Glenys Thornton on the challenges protecting children from online adult material
It is clear that the internet has brought considerable benefits to children as well as society in general.
However, it can also expose children and young people to harm, for example by exposing them to age-inappropriate material or illegal content, or to sexual predators or bullies.
We need to see Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Private Members Bill in the context of a fast moving world. Technology has moved on and progress quickened. But alongside the wonderful opportunities that the online and WiFi world offers, to everyone but in particular our children and young people, also poses new safety challenges.
Just imagine how many appliances there may be in a home with several children of different ages. There could be a digital TV which is internet enabled, several lap tops, iPads, iTouches, a desk top computer, games consoles, blackberries, smartphones and other mobile devices. I saw an article the other day which suggested that within many family homes these days it is not at all unusual to find there could be as many as 18 or more appliances which can connect to the internet.
So whilst we hope and want every parent to pay attention to what their child is doing online, the reality is that this may not happen for a number of reasons. It may be physically impossible in that they could be using the device in their bedrooms. Many parents confess to being bemused and befuddled by the technology that is involved in keeping children safe.
Online safety is not a one off event. It is not something you do once and forget about it. Whatever technical solutions we might come up with, parents still need to engage on an ongoing basis. But what about the families where no amount of outreach to parents, no amount of media literacy work is ever going to have any impact? What if those parent don't read read? Or don't understand English?
What Lady Howe's Bill proposes is to make that process easier, better, surer; because it automatically removes from the equation material which by common consent should not be there in the first place for younger users. It demands that a technical solution be found to help with this problem. This proposal is another step on the way to making the virtual world safer.
All mobile phone companies have been blocking online adult material since 2004. All public WiFi providers are going to decline to allow adult content to be made available via their public networks – spaces like railway stations, hotels or, increasingly commonly, in shops on the High Street. It seems likely that an adult bar will be fixed.
These developments could mean that the only place children will have easy access to pornography and other inappropriate content is in their own homes. That cannot be right.
Labour is calling on the government to declare its support in principle for the idea of Lady Howe's Bill – that adult content on the internet should be restricted to adults. We will demand the establishment of a working party to report back within six months on the practicalities and technicalities of how it might be implemented.
The evidence is there: such easy access to porn is harmful to our children and young people. The desirability of the principle of restricting children's access is therefore crystal clear. Ministers need to act.
Baroness Glenys Thornton is Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords
Published 9th November 2012