Anna Firth contested Erith & Thamesmead at the 2015 general election, is Founder of the #DigitalSunsetChallenge and is also Cabinet member for Legal & Democratic Services at Sevenoaks District Council.
The Conservative Party has always believed in “people power”, the power of individuals to keep their communities safe if given the right tools and encouragement.
That is why I was so excited to see the reaction of young children to the #DigitalSunsetChallenge launched by Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities, on the eve of global Internet Safety Day earlier this week.
Rather then burdening schools and parents with yet guidelines and instructions, we laid down a simple challenge for the children of Kent. Can you go without for your phone, tablet, or gaming console, from 7pm to 7am, for sevem days? So far over 1,500 children across Sevenoaks District have taken up the challenge.
Barely a week goes by without a new report showing increased numbers of children being cyber-bullied, groomed, or abused online. According to the National Crime Agency there has been a 700 per cent upsurge in reported online child abuse since 2013 and a 64 per cent increase in grooming crimes across the UK over the last year alone.
This translates into an average of 15 internet-related sex offences against a child every single day in England and Wales, and Childline has seen a 168 per cent rise in calls relating to online bullying and sexual abuse.
With children now accessing the internet at ever younger ages this is truly chilling, especially given that only half of all households with children aged 7-15 have parental controls or broadband filters to block adult or illegal content. Half of all four-year-olds use the internet and almost half of all ten-year-olds now have their own smartphone.
There is also increasing evidence that primary aged children are not only taking smart phones up to bed at night but using them late into the night and early morning to access social media sites. It is vital, therefore, we equip young children with the skills they need to stay safe online and help them develop good digital habits while they are young.
The aim of the #DigitalSunsetChallenge is, firstly, to raise awareness of the need to support young children to control their phones and devices, not be controlled by them, and secondly to help them develop a good ‘digital diet’.
A regular ‘Digital Sunset’ of switching off phones, tablets and gaming consoles an hour or so before going to bed sounds very straightforward, but most parents find it a constant struggle to divert their children’s attention away from the 24/7 online conversation and back into the ‘real world’. There is overwhelming parental support for the idea that it is so much easier for children to take a break from tech before bedtime, if all their friends are doing it too.
Of course schools must play their part, and the newly-formulated PSHEE curriculum must include essential guidance about how to be safe online, how to build emotional resilience, how to conduct online relationships, and what amounts to inappropriate and, indeed, illegal online conduct. All primary school teachers need to be provided with compulsory on-line safety training, and parents also need to be educated on how to use parental controls and set up broadband filters to safeguard their children.
As the Government’s own Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper acknowledges, internet service providers must also do more to protect children online – as already discussed on this site. Self-evidently the set up and communication features on most social media networks and gaming platforms do not have adequate protections.
All the big social media sites, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp etc, set a minimum age of 13 for children to have their own accounts, yet recent research by the Children’s Commissioner shows that three out of four children aged 8-12 now have their own accounts. In addition, in the six months following it being an offence for an adult to send a sexual message to a child, 1,316 offences were recorded by the police.
Clearly, we need minimum standards and a statutory code of practice for all online providers with the clear proviso that the online safety of all children is the paramount consideration.
So what can be done? In an ever-increasingly digital world children, will only be as safe as the least-protected child in their class or group. Equally, as indigenous digital residents most children are, and always will be, light years ahead of their digital immigrant parents.
Indeed, our economic well-being depends on it. In the global, competitive, digital world we live in only the strongest performers will survive and bring home the bacon. So trying to stay ahead of the next generation online would be futile and counter-productive. Besides, many parents are intimidated and afraid of the new technology.
Criminal behaviour aside, therefore, most problems regarding the internet, whether it be cyber-bullying, downloading inappropriate content, excessive use of social media, or gaming consoles, ultimately are social problems and, as such, parents are (and always have been) the first line of defence. We simply cannot wait for the Government or internet providers to make the digital world a safe place for our children, nor should we.
The internet and social media, whilst amazing things, are highly addictive and too much, especially late at night, can be damaging to young minds. Parents and schools need to empower children through education and example to be confident and creative online but also to know when to “switch off” and to stay off at night. This one simple act not only improves sleep and sleep quality – vital for young, developing brains and bodies – but also cuts down dramatically on the opportunity for unwanted contact.
Education regarding the importance for young children of a varied digital diet accompanied by a regular digital sunset needs to become a compulsory part of the new Year Six transitional PSHEE curriculum. Having a regular limited digital detox such as taking the #DigitalSunsetChallenge would be a good start. For more information visit our website.