If there is one thing that has changed the working lives of many of us for the better, it is the internet. As an MP, I find it invaluable for keeping up with breaking news and finding instant help on subjects that I am researching. As a parent and concerned adult, however, I am horribly aware of the darker side of the web and the effect that it can have on our children.
I have written before about the sexualisation of children, many of whom see pornography at a very young age. This has led to an increase in children being involved in online grooming and harassment in chatrooms and, worryingly, given them the idea that the kind of sexual activity that they see online is normal within a relationship.
Who should take responsibility for this? Parents, certainly, should be keeping an eye on the kind of material that their children can access. Most wish to do so, but lack the technological know-how to set limits on their child’s internet use. Apart from anything else, the internet has expanded out of the desk-top computer at home onto the mobile phones that most children carry with them these days.
I served on the all party group which recommended that internet service providers offer default filters to their customers, so that parents can easily block inappropriate websites. The leading ISPs (internet service providers) are now promoting such controls but have rejected calls for them to be offered as a default, arguing that they are too easy to get around. There have, however, been some steps in the right direction including pornography websites restricting access to over-18s only and requiring personal details, backed up by a credit card.
This might help to reduce the amount of legal pornography seen by children, but what of the pernicious illegal images, particularly of child abuse, that may have contributed to the murders of April Jones and Tia Sharp? Some progress was made on this last week at a meeting called by the Culture Minister, Maria Miller, to which she summoned the leading ISPs, including Google, Microsoft and Twitter. The agreement reached will see the Internet Watch Foundation searching out and removing abusive and obscene images more proactively.
As the internet continues to expand, we need to go further to ensure that our children are protected from unsuitable images and that illegal material is removed altogether.
Published in the Whitstable Times on 27th June