Why we at Barnardo’s want Ofcom to have new powers to take on tech giants: Steve Oversby

Can companies such as Facebook, run by Mark Zuckerberg, be made more accountable for what children view on their platforms? (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)Can companies such as Facebook, run by Mark Zuckerberg, be made more accountable for what children view on their platforms? (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Can companies such as Facebook, run by Mark Zuckerberg, be made more accountable for what children view on their platforms? (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Remember a time when children would knock on a friend’s door to ask if they wanted to go out to play? And if you wanted to buy something then you went out to the shops? Or if you wanted to listen to music you bought a record or a CD?

While some might nostalgically think of life before the internet as the good old days, it’s undeniable that the online world offers great opportunities for young people to make friends, have fun and learn new things.

And of course social media can be a positive force for good in many people’s lives, especially young people who are its biggest users.

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For children who are struggling, the internet is a space where they can express their thoughts and beliefs, access support and reduce isolation.

But the internet also presents potential dangers we can’t ignore.

When young people are at school or playing with their friends at home, we can see how they interact with each other and step in if necessary.

But the rise of smartphones and tablets means children’s relationships are now increasingly conducted online.

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Parents and carers can be completely unaware of the unhealthy relationships children might be exposed to – from bullying on social media, to viewing violent pornography, to being groomed, where children targeted online often believe they are in a consensual relationship with abusers who befriend them, but who then exploit their need for care and love.

Readers may have seen that the Government recently announced that new powers are going be given to the Office of Communications or Ofcom to force social media firms to act over harmful content.

This is the Government’s first response to the Online Harms consultation it conducted last year, which received replies from around 2,500 parties.

It is intended that the new rules will apply to the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – companies that host user-generated content including forums, videos and comments.

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Ofcom already has wide-ranging powers across television and radio.

This is hugely important, but to hold tech companies to account Ofcom must have the necessary powers with tough sanctions for those that allow children to be put at risk.

It’s not just the Government and the tech industry that has a part to play.

With children spending on average almost five hours a day on social media, we must look at how platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook may be affecting them.

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It is clear that self-regulation of the internet by tech companies – the Twitters and the Facebooks and others – hasn’t worked and we cannot expect children to protect themselves.

Those tech companies have said they will regulate themselves but it just hasn’t happened.

We can’t just wait for Government though, when two-thirds of the vulnerable children supported by Barnardo’s sexual exploitation services in the North were groomed online.

Schools, charities, parents and communities also need to work together to help make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.

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Barnardo’s in the North has recently launched a brand new practical resource aimed at helping parents understand the risks young people face – from grooming on the internet, to child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation.

It’s called the DICE parenting support programme and it consists of four two-and-half hour sessions, supporting parents to develop skills, build their knowledge and increase confidence to meet their child’s needs during the pre-teen and teenage years of development.

The programme, based on real life experiences, recognises the involvement of parents in the safeguarding of their children as a huge part of providing protective families.

In Barnardo’s recent online YouGov survey, more than 2,000 adults were asked what were the main five issues they thought would be the biggest threats to UK children by 2030.

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Online dangers came out top, with 71 per cent of adults choosing it as one of their top five threats.

So, we urge ministers to move quickly to get a duty of care for tech companies onto the statute books and give the regulator the necessary powers to carry out work effectively and to hold tech companies to account.

We cannot expect children to protect themselves – we need a regulator to act without delay.

For information about the DICE parenting support programme, you can find details on the Barnardo’s website at this section https://barnardos-parenting.org.uk

Steve Oversby is director of Barnardo’s North Region