The best defense against online child abuse isn’t legislation – it’s education

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Politicians are unlikely to see it that way, but the protracted process to make the internet a less dangerous place through the Online Safety Bill has been a helpful reminder of the limits of the legislation.

As the bill has evolved into a broader effort to stop harmful content from appearing on people’s phone screens, it has repeatedly strayed into moral solutions by the government. , and no amount of wishful thinking or populist appeals can change the fact that you can’t legislate healthy behavior.

That’s not to say big chunks of the online safety bill aren’t reasonable and, in some cases, desperately needed. But, like it or not, the online content that some seek to control is almost entirely published by individuals and consumed by individuals, making it a social problem. The only effective answer to solving it is – as it always has been – education.

The best example here may also be the most extreme: child sexual exploitation material (CSAM). You probably have a clear idea of ​​who creates such material – but you’re wrong. The vast majority of web pages containing child pornography – more than 70% according to to the most recent figures – include “self-generated” images. This is where children are groomed, tricked or extorted into creating and sharing images themselves.

Children taking and then sharing photos and videos of themselves online is a growing trend, warns Deputy Chief Constable Ian Critchley, who leads the National Police Chiefs Council on Online Safety. It is a social problem that the law cannot solve.

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Increased legal efforts to crack down on this material have actually made it harder for police to work by making them responsible for an ever-increasing number of CSAMs, many of which are created by individuals they do not wish to prosecute. – children. The growing scale of the problem has strained resources and made it more difficult to focus on serious offenders.

Schools are also feeling the pressure: Child protection experts told me that formal complaints often go nowhere because the police don’t have the time or the people to deal with less serious crimes. , and some schools now have a staff member dedicated to dealing with sexual offences. content shared by students.

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Not only that, but the biggest increase in child sexual abuse images is coming from younger and younger children: those between the ages of 5 and 10. They are so young that researchers do not have a clear idea of ​​what motivates them, as it is not possible to obtain permission to interview elementary school children about sexual content.

A recent report by the Police Foundation emphasizes the need for education and notes that those on the front lines – those responsible for child sexual abuse (CSA) – recommend “education to change the behaviors of local children…more than any other strategy for prevention”.

Eighty-nine percent of CHW leaders rated education as “very important” and 57% indicated “adult guardian education and awareness”. By comparison, 37% said better control of online platforms was very important and 51% suggested regulation of the tech industry.

Experts in the field of online safety also indicate that lack of education is one of the main reasons for the expansion of Internet problems. Online safety expert Alan Mackenzie says he’s seen the “same pattern every time” when it comes to unhealthy online behavior: it starts in adults, then moves to teens, then young teens and finally children, propagated both offline (real world) and online interactions.

While it may be difficult to reach adults through an educational campaign, children go to school and this provides an opportunity to help younger generations understand and manage technological change in a healthy way. . Unfortunately, the the government is failing here too.

Journalist Sophia Smith Galer has been following the efforts of the Department for Education (DfE). An example of this failure it gives is the provision of sex education. After a decade of pressure from teachers and education groups, the government updated its sex education curriculum and in 2019 earmarked £6million to roll out teacher training.

Galer recently discovered that only £3.2m of this fund had been spent, despite appeals for support from teachers, with the DfE blaming the teachers themselves because the scheme was ‘demand-driven’ and that it was up to them to ask for help. . In the meantime, the money has been spent on other things.

“It’s one of the biggest educational priorities of the decade,” said Galer – who has written a book, To lose, on how sex education in the UK is outdated – argues. “The fact that the money has been moved elsewhere is appalling,” she says. Sex education and online safety are closely linked to the digital age, with sexual content, smartphones and transgressive behavior feeding each other.

Others note that while the UK government has improved its efforts to educate young people about online safety, it is still not a priority, despite high-profile legislation like the Online Safety Bill.

Following the concerns on quality of relationships and sex education (CSR), including concerns that political and religious groups, including American “pro-life” organizations, have used the situation to advance their own agendas, the minister of Education recently asked England’s Children’s Commissioner to take a look at the rollout and quality of CSR.

The Commissioner’s head of digital policy, Lizzie Reeves, confirmed to us that she will be looking at “the implementation of CSR, which will be talking to many young people about their experiences”. Education regulator Ofsted has also warned schools it will start reviewing their CSR courses in the new school year as part of a comprehensive school inspection.

There’s a big problem with that, though, says Galer. Not enough teachers have been trained to deliver the updated sex ed curriculum (“many still teach sex ed from 20 years ago,” she warns), and it is already outdated. The curriculum fails to take into account the digital nature of sex in the modern world, Galer notes, the topics are taught after many children have already experienced them, and the overall approach is negative and can impose feelings of shame.

Cyberbullying expert and researcher Adrienne Katz agrees: “We need to evolve these courses; online security is really behind. Some of what we teach doesn’t resonate with them or work for them. So, yes to more education, but it must be modernized and flexible and include the possibility of adding new things.

Why then, when every online safety expert cites education as a critical factor in solving real-world problems, has the Online Safety Bill spent so little time considering it? ?

Child protection and abuse expert Sharon Girling has a simple explanation – and a possible solution. “They didn’t include the word ‘education’ in the bill,” she said. “If they had done that, they would have asked every teacher organization to look at it.” And that, experts have no doubt, would have been good for online safety in the UK.

[See also: How an Olympic swimming coach accused of child abuse hid in plain sight for 30 years]

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