THE BLOG

Protecting Children Online - Is There a Silver Bullet?

29/01/2014 09:33 GMT | Updated 30/03/2014 10:59 BST

Discussions about online filters focus on the privacy and civil liberties of adults. In the child protection sector, however, we are not losing sight of the fact that while these optional household filters are far from a silver bullet for keeping children safe online, they certainly help.

Today's Westminster Forum event about public priorities for protecting children online will inevitably explore the debate about filters. Since David Cameron announced that online pornography would be blocked by default last year and the UK's four largest internet service providers subsequently agreed to implement these optional filters, debate about the subject has abounded. Whatever the discussion, children's safety must remain the priority.

The prevalence and accessibility of online pornography means children may come across very violent or extreme images by accident - the impact of these discoveries can be confusing, frightening and highly distressing. Last year, the "Access and exposure to pornography affect children and young people's sexual beliefs" report by the Children's Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, linked pornography to young people developing maladaptive attitudes about relationships, more sexually permissive attitudes, beliefs that women are sex objects, and less progressive gender role attitudes for instance, male dominance and female submission.

While filters help to block these web pages, they are imperfect and some content will get through, not to mention children's access to the internet via devices outside of their homes. For these reasons, family services and the government must educate parents and children, ensuring young people have the resilience to handle their information intake online.

Schools can help by providing relationship and sex education that discusses issues about the internet and pornography: we cannot be shy about this. Children need to know the risks online, what support they can seek if they see something upsetting, and how to report it. We know that young people who are resilient use deleting, blocking and reporting as ways of dealing with disturbing content. They also discuss these issues with their peers and adults. However, some young people may be scared to talk about what they have seen with a trusted adult, for fear of being 'in trouble' for viewing such material. We need to support parents, professionals and young people so that all children feel they can discuss these issues with their peers and adults.

Professionals working with children and young people - whether that's teachers, doctors or social workers - should provide information about how to talk to children about these issues, as well as updates on the content and social networking available online. The internet is changing all the time, with new means of social networking popping up seemingly daily, and parents need to know what spaces their children occupy.

A recent and tragic example of a young person who lost herself in an online world is the case of Tallulah Wilson. Tallulah killed herself in October 2012, having been a contributor to blogs about self-harming, posting photos of cutting herself. After deciding that Tallulah had taken her own life, the jury in the inquest, completed last week, said healthcare and education professionals had a responsibility to "gain better understanding" of the importance of online life for young people.

I agree completely, but we must also remember not just to take an interest in our young people's internet use when there is a problem: parents and professionals should show an ongoing interest about how children are using and processing what's out there.

Filters are part of the solution, but they need to be supplemented by education and resilience building if we want to make any inroads in protecting our children and young people from the dangers lurking online.