Internet is 'lawless jungle too dangerous for children to use’, former government adviser warns

Caught in the web: It is central to the lives of the young but current laws fail to protect them, says adviser

The internet is a “lawless jungle that will soon be too dangerous for children to use”, a former government adviser has warned.

In an interview with The Independent to mark the first in a week-long series of articles about the role of the internet in the lives of children and young people, Anthony Smythe, the managing director of BeatBullying, says current law is “not fit for purpose”.

Mr Smythe, who was a senior policy adviser at the Department for Education, says the lack of regulation online is putting vulnerable children at risk of self-harm and even suicide.

Following a series of high-profile cases of teenagers taking their own lives, The Independent is calling for tougher legislation to make the internet a safer environment for young people. The series calls on the Government to introduce a legal definition of bullying, to make it easier to prosecute people suspected of grooming children online, and to change internet security filters to require that people opt out rather than opt in.

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“For many years the Government has failed to stand up to the industry. We’ve hit a point now where we need to introduce legislation if children are going to be safe online,” said Mr Smythe, who specialised in child safeguarding before taking over as managing director of the charity BeatBullying last year. “I can’t think of any other environment where there are no laws to protect [young people].”

Cyberbullying affects one in three young people, with one in 13 “so consistently” bullied that it leads to anxiety, self-harm or suicide. BeatBullying carried out research in 2008 into suicide among 10- to 14- year-olds in the UK that found that “44 per cent of suicides were linked to bullying”.

Video: 'The landscape of bullying has completely changed'

“Back then [young people] weren’t using technology in the same way we’re using it today,” Smythe said. “[BeatBullying research] predated social networking sites. If we did the research now the percentage would be a lot higher. That percentage will only increase as we see more and more bullying and that’s largely down to the internet.”

He said bullying had become inescapable for the children who were targeted. “They are being bullied on the way home by text and instant messenger, at home on their computer. It gives the target of the bullying no respite, no time off; if you are being bullied 24/7, if you’re a target every minute and hour of your life and you feel there is nowhere to go. That is why we’re seeing these tragic cases. That is why we are seeing more self-harm and suicide.”

BeatBullying, which represents the victims, says the government needs to review current legislation. The Communications Act and the Protection from Harassment Act, both of which could theoretically be used, are rarely if ever implemented in cases of cyberbullying. “The problem with the current law is that bullying is not defined, therefore it goes unused when dealing with bullying,” Mr Smythe said. “A law which, for the first time, legally defined bullying would help address this, and would help young people understand that bullying behaviour can lead to legal sanctions.”

A recent study showed 12 per cent of seven-year-olds with special educational needs claimed they were being bullied A recent study showed 12 per cent of seven-year-olds with special educational needs claimed they were being bullied "all the time" Current laws also have high thresholds before they are triggered. He believes the definition from the Crimes Amendment (Bullying) Act 2011 applied in Victoria, Australia would be a useful reference in the UK: “A [young] person would be charged if found acting in any other way that could reasonably be expected to cause physical or mental harm to the second person, including self-harm; or to arouse apprehension or fear in the second person for his or her own safety or that of any other person.”

Watch ‘Headline London’ at 12.30pm on Monday 10 August on London Live for a discussion of the issue

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