The Byron Review on Internet Safety

The Department for Children, Schools and Families launched a report entitled "Safer Children in a Digital World" on 27th March, 2008. The report is authored by Dr Tanya Byron, a clinical psychologist who is mother to two children. It was commissioned by Gordon Brown in September 2007 and suggests a package of measures to help children and young people make the most of the internet and video games, while protecting them from harmful and unsuitable material. Dr Byron gives a detailed analysis of the evidence of the risks and benefits of new technologies and examines this evidence in the context of child and brain development theory and research to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the work which is already being carried out to protect children when surfing the internet or playing video games. Dr. Byron concludes that while new technologies can bring significant opportunities to children and young people, a general lack of confidence and awareness amongst parents is leaving children vulnerable to risks.

She compares unsupervised access to the Internet to opening the front door and letting your child go outside to play unsupervised and highlights the fact online dangers can be enhanced by the anonymity and ubiquity of the Internet Dr Byron makes a number of suggestions for improving improve children's on-line safety including: Establishing a new UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which will report to the he Prime Minister, and will include representatives from Government, industry, children's charities, as well as children, young people and parents. Requiring industry to take greater responsibility by establishing independently monitored codes of practice in areas such as user generated content, improving access to parental control software and safe search features and increased control over online advertising. Initiating a comprehensive public awareness campaign on child internet safety across Government and industry, including an authoritative 'one stop shop' on child internet safety. Providing sustainable education and children's service initiatives to improve the online safetyskills of children and their parents. Dr Byron also recommends a range of high profile efforts to educate parents about the suitability of video games are right for their children.

This includes: Revising the classification system used for rating video games to use a single set of symbols which are the same as those for films. Lowering the statutory requirement to classify video games to 12+, so that it is the same as film classification and easier for parents to understand. Giving clear and consistent guidelines to industry on the advertising of games. Asking industry to provide sustained and high profile efforts to increase parents knowledge of age ratings and improved parental controls. Most of the proposals in the report would not be difficult to put into practice. Indeed, many of them have already been implemented, eg: parental control software, age rating for games and restrictions on illegal content.

It is interesting to note that many of the solutions proposed by Dr. Byron involve better education - particularly for parents. Byron notes that "One key finding from the review of the literature on the effects of new technologies on children is that the potential risks to children from using the internet are correlated with the potential benefits, for example, where the opportunity to find information is coupled with a risk of stumbling across adult material, or the benefits of being able to communicate and make new friends comes with a risk of potentially harmful contact from strangers or bullying." It may be that efforts by education authorities and others to create "walled gardens", where children can benefit from the Internet without being exposed to the risks are misguided, as removing the risks can also eliminate many of the benefits. The report's proposals also include better promotion of parental control software by computer manufacturers and internet service providers. Although the use of such software is already widespread, the report suggests that it would be of benefit to introduce a kitemark system to inform parents about what they are buying.

Ted Hastings has more than 35 years experience in IT and education. He has written a textbook on Internet Safety Skills and writes a popular blog entitled Surf Safely.

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