When online social networking started a revolution in communications in the 1990s, the great idea was to transcend the old frontiers of time and place. At last, we could make contact with like-minded people all over the globe, instantly – a boon for anyone who was bored, isolated, chatty or curious – and for children in particular.
Since that happy dawn, however, it has become clear that some people gravitate towards the net with darker purposes, in search of prey rather than company. Net trolls, cyberbullies and groomers have moved in, using the anonymity of the net to demean, confuse and frighten the recipients of their unwanted attentions. The incidence of children who report being harassed, bullied and targeted for one reason or another continues to rise.
That is why this week we are running a series of articles highlighting the dangers and pressures on children on the net, ranging from bullies and groomers to those who use the net to encourage self-harm and even suicide.
There are moves afoot to curb the worst excesses of the internet. The Government is considering calls to criminalise so-called “revenge porn”, when people post sexually explicit pictures or videos of former partners on the net without their consent.
In May, a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice obliged search engines to delete links to data if the people concerned deemed it should be “forgotten”. Although the implications of the ruling in some senses are worrying, it has given people more control over what is said about them.
However, more remains to be done. It should be easier to prosecute trolls and groomers under the Sexual Offences Act. We also need more progress on security filters, designed to stop children chancing on porn. The internet remains a fantastic resource. It is a great leap forward that most of us can no longer imagine living without. But it does have a dark side – and children need protection from it.