E-Safety and Online Safeguarding: Policy context

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The potential of the internet to connect, inform and empower young people is unquestionable. However, alongside these undoubted benefits is the potential for the technology to be misused and abused by both young people themselves and adults taking part in criminal acts that threaten the safety of children on- and offline.

Sharing sexual images via mobile phone without someone's consent will become an offence under the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. Picture: Morguefile
Sharing sexual images via mobile phone without someone's consent will become an offence under the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. Picture: Morguefile

Young people's online activity

Ofcom's Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes report measures children's access to and use of internet-enabled media, and the types of devices they prefer, enabling the identification of trends (see graphics).

It shows that 87 per cent of UK children aged five to 15 went online in 2016 - the rate is higher among children from the wealthiest socio-economic groups (91 per cent) than those from poorer families (82 per cent).

The study reveals that the amount of time both three- and four-year-olds and five- to 15-year-olds spend online rose in the last year, with older children now spending more time online than they do watching television.

Smartphone ownership rose from 35 to 41 per cent, with the most significant growth among 12 to 15-year-olds - from 69 to 79 per cent - and eight- to 11-year-olds - from 24 to 32 per cent. Ownership of tablet computers has risen from 40 to 44 per cent over the past year, with 16 per cent of three- and four-year-olds having their own tablet. Use of tablets rose from 73 to 75 per cent, while mobile phone use rose from 58 to 62 per cent across the age ranges. There was a corresponding fall in desktop and laptop computer use.

The Ofcom study shows there has been no change in the rate of young people with a social media account - more than 70 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds have a profile. Facebook remains the most popular social media platform for children aged eight to 15. Nearly three quarters of 12- to 15-year-olds use their phone to access social media, and 28 per cent say they access it 10 times a day or more.


Perceptions of risk

The Growing Up Digital report by the Children's Commissioner for England describes an increasing "mismatch" between parents and children over the "knowledge, fears and expectations" of the online world. "Parents' concerns do not always match those of their children, with risks and opportunities viewed very differently," it states. "While adults have a tendency to talk about ‘risks' as if they come from strangers, children see risks in the everyday chat with people from school, and therefore find these much harder to negotiate."

Despite the advent of parental controls and improved awareness of the risks, a survey by Mumsnet found 73 per cent of parents were concerned about their children accessing inappropriate material. In addition:

  • 49 per cent were worried about children oversharing information
  • 61 per cent were concerned about social media distracting children
  • 54 per cent were afraid of unwanted contact by strangers.

The current computing curriculum teaches online safety, but children spoken to for Growing Up Digital said they did not trust teachers' understanding of online safety. In particular, it fails to address the social elements of online life, such as critiquing the veracity of content, how to disengage with the internet and controlling the amount of time spent online. However, there are moves to address this. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) has produced Play Like Share, an education film and resource aimed at encouraging children to question what they see online (see practice example).

Growing Up Digital recommends the introduction of compulsory digital citizenship programmes for all children aged four to 14 and led by older children, not adult teachers. "This would include what it means to be a responsible citizen online; how to protect your rights online and respect others' rights; how to disengage as well as engage with the online world," it states.

Ealing's Trust Me programme is an example of schools using students to take the lead in e-safety (see practice example). Digital citizenship programmes, such as those run by Childnet and Hertfordshire's youth service, boost children's resilience by discussing issues such as cyberstalking, sexting and scams.

"Key to keeping safe and building the resilience to make healthy choices is teaching young people how to be responsible digital citizens," says YC Hertfordshire youth engagement and participation manager Jonathan Jack. "This includes how to use technology safely and respectfully and developing good ‘netiquette' so that they can judge what is and isn't appropriate to post."

Online behaviour and its impact

Charity Ditch the Label's annual bullying survey 2017 found that 60 per cent of bullying took place online. One in 10 young people who had been bullied in the past year reported experiencing cyberbullying "often", and seven per cent "constantly". In total, 16 per cent experienced cyberbullying at least once a week, and 29 per cent at least once a month. However, two recent pieces of research by Oxford University and the University of Warwick (see research evidence), suggests online bullying is still less frequent than bullying in person (see expert view, below).

Cyberbullying takes many different forms, the most common being abusive private messaging (68 per cent), rumours and untruths posted online (41 per cent) and nasty comments posted on their social media profile (39 per cent).

The survey reveals the impact cyberbullying has on young people - 41 per cent reported developing social anxiety, 37 per cent depression, 26 per cent suicidal thoughts, 26 per cent deleted their social media profile and 25 per cent self-harmed. Despite the frequency of its occurrence, just 15 per cent reported it to social media sites and only half of those were happy with the response - nearly three-quarters of young people thought social media networks did not do enough to prevent cyberbullying.

Growing Up Digital cites examples of futile attempts by children and young people to use the "report" button on social media sites to raise concerns about explicit and inappropriate content targeted at them.

Under section 67 of the Serious Crime Act (2015), it is a criminal offence for an adult to send a child under 16 an explicit message.

One-to-one sharing of sexually explicit material electronically, known as sexting, can be done legally between two consenting adults, but it is an offence for under-18s to do so.

Despite this, an NSPCC and Children's Commissioner for England study found that seven per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds had sent a sexual image of themselves to someone else.

Guidance produced by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and Ceop has been sent to all schools explaining how teachers should respond to sexting incidents and to assess whether cases need to be referred to police (see practice example). Last year, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, the body that joins up e-safety across government and industry, also produced sexting guidance.

A 2016 survey by the PSHE Association found most parents wanted schools to do more to educate children about the risks of sending sexual images and messages. This will be addressed when sex and relationships education becomes compulsory from 2019.

Meanwhile, the easy accessibility of online pornography is also concerning policy makers. An NSPCC survey of children found 28 per cent reported viewing pornography online by the age of 11 or 12, while two-thirds reported seeing pornography by 15 or 16. It has warned that viewing pornography can give young people unrealistic expectations of sexual relationships, while research suggests the need for education on the issue (see research evidence). Through laws introduced in the Digital Economy Act (2017), operators of pornographic websites must introduce age verification measures from April 2018 preventing under-18s from gaining access to such sites.

Social networking sites give abusers another means to contact children, grooming them without the knowledge of their parents or professionals. Adults can pose as young people to build up relationships with children and, over time, these relationships can be used to groom and sexually exploit young people.

Barnardo's 2015 report Digital Dangers found that certain groups - such as young people with learning difficulties, those with mental health problems and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning young people - appear to be particularly vulnerable to online harm, partly due to seeking social interaction online that they are not able to achieve offline.

Grooming, taking and sending illegal images and the sexual abuse of children and young people frequently involve online and offline abusive activity concurrently.

In 2014, the government announced the creation of a new National Crime Agency-led unit targeting paedophiles operating on the "darknet" and allocated an extra £10m to create specialist online child sexual abuse teams focusing on the worst offenders.

NSPCC guidance states that when a case of online grooming is identified, it should be immediately reported to both Ceop and to the site on which the grooming took place.

There have been instances of UK children being radicalised by extremists they have met online, as well as examples of under-16s travelling alone to Syria to support the Islamic State (IS) terrorist movement.

Young people who express radical views could be referred to the government's Prevent programme, which works with local authorities, government agencies and community organisations to educate young people about the risks. The NSPCC and Childnet have also developed useful advice for practitioners on how to discuss radicalisation and the risks extremists pose online with young people.

In information and communication technology lessons, pupils can be taught about what online propaganda looks like and how to respond. Programmes like Digital Disruption provide digital literacy techniques.

Self-harm is generally defined by physical injuries that are self-inflicted, including cutting, over- or under-eating and substance abuse. But the internet has given rise to a new form of self-abuse, conducted predominantly through social media sites to inflict emotional or psychological harm. This can manifest in two ways:

  • "Self-baiting" - where the victim posts an inflammatory comment to an online community in pursuit of inciting aggressive responses towards themselves.
  • "Online self-harm" - where the victim creates false social media profiles to send offensive or insulting messages to their main profile, simulating third-party abuse.

Duties and monitoring

Responsibility for e-safety is shared across three government departments. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has policy oversight on e-safety, the Department for Education leads on cyberbullying and the Home Office on radicalisation and extremism. Matt Hancock is minister of state for digital within the DCMS (see minister's view, below). His brief covers online safety, cyber security and internet governance.

The UK has a range of laws to protect children from sexual abuse, exploitation and exposure to harmful material.

Since July 2015, schools and childcare providers are subject to a duty under section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. The Prevent duty requires education providers to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism".

The statutory guidance on the Prevent duty summarises the requirements on providers in terms of four general themes: risk assessment, working in partnership, staff training and IT policies. For schools and childcare providers to fulfil the duty, it is vital that staff are able to identify children who may be vulnerable to radicalisation, and know what to do when they are identified. Protecting children from this risk should be seen as part of providers' wider safeguarding duties (see Thurrock LSCB practice example).

DfE statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, published in September 2016, sets out schools' and colleges' duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Issued under section 175 of the Education Act 2002, online safety is covered in annex C. This outlines three categories of risk:

  • Content: being exposed to illegal, inappropriate or harmful material;
  • Contact: being subjected to harmful online interaction with other users; and
  • Conduct: personal online behaviour that increases the likelihood of, or causes, harm.

The guidance sets out what governing bodies and proprietors should be doing to limit exposure to risks from the establishment's IT system, including ensuring appropriate filters and monitoring systems are in place.

It advises school leaders to consider a whole-school approach to safety that includes a clear policy on the use of mobile technology in the school. Many children have unlimited and unrestricted access to the internet via mobile phones and the school should consider how this is managed on its premises, it adds.

September 2015 saw the implementation of a new Ofsted inspection system, which includes clear references to online safety as part of a school's wider safeguarding strategy. When assessing a school's approach to keeping children safe and the dangers from radicalisation and extremism, inspectors want to see evidence of schools' rigorous e-safety policies and procedures.

The e-safety curriculum needs to be age-appropriate, relevant and engages pupils' interests, including a clear focus on cyberbullying and dealing with strangers online.

Ofsted inspectors will look for training programmes that keep staff aware of different social networks and the appropriate terminology.

Schools that are judged "outstanding" by Ofsted often use an online reporting mechanism such as Ceop and SHARP (Student Help Advice Reporting Page) System, and many conduct e-safety lessons for children and parents too.

Most experts agree that young people must have a significant say in what is and is not appropriate. This is one reason why the Children's Commissioner for England wants the establishment of a digital children's ombudsman to mediate between under-18s and social media companies over the removal of content


By John Carr, international expert on e-safety

When discussing almost any of the known online challenges, we run up against an unavoidable difficulty - the lack of certainty. People who behave badly rarely complete reliable annual returns in which they faithfully declare what they accomplished, nor do they typically offer best estimates of their plans for the next 12 months. Then there is the small matter of how the media pick up and report evidence.

For example, in January, the Daily Mirror ran with the headline that "Children are more likely to be bullied online than in the playground". A subheading reinforced this by stating three-quarters of parents believe children are more exposed to online threats today than five years ago. But it turned out that the research was carried out by a company with a vested interest.

In July, a different picture emerged from what is probably the largest independent and academically respectable study of bullying. Carried out by Oxford University, results from the survey of 120,000 young people appeared in The Lancet. This is its conclusion:

"Traditional bullying is considerably more common among adolescents in England than cyberbullying. While both forms of bullying were associated with poorer mental wellbeing, cyberbullying accounted for a very small share of variance after adjustment for offline bullying."

You would struggle to find any mention of this in mainstream media outlets. Yet, it chimes with common sense and experience. What happens online is very often linked to real world events and vice versa. Bullying almost always has its feet somewhere on the planet's surface, and generally it will be nearby.

Of course, knowing the true proportions or scale of a problem is important if you are a government or are involved in policy making. It can help you make decisions about where and how to deploy scarce resources. But if you are a child or young person, or you are a parent or teacher, it might be of only marginal interest to know what's going on in the cosmos.

What matters is what each individual is actually going through. For them, the issue is important and urgent. Bullying, wherever it comes from or however it happens, can destroy lives or make them unbearably miserable. This is why we need good sources of help and advice that are easily accessible to parents, teachers, counsellors and, above all, to children and young people themselves.


By Matt Hancock, minister of state for digital

Protecting our children in the digital environment is one of this government's greatest priorities. We want them to be able to enjoy the many opportunities digital technology brings without any fear of harm or abuse, all the while developing the skills that will help them thrive.

We have shown our commitment to keeping children safe online, by introducing the most robust internet child protection measures of any country in the world, by making it a legal requirement that all commercial pornographic content online must be placed behind robust age verification. This is alongside our continued support to broadband companies in rolling out family friendly filters.

Good relationships and sex education has a vital role to play in helping young people to stay safe and healthy. That's why we are updating the current statutory guidance to ensure children are being taught high-quality age-appropriate content that relates to the modern world and addresses issues like relationships and sex education, cyberbullying, sexting and internet safety. Social media companies have made good progress, but must do more to raise awareness and improve the clarity of their reporting mechanisms.

Since 2010, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety has brought together organisations drawn from across government, industry, law, academia and charity sectors, all working in partnership to help keep children safe.

We are also developing resources to support children's digital resilience. That means building the emotional capability needed to understand online risks, to know where to seek help, to learn from experience and to recover when things go wrong.

We are also developing a new Internet Safety Strategy, aimed at making Britain the safest country in the world for children and young people to be online. We believe we should approach any potential harms in the same way we treat other risks, like road safety or stranger danger.

Safety tips: 10 things to teach children

  • Set privacy settings: Guard information such as your address, phone numbers, school, town, parent's workplace and passwords

  • Guard information: Technology can share information without your knowledge, so turn off synchronisation functions and location services on devices and only switch them on when required

  • Limit your time online: Log off and have face-to-face time with family and friends

  • Friend or foe: Never schedule offline meetings with "online only" friends; tell parents if anyone tries to meet you offline; not everyone is who they say they are

  • Communicate: Talk about it if someone has upset you; tell your parents about anything that makes you uncomfortable; stay away from "adult only" sections of the internet; and don't believe everything that you see

  • Safety with webcams: Never do random chat (sites like Chatroulette); only chat with family and friends; never do anything on a webcam you wouldn't want on the screen; and think before uploading video responses

  • Time and place: Carefully consider whether to use geolocation on social networks or games. Ask parents' permission before using it; do not use the internet for personal purposes at school or any place you visit regularly; check your privacy settings

  • Be scam smart: Don't open strange emails; beware of free downloads that could hide viruses or spyware

  • Be legal: Don't access music, videos and games illegally; don't use peer-to-peer file sharing as it leaves you open to viruses, spyware and identity theft

  • Teamwork: Help each other; communicate and co-operate; and know when to log off

Source: EduCare

Read more from the E-Safety and Online Safeguarding special report

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