Child on laptop at home

Why the DfE must act NOW to digitally safeguard students in the Covid-19 lockdown

There is a new emerging threat to child safety in these lockdown times.

With schools closed and many parents working from home, we’re witnessing a significant rise in the number of children not only using the internet but doing so unfiltered and without supervision. It’s a situation that’s not gone unnoticed by cybercriminals.

Europol, the European Police Agency, believe child abusers are taking full advantage and ”welcoming opportunities to engage with children” in online forums and boards.

This week the National Crime Agency (NCA) has warned that at least 300,000 people in the UK pose a sexual threat to children as paedophiles look to exploit the Coronavirus lockdown. Investigators say they have identified offenders discussing opportunities to abuse children during the crisis in chats online. And police are warning of a spike in abuse with schools closed and youngsters spending more time on the internet.

In a normal school day, children’s online activity is protected by the use of web filters. Web filters block the harmful content a child can access and are a statutory requirement for all UK schools and colleges.

A growing number of schools also use proactive digital monitoring. Proactive monitoring technology, working alongside human moderators, alerts Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) to children at risk of harm suggested by their online activities, search behaviour or use of apps even whilst offline. It makes invisible dangers visible and enables DSLs to get help to students quickly. In 2019, Smoothwall’s human moderators identified a serious risk to a child’s health or life every 3 minutes; real dangers that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Danger arises when children use their personal laptops or tablets at home. Schools find it exceedingly difficult to impose filtering, monitoring software and other security protocols onto devices they don’t own and have no access to. This is the exponential problem we now face.

Can anything be done?

The US Department of Education has some crucial answers. US education policy over the last decade has seen nearly every child equipped with a personal device. These ‘one device to one student’ programmes (otherwise known as 1:1 programs) are intended to give access to digital resources and improve learning regardless of a student’s background. Critically, this supports disadvantaged children, particularly who would otherwise lack the necessary IT resources to access online learning.

But they bring the added benefit of enabling school districts to install web filtering and monitoring and therefore roll out a more widespread protective shield against online predators – regardless of where the child is located.

The U.K. has not adopted 1:1 in the same way preferring instead a less consistent policy of “bring your own device” (BYOD), and failing to fund widespread 1:1, which encourages or requires students to use their own laptops, smartphones or tablets for offsite learning – if they can, which leaves disadvantaged children behind. These devices are not school owned and therefore contain no digital safeguarding capability beyond what a more tech-savvy parent may apply.

The NSPCC this week said that tech firms had had to scale back on the number of moderators tackling sexual abuse, giving offenders an “unprecedented opportunity” to target children who are spending more time online and are increasingly lonely or anxious because of the lockdown.

While Smoothwall has committed to its human moderators and our digital safeguarding provision continues unaffected, the lack of 1:1 school-owned devices in the UK has made it extremely difficult for us and our schools to protect students in the home. Notwithstanding, this dangerous and emerging gap in child safeguarding cannot and must not continue.

The imperative now for UK education is a significant national effort to rapidly deliver a 1:1 device programme, loaded with real-time granular filtering and digital monitoring and an expedited rollout. An immediate joining up of government, schools and leaders across the internet, hardware and digital safety technology is now required to make this possible. The technology and expertise are already here, working and proven. Funding and execution are now the primary foci.

We must act now. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the safety and even lives of our children depend on it.

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