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A 2018 Ofcom survey of 1304 parents of children aged 5–15 who go online found that many were concerned about their children’s activity on the internet. In 2017, the Children’s Commissioner for England identified shortcomings in online safety education and a number of stakeholders, including the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, have recommended action to increase ‘digital literacy’ in the UK.

Currently, all schools in England are required to teach children about online safety as part of their safeguarding duties. Local authority schools must follow the national curriculum, which requires them to teach some online safety within the computing curriculum. From 2020, some aspects of online safety will be taught in all schools as part of mandatory changes to the curriculum: Relationships education will be taught in all primary schools in England, and relationships and sex education will be taught in all secondary schools in England. In addition, all state-funded schools in England will be required to teach health education.

In April 2019, the UK Government produced its Online Harms White Paper, which stated that attempts at self-regulation by technology companies “have not gone far or fast enough, or been consistent enough”. The White Paper proposed a UK-wide online media literacy strategy and a new ‘duty of care’ for internet companies, which will be overseen by an independent regulator. Consultation on the White Paper closed at the start of July. 

Key Points:

  • Children use the internet for a wide variety of activities: 59% of 7-16 year olds report that they go online to watch videos, 56% listen to music, 54% play games, 47% complete homework, 47% message friends or family and 40% use social networking sites.
  • Children’s internet use increases as they get older. As children age, they are also increasingly likely to access the internet from private locations or spaces outside the home. Children under the age of 12 years primarily access the internet using a tablet, whereas those aged 12–15 tend to use a mobile phone.
  • The internet presents children with a range of opportunities and risks. Online opportunities include undertaking creative activities, socialising, developing skills, and engaging civically. Risks faced by children online can be grouped into four categories, including: ‘content’, such as pornography or violent content; ‘contact’ by those who seek to victimise or radicalise children; ‘conduct’, such as cyberbullying or sharing sexual images; and ‘commercial’, which includes risks such as exposure to advertising or online gambling.
  • There is limited evidence on the long-term effects of these risks and opportunities. There is evidence that access to the internet improves educational outcomes. Research on risks has mainly studied associations between risks and adverse outcomes, rather than looking at causation.
  • The ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ statutory guidance requires all schools to teach online safety as part of a “broad and balanced curriculum”. In most schools this is delivered through PSHE education, computing classes or through events such as assemblies. Additionally, local authority-maintained schools must teach aspects of online safety (such as safe, secure and responsible use of technology, and how to report concerns about online risks) as part of the computing curriculum.
  • From 2020, all schools in England will be required to cover aspects of online safety as part of newly compulsory subjects: relationships education in all primary schools, relationships and sex education in all secondary schools, and health education in all state-funded primary and secondary schools.
  • Many groups argue that tech companies have a responsibility to design safe online spaces in which children can take full advantage of the internet. An age-appropriate design code is currently under consultation, which sets standards on the design of online services which are likely to be accessed by children. The Government’s Online Harms White Paper also proposes a duty of care for internet companies, and the establishment of an online harms regulator.
  • Technologies that may be used to protect children online include filtering and age-verification. Under the Digital Economy Act 2017, pornography websites will be required to use ‘robust’ age-verification to ensure their users are 18 or over. This will be enforced by the British Board of Film Classification.


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • BT*
  • Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command*
  • Chloë Cockett, House of Commons Education Committee*
  • Claire Levens, Internet Matters*
  • David Wetherall, NSPCC*
  • David Wright, SWGfL*
  • Dr Ansgar Koene, University of Nottingham*
  • Dr Elvira Perez Vallejos, University of Nottingham*
  • Dr Helen Creswick, University of Nottingham*
  • Dr John McAlaney, Bournemouth University*
  • Dr Liz Dowthwaite, University of Nottingham*
  • Dr Miranda Horvath, Middlesex University*
  • Dr Victoria Nash, University of Oxford*
  • Dr Virginia Portillo, University of Nottingham*
  • Facebook*
  • Google
  • Information Commissioner’s Office*
  • Jackie Behan, Department for Education*
  • Jonathan Baggaley, PSHE Association*
  • Miles Berry, University of Roehampton*
  • National Assembly for Wales Research Centre*
  • Nicola Spooner, Josie Fraser, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport*
  • Ofcom*
  • Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England*
  • Ofsted*
  • Professor Andy Phippen, University of Plymouth*
  • Professor Emma Bond, University of Suffolk*
  • Professor Joanna R Adler, University of Hertfordshire*
  • Professor Julia Davidson, University of East London*
  • Professor Sonia Livingstone OBE, London School of Economics and Political Science*
  • Research and Information Service, Northern Ireland Assembly*
  • Robert Long, House of Commons Library*
  • Scottish Parliament Information Centre*
  • Steve Bailey, Barnardo’s*
  • techUK*
  • The Baroness Kidron OBE, 5Rights Foundation*
  • Vicki Shotbolt, Parent Zone*
  • Will Gardner OBE, Childnet, UK Safer Internet Centre*

*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing. 

Image copyright: Max Pixel

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