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Child exploitation

Catch22 responds to the Draft Online Safety Bill

A group of young people browse their phones whilst sitting on a wall. Overlaid is text that reads "Online Harms Research Hub".

Yesterday, the Draft Online Safety Bill was published. Catch22 responds to the new regulatory framework, and outlines its hopes for legislation than can support a safe, accessible internet for all.

Technology presents both an opportunity and, at times, a risk to young people. When used well, young people gain new skills, engage in creative activities and become digital citizens who can lead their communities. But consumed incorrectly, technology can result in harm, and at its worst, loss of life due to suicide or criminal exploitation.

Catch22 welcomes the draft Online Safety Bill and the government’s intention to protect both children and adults from a range of online harms. As an organisation that supports both victims of crime and children who have been groomed and exploited, we are all too aware of the devastating impact of poor regulation and lack of safeguards on the lives of individuals.

Legislation as a starting point

We have repeatedly argued that to make the Internet a safe place, there must be a combination of robust legislation, cooperation and responsibility from online platforms and crucially education so that those active online are alive to dangers it may pose.

We are pleased to see the duty of care rules requiring tech companies to take action, not only against illegal content, but also that which is lawful but harmful – otherwise known as ‘grey harms’. Examples of these include content promoting suicide or self-harm; in our schools and mental health and victim services, we see the impact of these kinds of harms every day.

Our concern however is that regulators will struggle to keep up as technology rapidly evolves. Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden states that the priority of the bill is “to make what’s illegal on the street, illegal online”. While this is an obvious starting point, it is unlikely to go far enough long-term.

Future focus

Dr Faith Gordon, author of Catch22’s ongoing research into children and young people’s experience of online behaviour and their perceptions of ‘acceptable use’ states:

“We know that one in three of the world’s internet users are children and young people, however the internet was not designed nor created with children and young people’s needs, well-being and safety in mind.

“Our research, which draws directly on the online experiences of children and young people, demonstrates the serious long-lasting consequences of harmful unwanted contact and unwanted content online.”

In our recent interviews with young people on ‘acceptable use’, the balancing of freedom of expression, access to information and safety from exploitation, was viewed by young people as a major challenge. But of course, a balance must be struck for children and young people to remain safe, but also able to participate fully in pro-social online activity.

The internet and technology are evolving by the hour, and safety by design must be a focus of any legislation. Safety must be the key consideration in the design, release and use of platforms, and this is something that requires collaboration between policy makers, industry and those using the platforms. In our view, an approach based on general principles which can apply to new and emerging technologies, and new and emerging harms, is a better approach than focusing on specific harms in the legislative framework.

Prevention first

There also needs to be a focus on education and community-regulation to support young people to thrive online. Frontline professionals, across policing, education, and youth work, need regular, up to date training on how to spot the signs of online harms and updated how to promote only safety and positive digital opportunities.

At Catch22 we run The Social Switch Project alongside RedThread and funded by Google.org and the Mayor of London’s Violence Reduction Unit – which does precisely that. The programme has been highly praised by participants as it brings those working with young people up to speed on the swiftly changing online world. It makes preventing online harms by intervening early far more likely.

Anonymity and age restrictions

Clearly online harms legislation is far from straightforward. The Secretary of State has referred to age restrictions on apps being enforced, but we’re yet to see detail on how, and if, this will be enforced. There is also a question about clamping down on anonymous social media profiles. One argument says anonymous profiles should be banned to help reduce online trolling. But on the flip side, we are aware of the need for some domestic violence victims to remain anonymous, and we know that many young people have found a safe community online through maintaining their anonymity, such as LGBTIQ+ children and young people.

There is always a risk that the negatives of online harms eclipse the huge potential of the online world. We can’t let that be the case. The positive reality is that for many, the internet is an outlet for creativity, for debate, for opportunity and for making long lasting and meaningful connections.

Education and industry

This Bill will, if future-proofed and sufficiently encompassing, be a key pillar in making the internet a safer place. The other pillars – of industry commitment (of which there are already some good examples) and education (especially for young people and those working directly with them) – are also vital.

So let’s take the opportunity presented and redouble efforts across the board to ensure the internet is a safe, accessible space for everyone.