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Is the Online Safety Bill the answer to schools’ woes?

March 18, 2022, 15:42 GMT+1
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  • New legislation on internet safety needs to be monitored by schools, says Mark Bentley
Is the Online Safety Bill the answer to schools’ woes?

The NSPCC has long branded the internet the Wild West, and for those of you dealing daily with class WhatsApp arguments, Year 4s on Instagram and Year 6s on 18-rated games, you might be inclined to agree.

The UK is finalising its Online Safety Bill (with the final version going through parliament while this article is going to press), and the new law is set to change all that for the better. Or will it?

Normally in education we focus on Department for Education and Ofsted announcements but, over the past few months, the number of Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport press releases with relevance to keeping children safe online have been more and more regular.

It is worth schools keeping an eye on how new legislation will affect protections on the internet and how we support the children and young people in our care.

Scams and trolls

So what’s going to change? Overall, the aim is to make things illegal online if they are illegal offline, and to give the same protections to children and other vulnerable users in the online space that you would expect offline.

You will hear lots in the press about online scams and cyberflashing, protection against trolls and anonymous users, all of which will be brilliant to see.

Probably the one thing that would transform children and young people’s experiences online is if they were not able to access apps, sites and games that are supposed to be for over 13s or over 18s.

Pornography is the classic example here, and that is something that, after several changes, will be covered by the bill for commercial providers and social media where lots of this content ends up. 

It’s worth mentioning that various studies have shown the scale with which online porn is being seen by children and the harm which is being done.

Not to mention that so much of this is extreme and exhibiting harmful sexual behaviours that are being ‘taught’ to our young people by the internet.

Age verification will now be required, and not just the classic “enter your date of birth” or “grab your parents’ credit cards” but true user identification.

There are some privacy concerns about this from some parties, but the last few years have seen some great BSI standards on how to do this without sharing your identity with tech companies, and many new providers of the required technology. 

That’s important because the next steps are expected to be for this same kind of approach to be taken for the use of social media in general, which may lead to more age-appropriate and child-friendly apps thriving if they no longer need to compete with large platforms, which claim to be for older users, but are actually full of children.

That may help schools with messaging around only using age-appropriate sites for students and parents, as we know how easy it is for these to be undermined.

Parental controls

One thing that has not been covered explicitly by the bill is parental controls. The new independent regulator will be Ofcom, and hopefully the codes of conduct they lay out will cover these issues and help ensure more effective controls.

I would like to see more here, however, to turn on child settings by default and make them easier to use.

For now, and in the future, this is a key area where schools can support families, by pointing them to the controls already in place – a little bit of effort before giving children new devices or allowing them onto new apps and games definitely pays off in the long run, so make sure you regularly remind parents of the settings and other measures they can take. 

Keep an eye on the news as there are some great opportunities for class discussion and debate which may reveal a lot to you about from what we need to keep children safe. 

The Bill will never be perfect but anything that helps keep children safe is welcome and it is good to see us moving in the right direction to create a safer internet.

Mark Bentley is Safeguarding and Cybersecurity Lead, LGfL-The National Grid for Learning