Bishop of Portsmouth welcomes Bill to protect children from harmful content online

On 17th July 2015 the Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke during the Second Reading debate of Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill. The Bishop welcomed the Bill and its provisions to protect children and young people from being exposed to adult content online.

14.04.09 Portsmouth maiden speech 2The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, the provisions of this Bill are an important, indeed essential, part of a robust strategy to protect young people and children from the dangers of exposure to inappropriate material. I welcome it warmly.

There is no doubting the widespread support for the aims of the Bill, welcomed by the previous Government when it was debated two years ago as a common objective. Today, I hope that the Minister can give substance to this shared ambition and welcome the Bill as a neat way of beginning to meet a manifesto commitment.

Opting in to receive adult or explicit material on the net must be a requirement and not just an objective or aspiration. Care for young people demands that, when the internet is an integral part of their lives and predominantly beneficial, such a requirement is needed.

I spoke of this Bill as an essential part of what needs to be done; we shall need to do more. Access to inappropriate or explicit material is a clear risk, but there is also the risk of grooming, exploitation and the taking and sharing of explicit, self-generated images. The speed of the internet and social media means that an error or a bit of experimenting quickly escalates as control is lost of images.

To enable young people to stay safe, it is vital that they themselves, not only their parents and other adults, are educated and empowered. The Bill puts welcome emphasis on educating adults—that is essential. We should not overemphasise the role of parents and other carers nor underestimate the pressures that young people face online from their peers as well as from adult perpetrators. The reality is that teenagers choose to explore their sexuality online these days in ways that people of my generation find difficult to comprehend, and even find offensive because online forums are a full and normal part of their lived experience.

In addition to statutory controls for safeguarding, it is also critical to give children and young people the tools and the language with which to understand where they put their boundaries, and when to say no when those boundaries are impinged upon. Education about online safety, which is key to the Bill, needs to be about more than just enabling parents to choose which websites their children see. It also, just as importantly, needs to be about helping young people to work out and enforce their own boundaries online.

When my children were at school there was a campaign called Just Say No. As your Lordships will no doubt recall, it was about drugs. However, I hear it echoing in my head around all kinds of boundary issues—sex, money, emotional manipulation, for instance. Perhaps in addition to internet settings we need a Just Say No campaign that enables children and young people to say no to invitations to share material with each other, or to look at material other people are trying to draw them into.

The increasing time that young people spend online means that for those professionals working with them the internet is an inescapable part of the role. Clear guidelines and safeguarding procedures now exist for how professionals can engage with young people in the workplace or in other real situations. In the church we strictly enforce the rule that no adult works alone with a child, there is always a DBS check and proper procedures are in place. However, we need to go beyond that. We need to ensure that in online relationships, as the internet is used more widely, there is proper training and support so that youth leaders, clergy and others who engage with the community online are engaging in ways that keep both the young people and the professionals safe.

I welcome and support the Bill. It is one important step in minimising access to harmful material. We must give increased emphasis on equipping children and young people for when they encounter this material—as they almost inevitably will—as well as doing our best to reduce their risk of exposure.