This is simply not the case online. That’s why we’re calling for parity of protection for children, to keep them safe in the offline and online world.
Developing a statutory code of practice to keep children safe online
A statutory code of practice would not only assure equal protection for children online as well as offline, but would set out responsibilities for anyone developing or hosting online content or services to ensure children are at the heart of designs. It would establish minimum standards for anyone who provides space and content where children interact online.
But it also needs to be flexible because the internet is a constantly shifting space. Like in any assessment of safety, it is important to focus on strengths as well as risks, and to recognise the potential of the internet to support the learning and development of children.
The development of a code of practice must involve industry, organisations such as the NSPCC and, crucially, the children and families who use online services. The code of practice would build on the ICT Coalition's 6 guiding principles for keeping children safe online:
Communication providers must understand what content is acceptable on their service and how to make this clear to users whilst being clear about minimum age limits.
Providers need to implement suitable parental controls for the type of service they offer.
Providers need to give users reasonable choices about how they use their personal information, and offer privacy setting options. We need stricter measures in place for young children and support to help them understand the implications of sharing information.
Providers must make it easy for users to report problematic content and to ensure that triage systems are in place to deal with content reports.
Providers must have standardised functions to report online child abuse images and illegal sexual contact. This should include specialist teams, systems for escalation and being clear with users about how to report online child abuse images.
Providers must take responsibility, as part of the user experience, for educating children about safety.
Find out more about what we're calling for:
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Livingstone, S. et al. (2015) One in three: Internet governance and children's rights (PDF). London: Royal Institute of International Affairs; Ontario, Canada: Centre for International Governance Innovation.
NSPCC (2016) What children are telling us about bullying: Childline bullying report 2015/16. [London]: NSPCC.
NSPCC Net Aware research 2016 (unpublished)