The Online Safety Bill is groundbreaking but we won’t see its effect for MONTHS, writes Anna Firth

Child on computer, Brianna Ghey and Archie Battersbee
‘The Online Safety Bill is groundbreaking but we won’t see its effect for MONTHS,’ writes Anna Firth
PA/Getty Images
Anna Firth

By Anna Firth

Published: 21/02/2024

- 19:27

Updated: 22/02/2024

- 07:49

‘School should be a sanctuary where children can both learn and play,’ writes Anna Firth

Whose job is it to protect our children from online harm? That is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. Is it the tech companies? Schools? The Government? Parents and carers? The correct answer, of course, is all of the above, so why aren’t we doing it?

The Online Safety Bill is a groundbreaking piece of legislation designed to protect children, but we face a potential lag of 18 months until the benefits of it will be felt.

As a mother I warmly welcome the Government taking action to ban mobile phones in school, including break times. School should be a sanctuary where children can both learn and play. But as children only spend 20 per cent of their waking hours at school we must go further.

So in this morning’s Education Select Committee, (subject, screen time: impacts on education and well-being), I posed the question - what can we do during the next 18 months to ensure that hundreds of thousands (possibly more) young people are not permanently harmed, or even killed, due to having unfettered access to the internet and all its potential horrors?

All witnesses warned that the harm being done to children right now is too great to wait 18 months for tech companies to step up. The danger is right now.

Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, quite rightly reiterated her calls for a comprehensive range of measures around safety by design, safety in schools and parental education, preferably funded by tech companies. She also warned about the dangers of harmful AI and the metaverse.

But surely we could do something much simpler? Back in 2016 when I had teenagers at home, I co-founded a campaign with another concerned mother called the ‘7-7-7 Digital Sunset Challenge’. Using a short, highly impactful film, that we made ourselves, we went into primary schools and challenged whole year groups to switch off their devices for one week, starting at 7pm and ending at 7am. It worked because it was simple, free and if all their friends were offline, they felt they could be too.

With yet another tragic loss in the form of lovely teenager, Brianna Ghey, today, nobody is disputing the massive scale of mental and physical health problems children are suffering as a result of social media outside school.

Brianna GheyBrianna Ghey was killed in February last year was a judge ruling her murder was partly motivated by her trans identityTIkTok

Violence-inducing videos, hard-core pornography, child abuse, and sites which freely promote anorexia, self-harm, extreme breathing challenges and even suicide.

One such victim was my constituent, Archie Battersbee, who died aged just 12 years old at home, from a prank or experiment that went wrong. Archie’s mother, Hollie Dance, believes that Archie was most probably taking part in an online “blackout” challenge that went wrong.

Before Archie’s death, Hollie says she had ‘no idea’ that there was so much ‘sinister’ content out there. She describes herself as a ‘very protective’ parent who drove Archie everywhere rather than let him walk the streets, but, Hollie says that via his smartphone, she ‘inadvertently let a million strangers into her home’ to spend hours of unsupervised time with her child.

Despite her personal loss, Hollie doesn’t agree that phones should be banned outright for youngsters, ‘it’s a dangerous world out there’, she says, ‘they need phones in case something happens on the commute to and from school’. She does, however, think that a total ban during school time is a good thing, and she is now spearheading a campaign for better parental education regarding social media before children leave primary school.

Archie Battersbee

Archie Battersbee died at the age of 12


Many schools which already ban phones at school will welcome the Government’s crackdown. Eastwood High Academy Trust, a secondary school in my constituency, which has a strict no-phones policy, has seen a significant uptick in good behaviour and a decrease in bullying and other unpleasant actions both in the classroom and corridors.

In a refreshing display of ‘adultness’ CEO, Scott Sterling, told me that he was less concerned about whether the children liked the ban or not and more interested in the many positives that it brought to pupils and teachers alike. Have we, perhaps, forgotten that sometimes children may not initially like adult-imposed boundaries such as a phone ban, but they absolutely benefit from them and one day will be glad that someone, somewhere was in charge?

The next Education Select Committee session into screen time is in mid-March when we will hear from the schools minister Nick Gibb. I will be reiterating my call that every day something is not being done and more children are coming to harm.

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