The digital world offers many positive opportunities for the current generation of children and young people but there are also significant risks on the internet and on social networking sites.
Children and young people themselves have already identified live issues they experience when engaging with social media. Two significant issues being reported are the content children and young people are exposed to online, raising the question of who is responsible for monitoring and removing this content and the continued use of children's and young people's social media content, without their informed consent or permission.
Children and young people report that they are seeing bullying, hatred, self-harm and pornography on social networking sites. The latest report by the NSPCC has found that four out of five children want social media sites to protect them from this type of content and feel that social media companies are not currently doing enough to protect them.
A Home Affairs Select Committee Report published in April 2017 reaffirms this and details 'repeated examples of social media companies failing to remove illegal content when asked to do so', with their practices described as being 'frequently ineffective'.
Research commissioned by the Children's Commissioner for England has found that children are unknowingly signing over rights to their social media content, without being informed of their ownership rights and without having received guidance/advice from parents/guardians or their school putting into question whether children's consent can actually be termed 'informed consent'.
Over a nine year period my research into the impact of media coverage on children and young people has demonstrated the extent to which children's social media content is being used, reprinted and in many cases, exploited by journalists. The standardisation of this practice is alarming and has particularly become evident when children and young people come into 'conflict with the law' or have taken their own lives. These children and young people, already among the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society, then lose their privacy, protection and security as an unregulated media take images and comments made online and reprint them with no consent or consideration.
Little has been done to date by policymakers, legislators, politicians and the regulatory bodies to address these clear breaches of children's rights. There is currently no clear regulatory guidelines on the use of social media content for the journalism profession and there have been missed opportunities to revise the guidelines to take into consideration the digital age.
This raises significant questions surrounding how children and young people can best be supported to engage as active agents with the internet and social networks. And importantly, how they can best remain safe and retain a level of privacy and ownership over their posted images and content.
It is clear that children's rights and their protection are central to the current calls on the Government to finally crack down on the content that is published on social media sites. Children's advocates, lobbyists and campaigners have made a number of recommendations to protect children. The Children's Commissioner in England has called for a specialist ombudsperson to monitor children's digital rights.
Substantial changes are necessary in the media's professional and ethical practices and the regulatory processes, which now must take social media and journalists' use of it into account. We all need to take responsibility in educating children and young people on the media's responsibilities and the ways in which they can protect their privacy and challenge any breaches of their rights.
As a society, we need to address these issues as a matter of urgency. As the research evidence-base demonstrates, delay is resulting in additional breaches of children's rights.
Policymakers, legislators, media regulatory bodies and social media companies - who are positioning profit before the safeguarding of children, need to take action and place children's rights and well-being at the centre of future policies and practices.
The primary duty of any society is to protect and safeguard its children and now is the time for us all to work out how this can best be done in the digital age and take action.