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Looking at Safer Internet Day 2021– Four Months On

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation and Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, looks back on the impact Safer Internet Day had, and looks forward to a safer internet in 2022.

As I look back on the last four months, I’m struck by how much has happened, and how much is currently in flux. By the time we get to February 2022, the landscape of online safety could look very different.

By the time we’re staging the next Safer Internet Day (SID), MPs will have had a chance to get to grips with the potential new rules for keeping the internet safe as outlined in the draft Online Safety Bill.

In fact, we’ll all have had time to digest and feedback on some of the proposals which has the potential to make such a difference to the way we all interact online if we get this opportunity right.

More children will also have had their voices heard, with their concerns, fears, and hopes becoming an ever more powerful part of the discourse which shapes our understanding of the internet.

The Government, for a third time, made a commitment to online safety in the Queen’s Speech in May and swiftly followed this up with the publication of a draft Online Safety Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. As part of our response, we have called on the Government to “follow through” on their pledges to online safety, including replacing the funding the UK Safer Internet Centre will lose when our EU funding ends in December.

One thing, however, I hope does not change is the commitment to Safer internet Day itself.

This year, SID 2021 reached more people than ever before, and broke a Guinness World Record for the number of pledges received for an internet safety campaign in 24 hours. We also worked with young people to develop a Young People’s Charter for Safer Internet Day 2021 on how government and online stakeholders can help create a more trustworthy internet.

I cannot overstate the importance of this day; its positive impact on empowering children, giving them confidence and support, its ability to reach audiences old and young, and its place as a focal point for politicians, children, charities, teachers, and other professionals, to come together for good.

After the coronavirus pandemic, I don’t think we will see our reliance on the internet diminish. Quite the opposite. Research conducted prior to the celebration of SID 2021 revealed that 77% of young people said being online is a more important part of their life than ever before.

The internet has been a crucial friend in helping us and our children work, learn, play, and socialise. It is also, more than ever, the front line on which many of our battles are fought, and where, if unchecked, criminals can flourish.

We need the UK Government to step in and support the UK Safer Internet Centre with a commitment to funding its work in the long term.

It is quite clear that, without this funding, children could be left more vulnerable to online abuse, sexual exploitation, and bullying - all things the UK SIC works hard to prevent and remove from the internet.

If we are truly to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, we need to see this funding secured. This is not the time to be taking our eye off the ball.

The impact of SID can’t either be overlooked. In 2021, 51% of UK children aged 8-17 years heard about Safer Internet Day and as a result:

  • 82% said they felt more confident about what to do if they were worried about something online;
  • 63% had a conversation with a parent or carer about online safety;
  • 26% said they spoke to someone about something that had been worrying them online.

Similarly, 38% of UK parents and carers also heard about the day and as a result:

  • 70% talked to their child about using the internet safely;
  • 70% felt more confident about what to do if their child came to them with a problem they had online.

Just as some things have changed, and will change drastically in the online world, some things, sadly, have remained the same.

The criminal threat to our children on the internet remains serious. The National Crime Agency this year estimated a staggering 850,000 people in the UK could pose a sexual risk to children.

We have also noted a startling 117% increase in self-generated child sexual abuse material in the first few months of 2021 where children have been groomed, coerced, bullied, or tricked into abusing themselves on camera for devious sexual predators.

It is clear to me that the access to quality education, intuitive resources, and strong support that SID allows is central in turning the tide against these internet predators and keeping our children safe online.

When I look back at the impact SID has had, I am immensely proud to know children have been made safer and given the tools they need to thrive online and to call out abuse wherever it appears.

When I look forward to the next one in 2022, I know we must not stop now. For everyone’s sakes, but most of all, for our children’s.

The UK Safer Internet Centre is a partnership of three leading online safety organisations: Childnet International, Internet Watch Foundation and South West Grid for Learning, with a shared

mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online. The UK Safer Internet Centre coordinates Safer Internet Day each year, reaching millions of young people, parents, carers and educators across the UK, giving them the vital information and support they need to keep young people safe online.

The UK Safer Internet Centre stands to lose 50% of its funding and will no longer be in receipt of any funding from Government sources after 1 January 2022 after its EU grant funding ends. For the last decade, the assurance of EU funding has enabled the Centre to leverage a further £10m from the tech industry to fund child safety initiatives. Without some form of Government funding, a number of key online safety initiatives are at risk, including Safer Internet Day. The UK Safer Internet Centre currently receives £1.3m from the European Union to deliver online safety helplines, hotlines and educational resources that are downloaded millions of times a year. This funding costs just 10p per child under the age of 15 in the UK. Despite the enormous impact this has on children’s lives we are yet to see any funding from the Government. It is time they honoured their commitment to child online safety in the UK and filled this essential gap.