Adam Simmonds is Police and Crime Commissioner for Northamptonshire.
The internet has transformed our lives in a positive way. We are now better connected, better entertained and better informed than ever before. However, as with every innovation, challenges arise, and we are all struggling to keep up. There is an ever-increasing proportion of the risks experienced by our children and young people.
Many of us shy away because of the sheer diversity and complexity of the issues raised across online safety: surely these problems are just bigger than Northamptonshire, bigger than our local public services, bigger than us? There are huge challenges in influencing the child safeguarding policies of huge international corporations, and dealing with the pornographic and offensive content uploaded across hundreds of different countries, or the abusive gamer or paedophile sat the other side of the world.
The first step to dealing with any problem is to better understand it, and in doing so to directly involve those who themselves bring direct understanding and experience. This is why I have launched a major report today that will play a small, but very important, step in that journey for us.
My office has recently undertaken a county-wide consultation engaging with 13,000 children, young people and their parents to better understand their experiences online and the risks they face.
As the price of owning an internet connected mobile device becomes ever cheaper, we are seeing a surge of young people owning their own phone, tablet or laptop. Our consultation reveals that over three in five primary school age children and almost 95 per cent of secondary school age young people own at least one device. Over half of children at secondary school told us they couldn’t do without the internet.
Our research also sheds a light on the reasons why children and young people access the internet. For kids at secondary school, watching videos or listening to music via YouTube was the most popular reason, while 5-11 year olds said that gaming was the primary reason why they spent so much time online. As children get older they spend more time online: a quarter of 14 and 15 year olds spend more than six hours online every day.
This presents parents with a dilemma. Limiting the amount of time that your child spends online is one thing, but for mums and dads – especially for many parents who might not be used to the latest technology – it is difficult to get a steer on what exactly your son or daughter is downloading or viewing on their computer or phone. What’s more, parents may be unaware that some of the video games their children are playing contain such graphic scenes.
Take the most popular game to date – Grand Theft Auto V. This was the best-selling video game of 2013 and has generated billions of pounds of revenue. It is rated 18+ in the UK, and I am sure parents buying their children the game are aware that it is violent. But they may not realise quite how violent some of the scenes are. In one particular scene, the player must pull teeth and electrocute an unarmed man. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is another hugely popular yet controversial game. Players are asked if they wish to play a proactive role in a massacre of civilians in an airport.
Worryingly, our report showed that 1 in 10 11 year olds had played Call of Duty, while older children tended to play the game in fewer numbers.
Our research reveals that one in four primary school age children have seen something online that has upset them, with the most common cause being sexual or violent content contained within video games. Five year olds are particularly affected by graphic images with 42 per cent saying they have seen something that has affected them.
It is clear that something has to be done to help support parents in protecting their children from the challenges posed by the Modern World.
That is why one of our proposals is for the introduction of Adult Only (AO) certificate for certain video games. This rating already exists in the United States, and it would clearly show parents that a game is not suitable for young children. I am also calling for parental locks to come as standard on games consoles. This would allow parents to stop their kids playing specific games, or watching certain content through their console.
Recent research from NESTA shows there are nearly 2,000 games businesses in the UK, and the economic value of these could be as much as £1.7 billion. It is true that controversy creates cash and, while we don’t want to see a ban on violent video games, the industry has to step up to the plate and play a more responsible role in promoting the online safety of children. If they choose not to then the government will have to play a more paternal role.
Online safety should be seen in the same context as road safety. That means protecting our children from extremely graphic and potentially distressing video games. But it also means equipping our schools with the tools they need to provide advice and support to children at an early age. The recent commitments by Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretaryt, to improve online safety education in schools were a welcome announcement.
Kids will be kids and young minds, should be given the freedom to explore new things. However, there is a danger the line between reality and virtual reality becomes increasingly blurred. Parents and teachers deserve the support of industry to protect children from the dangers lurking online. Our report will hopefully play a constructive role in moving the debate forward in the right direction.