Last week I gave an interview about my new role as Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on the Sexualisation and Commercialisation of childhood. The journalist and I talked about the upcoming review of progress against recommendations in the “Bailey Review”; commissioned eighteen months ago by the Prime Minister from Reg Bailey of the Mothers Union, which will show real and positive change in areas like child-friendly advertising, clothes retailing and adult content blocking on public Wifi networks.
We discussed the huge amount of cooperation and work going on between internet service providers and Government to create family-friendly filters that restrict access to inappropriate content on the internet. But it was my innocuous suggestion – that parents should feel more confident about getting involved in their children’s digital lives and possibly even reading family texts and emails if they have concerns – that ended up dominating the headlines.
The question of how to be a responsible parent in an online world is causing real soul searching at the moment, driven, I think by a creeping unease that the pace of technological change has eroded parents’ abilities to keep children safe in a digital world. We have given children, even those as young as nine or ten, access to vast quantities of information, the ability to communicate with a global audience and unprecedented space and privacy in which to click and chat.
Of course children need privacy – who does not remember the awful fear that Mum would find and open the supposedly lockable diary – but I think the balance has gone too far. Government, schools and the digital industry all have a role to play in keeping children safe online but ultimately, parents are responsible for child safety in both the online and offline worlds and I think it is time for parents to feel empowered to ask for phone passwords or demand to be a Facebook friend – particularly for younger children and teens – and to have no compunction about switching off the family router at night. We are, after all paying for the family mobile phones and internet connections!
It doesn’t have to be a battle of wills as new technology is in development that will allow parents to control mobile phone and internet access on their children’s devices remotely. Above all, parents need more information and education to make sure they are aware of the possible risks in an online world and to feel that they know how to guide and advise their children if problems arise. I will be working with digital industry players, parents, regulators and Ministers over the next few months to see how money and resources could be better spent to deliver this result. Our ambition is for Britain to be the most family-friendly place in the world to get online, and by working together we can get there.
Claire Perry is Conservative MP for Devizes, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on the Sexualisation and Commercialisation of Childhood and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Defence.