"How do we keep our children safe online?
It's a question I was asked last week at the Culture Select Committee's evidence session about online safety. Sadly, as is so often the case, no silver bullet solution was identified. Yes, you can introduce filters that block harmful content as long as they don't block children and young people from accessing vital information, but as I told the committee, there is no filter in the world that can block peer on peer abuse or cyber bullying.
So what do we do? Well, the best filter in the world is parental responsibility, but parents need more information and advice so that they can have these conversations with their children. That's why we've teamed up with Parentdish to provide as much information and support as possible. For children themselves, prevention is better than cure, which is why education and awareness must be at the heart of any new efforts to tackle cyber bullying.
There was also some debate about what to do when prevention fails. My response was early intervention – i.e. ensuring that bullying behaviours are identified and stopped at the earliest opportunity. But this will not work unless teachers, police, local authorities and internet providers are clear about their roles and responsibilities when it comes to cyber bullying.
At the moment tackling cyber bullying is often seen as somebody else's responsibility when it should be everybody's. That is why BeatBullying has been calling on the Government to produce a UK Anti-Bullying Strategy which would provide this clarification.The final measure is better laws and regulations to protect children online.
There is currently no law against cyber bullying. Other Acts addressing online behaviour and abuse have thresholds set too high and are unable to cope with the persistent nature of cyber bullying. What's more, those who cyber bully know they can't be traced and can set up multiple accounts to continue the abuse if they're ever suspended or blocked.
My call to the committee was a fresh look at internet regulations to ensure social networking sites know the identity of their users so they could be accountable for their online behaviour.
They say the secret of comedy is timing, an adage that struck me two days after the hearing when Facebook announced it will now allow teenage users to share their private information with the general public.
We know from Ofcom that children with a social networking site profile that may be visible to people not known to them are more likely to have undertaken some kind of potentially risky online behaviour.
We've called on Facebook to reverse this move and would recommend that parents use this opportunity to discuss the consequences of sharing personal information or images online with their children.
So why are social networking relaxing their safeguards? Well we've seen in recent months the popularity of new sites that promise anonymity or the instant deletion of harmful posts. As appalling as these sites sound, they are taking young users away from Facebook.
That is why, I believe, we are witnessing this race to the bottom. A race which may attract young users back to these sites, but at what cost?"
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