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Millions of children will face worsening online abuse unless Government acts now to plug Brexit funding blackhole, experts warn

Children’s charity leaders, police, and teaching unions are warning millions of children could be at even greater risk of online exploitation and abuse unless the Government steps in to replace “vital” funding after Brexit.

In an open letter published today (November 3), leaders from more than 25 organisations across the education, technology and child protection sectors, urged the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to replace £1.3 million of funding for the UK Safer Internet Centre, which is currently provided by the EU.

Among the signatories are Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC, Nancy Kelly, CEO of Stonewall, and Tessy Ojo of the Diana Award. 

The letter is also signed by Chief Constable Simon Bailey QPM, the National Policing Lead for Child Protection, as well as Julian David, the CEO of techUK.

There are also signatures from Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, and the General Secretaries of the NASUWT and the NAHT.

The UK SIC is a unique partnership of three world-leading charities (SWGfL, Childnet, and the Internet Watch Foundation) working together to deliver critical advice, resources, and interventions to help keep everyone, especially children and young people, safe online.

The funding currently provided by the EU amounts to 50 per cent of the Centre’s funding. Without it, there are fears children could be left vulnerable to online abuse, sexual exploitation, and bullying - all things the UK SIC works hard to prevent and remove from the internet.

The letter says unless the funding is replaced, “efforts to innovate to remove illegal and harmful content online will be hampered, schools will be less supported to educate and protect their pupils on these crucial safety issues, and millions of children will be more vulnerable to the growing number of threats they face online each day.”

This year, the coronavirus pandemic and national lockdown have seen more children and young people being exposed to online harms, including sexual exploitation.

The IWF has reported a shocking increase in self-generated child sexual abuse images of children. In 2019, a third of all the content the IWF acted upon was generated by children themselves who had been groomed or coerced into making it. That rose to 44% in the first half of 2020.

Reports to the IWF’s hotline have also spiked, with analysts processing 15,258 reports from the public in September 2020, a record for the charity and up from 10,514 in September 2019.

The UK's revenge porn helpline (run by SWGfL) is also having a record year, with calls remaining high since the coronavirus lockdown.

Sangeet Bhullar, CEO of digital education institution WiseKids, said the UK SIC, and events it puts on like Safer Internet Day, are “vital” in keeping children safe online.

She said: “The work of the UK Safer Internet Centre is vital – from all their annual Safer Internet Day campaigns, to their helplines, guides and trusted resources for families and educators.

“Most importantly, they have a UK wide overview, and are aware and respond quickly to the needs of professionals and families across the country.

“The impact of their work in supporting children and young people’s online safety cannot be underestimated.”

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, praised the “valuable” work of the UK SIC.

She said: “The Children’s Commissioner’s Office recognises the valuable work of the UK Safer Internet Centre in empowering children to educate their peers about how to stay safe online, providing quality resources for children and professionals and removing large volumes of child sexual abuse images from the web.”

The letter says committing to replacing the funding currently provided by the EU would cost just 10 pence per year for every child under the age of 15.

David Austin, CEO of the BBFC, said: “It’s vital to help children develop online resilience and give them the tools they need to choose content well.

“We know from talking to parents how tough it is to navigate the online world safely and we’re here to help with that. 

“With more of us spending time online, it is essential that the UK Safer Internet Centre can continue their valuable work, educating and innovating against new threats, so that children and young people can reap the benefits of being online safely.”      

UK SIC Director Susie Hargreaves OBE said not replacing the funding would have “dire” consequences for children in the UK.

She said: “The internet is where, increasingly, we are living our lives. It has been a lifeline keeping us all together during this pandemic. But it is also where criminals are looking to exploit the most vulnerable among us.

“Without the right education, training, and help, people – children in particular – are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. I worry there will be dire consequences if that is not available.”

David Wright, UK SIC Director, said: “The UK Safer Internet Centre plays a pivotal role. It runs Safer Internet Day, the critical annual touchpoint in online safety education, which this year reached half of the nation’s children.

“With the funding, the UK Safer Internet Centre can continue to expand their reach, continue to remove illegal child sexual abuse imagery, innovate against new threats and allow children and young people to reap the benefits of being online safely.”

Will Gardner, UK SIC Director, said: “The work that the UK Safer Internet Centre does is absolutely critical to the online safety of children in this country.

“If the Government does not replace the EU funding, this work will be hard hit, and this will have a negative impact on millions of children and young people and those that support them.

“The Government has said it aims to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online. Proper funding for the UK SIC is particularly important at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has seen many people spending more time than ever on the internet.”

UK SIC’s Safer Internet Day is taking place on February 9. It’s a worldwide celebration of internet safety. In 2020, it reached half of UK children aged 8-17 and 26% of their parents.

 

Read the open letter