Steve Oversby: Tech giants are not doing enough to keep our children safe from harm

A COUPLE of years ago Barnardo's celebrated 150 years since our founder Dr Thomas Barnardo set up his Ragged School in London. It was his response to being shown the desperate poverty in which children lived, and he changed his whole life and established our charity with his philosophy that no child should be turned away.

Of course those Victorian children were vulnerable and disadvantaged in a very different way to the children we work with today, but as 2019 approaches there is no doubt children are vulnerable and disadvantaged still.

Today Barnardo’s works to transform the lives of thousands of families to build a better future. In 2018, more than 300,000 children, young people and families were supported through more than 1,000 services across the UK.

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In Yorkshire, Thomas Barnardo opened his first home in 1892 and today Barnardo’s works with over 14,000 children, young people and their families in services across the county.

Dr Thomas Barbardo founded the children's charity that carries his name.Dr Thomas Barbardo founded the children's charity that carries his name.
Dr Thomas Barbardo founded the children's charity that carries his name.

Last year we worked with, amongst others, young carers who look after a sick relative, care leavers, young people at risk of child sexual exploitation, children with disabilities and their families, LGBT young people, children with mental health issues, foster carers and adoptive parents – and we also provided training and skills for young people who are not in employment or education.

In Dr Barnardo’s time the problems facing children were severe and clear for all to see, but the problems facing children today are much less visible, although no less real.

Across the country the nature of vulnerability is changing. Any young person of any background can be cyber-bullied or even groomed online by a paedophile. Our services for children who have been sexually exploited have seen a big increase in the number of young people they support, and nearly half of the children they help have been groomed online.

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Children can now make films on their own that would have once taken a room full of people and equipment. All over the UK children are livestreaming their morning routines and dance moves to potentially thousands of strangers who can rate and comment on their broadcasts.

An early picture of children helped by Barbardo's.An early picture of children helped by Barbardo's.
An early picture of children helped by Barbardo's.

Although the online world brings fantastic new opportunities, we need the right protections in place. Barnardo’s has done some research on this and found that shockingly more than half of 12 year olds and more than a quarter of children aged 10 have posted live videos on apps and websites.

Websites like YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram Stories and Facebook Live all say they exclude under-13s, but the controls intended to keep our children safe have proved inadequate and younger children may be putting themselves on sites aimed at older teenagers and adults.

Given this, it’s clear that tech giants are simply not doing enough to keep children safe. The industry must no longer be allowed to self-regulate and must be required by law to provide compulsory child safety features, such as verifying users’ ages.

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Perhaps most importantly, mandatory large fines must be issued to firms that fail to keep children safe.

Steve Oversby is regional director of Barbardo's.Steve Oversby is regional director of Barbardo's.
Steve Oversby is regional director of Barbardo's.

So one of our hopes for 2019 is that the technology firms act this year to safeguard children from livestreaming dangers, as any delay to act could put another generation of children in danger online.

I’m sure the coming year will continue to offer more drama and uncertainty about Brexit, but even though it will continue to dominate the news, it is not and will not be the only issue facing our country.

Of course it very important – but when we meet children and parents in our services they have other concerns.

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The families we support face some serious challenges, and they want to hear that politicians are rising to those challenges. We mustn’t let Brexit fever distract from all the other issues we need to tackle.

Should technology companies be subject to greater regulation?Should technology companies be subject to greater regulation?
Should technology companies be subject to greater regulation?

In the context of austerity, where between 2010 and 2015 government funding to councils for services for children fell by nearly a quarter, we in Barnardo’s understand the very difficult choices facing councils across the county.

Those figures mean that our work is more needed than ever and we feel we have a huge role working with councils and others to make sure that the needs of the most vulnerable children are not forgotten.

So we need the public’s support – to volunteer in our services and shops, to raise funds and to campaign with us for the rights of the disadvantaged and at risk, so that children everywhere can expect the sort of futures people would want for their own children.

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It is a simple fact things are very hard for lots of children and families in our country. No matter what 2019 holds, we will be doing everything we can to support them and we hope you will be able to join us.

Steve Oversby is director of Barnardo’s East Region.