Students learning the dangers and the good uses of the internet and social networks

Online perils should be taught like road safety to young children, says IWF

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The head of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has urged schools to teach internet safety to young children in the same way they are warned of the dangers of crossing the road and talking to strangers.

Susie Hargreaves said urgent action was needed, after it emerged that the number of self-generated child sexual abuse images identified by the IWF involving boys and girls aged seven to 10 had nearly tripled in a year.

It comes as MPs continue to hear evidence on the Online Safety Bill, with new rules proposed to force internet companies to better protect their users from harm on the internet.

“I think people would be absolutely horrified if they knew their seven-year-old was upstairs in their bedroom being tricked and encouraged into sharing this content,” said Hargreaves, chief executive of the charity responsible for removing child indecency online. “I think that there are some basic safety messages that can be shared with children that are not about ‘how to open an account’.”

She added that in exactly the same ways of warning about talking to strangers or crossing the road, there are basic safety messages that teachers need to get across with children: “I think online safety should be a basic requirement of education for children pretty much as soon as they go to school.”

Current government guidance suggests pupils should be taught about online safety as part of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) lessons, with sections on recognising risks, harmful content and how to report issues.

Figures from the IWF show it found 16,900 self-generated child sexual abuse images involving children aged between seven and 10 in the nine months to the end of September this year – significantly up from 5,900 in the first nine months of 2020.

Hargreaves described the figures as “shocking” and said young children using the internet while unsupervised were “easy prey”.

She suggested that teachers should start educating children at a much younger age. “We can’t afford to ignore the fact that they are too young to have education on this matter,” she said. “We have to work with them to help build their resilience and protect them online.”

She added: “Most of the children we see are 11 to 13 that are not physically or mentally and emotionally mature enough to understand what’s happening to them when they are coerced and groomed and tricked into self-generated images and videos.”

Hargreaves stated that if this is true for 11 to 13-year-olds, it’s certainly true for seven to 10-year-olds. “They are incredibly vulnerable. We just need to step up as a society because those numbers are scary and say, 'Well, what are we doing to protect these children online?'”.

She said a “joint approach” was needed and that the government has a role to play in terms of prevention and awareness-raising through the education system.

“Law enforcement has, technology has, but I don’t think we can afford to tiptoe around this subject anymore. This is a really big problem,” Hargreaves concluded.

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