21/11/2016 10:15 GMT | Updated 22/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Why Our 'Smartphone Generation' Deserve Statutory Online Education


We already have the largest digital economy in Europe and the technological change being ushered in by this fourth industrial revolution is transforming the way we communicate and relate to the world and to each other. If properly harnessed and the challenges tackled, this revolution can be an unprecedented force for social good.

Nowhere is that more clear than for our children.

Children are growing up today in the midst of an information revolution unimaginable only a decade ago, with instant access to an astonishing range of content and information. Researchers have found that today's children are taking in an astonishing five times more information than my generation which grew up in the not-so-distant-90s. Far from the tabloid stories about a 'distracted generation', those growing up today are on course to be the most informed in history.

That's an enormous positive, But the challenges of this digital revolution for protecting our children cannot be ignored.

These are challenges parents across the country worry about every single day; worried that they may be unable to manage what their children see, worried that they may not know when their children are being subjected to bullying or inappropriate images online; and as their children come to know much more about the online world than they do, parents feel they may not be best placed to put a stop to it.

Regrettably though, ignoring this challenge is exactly what the Government are doing.

With digital devices more widespread among children than ever before and with 5-15 year olds spending an average of 20 hours, six minutes online every week that feels like a dereliction of duty.

Take the Government's limited proposal to introduce age-verification for online pornography in the Digital Economy Bill to stop children seeing harmful content. The powers, while a welcome small step don't actually deal with the problem at hand; because a simple age verification model cannot teach children consent; cannot teach children about healthy relationships and cannot help them navigate the expectations that are placed on them and reinforced online.

That can only be done through robust sex and relationship education which incorporates discussions about online pornography, so that they can question what they see online in a safe environment.

Astonishingly, the Government have so far refused to even consider statutory online sexual education and the Government's Keeping Children Safe strategy recently dedicated only a pitiful three paragraphs to the online world. Taken in tandem with their Digital Economy Bill passing through Parliament which does not even give a single mention of online abuse or online education it seems that Ministers are ducking the challenge or, worse, are unable to even comprehend it.

But Labour have always known that education matters, it's why in Government we expanded and updated sex education and why in the Digital Economy Bill, we are taking the first steps towards developing statutory online education for the smartphone generation; helping children navigate the online world in a safe environment where they can ask questions and have any concerns answered.

We want to see statutory online education extend beyond simply sex education, to the entire online world. So children - who already are digital natives - can make safe, informed decisions.

And we won't stop there. With an 800% increase in children contacting the NSPCC about online abuse, it is clear this is becoming a central problem for today's schoolchildren. They clearly need support, advice and someone to turn to. That's why our statutory online education would work in tandem with a code of conduct for social media providers to prevent online abuse.

Protecting our children online is one of the major challenges in today's world. It's time the Government took that responsibility seriously.

Louise Haigh is the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley and Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy