Prevention better than the cure when it comes to protecting young people, says former children's commissioner

Prevention is far better than the cure when it comes to protecting young people from online predators, cyber bullying and porn, a former Children’s Commissioner for England has stressed.

Dr Maggie Atkinson.

Dr Maggie Atkinson said it was now easier than ever for children to access inappropriate material “at the click of a button” and to be groomed by a stranger on the internet.

And she urged schools and parents to educate themselves on safeguarding issues in order to spot when a child was in distress and needed support.

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Dr Maggie Atkinson, who was the Children’s Commissioner for England between 2010 and 2015 and is now chair of North Yorkshire Safeguarding Children Board, said: “When I was children’s commissioner, young people told us about inappropriate material being so casually available. The click of a button on a phone in your pocket means being bombarded by more of it. It’s so easy to get access to it. You can put in an innocent search term and what comes up is porn.

“For me the issue we all face is that children and young people will get hold of very questionable material and I feel the school curriculum could help with teaching them wall-to-wall about these issues. What schools can do is help children instil online safety.

“It has to be part of how we think.”

Dr Atkinson said she found that most schools were proactive when it came to online safety, with the majority running initiatives like Internet Safety Week.

She said: “Pupils are taught things like awareness over who we give our personal information to, using examples like if you were to meet this person on the street, would you tell them your life story?

“When we talk to them generally about what they can access on their phones or the internet, it’s about giving them ownership of their own selves and being there as back up when they are really worried.”

Last week North Yorkshire’s second Annual Safeguarding Week Conference took place in Harrogate. The event was attended by more than 350 professionals from across the county,

Dr Atkinson said: “In terms of child safeguarding in the county and the city of York, it’s about preventing cases rather than waiting until there is one.

“We need to get better at spotting the signs and working together as communities to get better at acting on what we may be suspicious about.

“We also need to get better at sharing information so everyone is on the same page.

“We need to get better at working together.”

Last year, a record 8,224 child sexual offences logged by police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had an online element, according to figures obtained by the NSPCC through a Freedom of Information request

Across Yorkshire and Humberside, police forces recorded 1,493 cyber-related sex crimes in 2018, an increase of 104 per cent from 729 offences recorded in 2015.

The NSPCC is calling on the Government to prioritise online safety and introduce laws that deliver a change in protection against abuse.

Dr Atkinson said: “Can we ever guarantee that nobody will ever be hurt or frightened again? The answer to that is no we can’t.

“There will always be more work to do.”