Will proposed online harms regulation help children have a safer experience online?

In December 2020, the Government published its full response to the Online Harms Whitepaper which outlines an approach for the proportionate regulation of services that may expose UK users to illegal, and legal but harmful content.

It builds on its initial response from February 2020, however much of the specifics of the final regulation are still to be determined.

Categories of harm and remit threshold levels are yet to be defined, exactly who is and isn’t in scope and the final implications for them aren’t yet finalised. As a regulator, Ofcom’s tasks include defining terminology, devising Codes of Practice and Guidance, as well as overseeing research and media literacy programmes.

What are the implications for young people’s online safety?

By targeting the greatest harms and focussing on vulnerable groups, the regulation aims to enable UK users, and young people, in particular, to enjoy the benefits of online life more safely.

There is also a range of interim measures proposed while the final form of the Online Safety Bill is determined, and many of these focus on issues relevant to young people including codes and guidance around social media, screen time, child abuse and self-harm.

However, until the forthcoming Online Safety Bill is in place and Ofcom’s approach is known the exact implications, and whether they will create a regime where fewer children are exposed to risk or come to harm, are unclear.

We believe three things need to happen to keep children safe online, which could be supported by the new Bill:

1. Tech companies should do more

In this response, it is clear that tech companies have a responsibility to ensure safer user experiences, especially where the risks are greatest. Proposed sector support for safer technology and safety by design will encourage innovation, and new imperatives to assess and mitigate risks, have robust reporting mechanisms and have clear terms will have the potential to improve user experiences. Smart companies are acting now.

2. Improved education for young people and those who support them

So they can flourish online, we have to get better at helping young people navigate the connected world safely. In this response, there is a promised focus on media literacy, coordinated by both regulator and service providers. We are a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting parents, carers and professionals to help children embrace the internet more safely and with confidence. We understand the vital role education programmes play in empowering users to understand and safely navigate the digital world.

3. Effective regulation focussed on the greatest harms

Our research tells us the digital world provides many benefits to vulnerable young people but that they are also at a greater risk of harm compared to their non-vulnerable peers. There is an important consideration of vulnerable young people in the Government’s interim measures. We would be keen to see a continued consideration of the needs of these young people in the final regulatory framework.

A collaborative approach to developing the new regulatory frameworks is proposed in this response, along with an array of research. Our wide-ranging network of industry and experts are well placed to inform this work and the final shape of regulatory expectations for online harms in the UK.

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