Why Keeping Children Safe Online Is Everybody's Responsibility

27/06/2012 17:29 BST | Updated 27/08/2012 10:12 BST

It has already been an important year for internet safety. A sequence of high profile stories and the most successful ever Safer Internet Day, back in April, set the context for the run-up to this year's UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) Summit on 28 June. Keeping children and young people safe online is finally taking its rightful place on everyone's agenda.

That's not to say that we have made anything like enough progress. As changes in the digital world gather pace, some companies are forging ahead and taking a positive approach towards internet safety but the overall pace remains slow and some are still failing to fulfil their child safety obligations.

Since it was established in 2008 UKCCIS - a voluntary membership organisation with an executive board chaired by Ministers from the Department for Education and the Home Office - has been working hard to push forward the agenda on industry self-regulation, including parental controls and age verification, among other topics. UKCCIS brings together over 180 organisations and individuals from government, industry, law enforcement, academia, charities and parenting groups.

The very existence of UKCCIS - and in particular, participation at its board level - is an indication of the seriousness with which all parties are treating the issues and of their willingness to cooperate in seeking solutions. It is also a unique opportunity for all parties to hear and debate the government's agenda. UKCCIS has played an important role in pushing forward the UK and wider European agenda on self-regulation but also in considering the needs and responsibilities of parents.

Both parents and industry need to go further to protect children. Data from Ofcom and EU Kids Online (an EU-wide research project led by the LSE) shows around a fifth of parents do not talk to their children about staying safe online, are not confident they can protect their children and don't have any rules about safe internet use.

Furthermore, around 20% of eight to 15-year-olds with social networking profiles have them set to open (Ofcom) and 29% of UK children have had contact with people they had not met before online (EU kids online). Helping parents and teachers talk with children and young people about the challenges of staying safe online is probably the single most important element of the internet safety agenda.

With this in mind, in April this year, a core information guide to child internet safety - a project led by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) on behalf of UKCCIS - was launched. This information is intended to be used by industry, government, and other organisations as a high quality and consistent source of information and education for customers, schools, parents and children:

So how else can parents better protect their children in the age of digital media, and what are organisations doing to help them? The four main fixed-line Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin were the first to commit to active choice for broadband connections. This is positive progress and means parents can decide what their children are able to view online at the time of purchasing an internet-enabled product, whether it be a laptop, games console or internet-enabled TV. The code of practice, published in October 2011, will see all new customers making an active choice about parental controls by October 2012. The code is an important step forward for industry self-regulation but is far from the end of the story. For example, the code only relates to new customers. The many existing customers of these ISPs will not be covered.

Enabling parents to make an 'active choice' about what their children can view online was also a key recommendation in the 2011 Bailey Review of the sexualisation and commercialisation of children, and is being increasingly recognised and adopted by the mobile phone industry. Vodafone, for example, has released its own applications for Android smartphones, which lets parents apply advanced controls across the range of functions that smart phones perform, and Dixons has introduced in-store promotion of safety messages, on screen demonstrations and till receipt wallets.

There can be no doubt that active choice is a step in the right direction in protecting children on the internet, but does it go far enough and just as important, how will its success be monitored and evaluated? What's more, it's important to recognise that as a global medium, internet safety challenges are not limited to the UK or Europe and cannot be addressed without considering global implications.

UKCCIS member organisations and others have made positive steps forward but for self-regulation to be successful it must engage organisations from across the digital industry - from manufacturers of mobile phone hardware and software developers to retailers and social networking sites. And parents and children themselves have a key role to play. A recent ChildLine survey reinforced the view that many children see themselves as having primary responsibility for their own safety online but look to teachers, parents and industry for support.

Keeping children safe online is everybody's responsibility. It's a long journey - perhaps a never-ending one - and we've only taken the very first steps.