In February 2021 the Department of Health, on behalf of the Executive, published a much-delayed Online Safety Strategy and Action Plan for Northern Ireland.
The creation of such policy has been on the cards since 2015 when the then Executive commissioned the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) to develop a strategy and action plan in recognition of the nature and scale of the challenge and associated risks. However, development has been extensively delayed on a number of occasions.
Entitled Keeping Children and Young People Safe: An Online Safety Strategy for Northern Ireland 2020-2025, the strategy aims to be an enabler rather than limiter of children and young people’s access to the online world, empowering them to access the educational, social and economic benefits of the online world, “safely, knowledgeably and without fear”.
The objectives of the Online Safety Strategy are to support the cross-government action plan by:
• reflecting emerging evidence of good practice in online safety approaches;
• engaging with existing online safety mechanisms in the UK and beyond, seeking to add value to existing work rather than duplicate;
• educating and empowering children and young people, and those responsible for their care, to facilitate their informed use of digital technology;
• educating children and young people on how to manage and respond to harmful online experiences, while ensuring they can access age-appropriate support services, including recovery services, should the need arise; and
• facilitating the meaningful participation of children and young people, parents, and carers, and those who support them, in relevant policy and service development.
Estimates suggest that Northern Ireland aligns with Office of National Statistics (ONS) statistics showing that 100 per cent of households with children across England, Scotland and Wales had internet access in 2018. OFCOM reported in 2019 that 83 per cent of
12- to 15-year-olds own a smartphone
and 99 per cent spend 20.5 hours online per week.
The Strategy recognises that with increased use of online also comes increased concern and an evidence base of increasing levels of incidents including the likes of cyberbullying, grooming and exploitation.
OFCOM estimates that 69 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds have a social media profile, as do 18 per cent of 8- to 11-year-olds, despite the minimum age being set at 12.
There is no legal or universally recognised definition of ‘online safety’, but the Strategy offers the definition of online safety relating to all engagement in the online world. “It means supporting and empowering children and young people to engage in online activities in an educated, safe, responsible and respectful way,” the document states.
The UK Safer Internet Centre classifies risks in the categories of: content, contact, conduct and commercialism. The Strategy drills further into factors identified as having a potential impact on the types and level of risks faced by children and young people online and these range from gender, through to experience of care and political opinion.
Importantly the Strategy recognises the importance of not just equipping children and young people with knowledge in relation to avoiding online harm but also their parents and carers, those who support them and those who provide services for them.
In 2018 Barnardo’s reported that parent use of digital devices at home may negatively impact their parenting. The report highlighted that parents with a child aged up to three in their house and who had high use of digital devices were less likely to feel like a good role model; more likely to have no rules in place to limit their child’s use of digital technology; and more likely to allow their child to access content alone for longer periods of time.
Three key commitments outlined in the Strategy are:
1. Create a sustainable online safety infrastructure for Northern Ireland.
2. Educate children and young people, their parents and carers and those who work with them
3. Develop evidence-informed quality standards for online safety provision.
A three-year action plan has been developed to support the Strategy. In relation to infrastructure, the action plan’s commitments for year one include the development of a central repository for online safety information and facilitation of signposting and strengthening links between Northern Ireland and wider UK and global online safety structures. Year two ambitions are for enhanced education for schools on technical provision and year three will see the identification of new actions for a further year four and five of the plan.
Key commitments to action
Engagement of the Child Protection Senior Official’s Group to oversee online safety – year 1
Development of a core set of online safety messages for children and young people, parents, and carers, in conjunction with key stakeholders – year 1
Review of current reporting pathways and referral mechanisms to support services when issues arise, and development of an agreed reporting pathway to enable children and young people to access support if needed – year 1
Review current curricular content on online safety – Promote and embed consistent messaging regarding online safety in the curriculum – year 2
Online safety training needs analysis for practitioners working with children, young people and those who care for them – year 1
Review of current inclusion of online safety content within third level education courses where students will eventually work with children, young people or parents/carers – year 3
Develop metrics to determine how we measure if children are being kept safe online. – year 1
On educating children and young people, their parents, and carers and those who provide services, the plan aims to embed a culture of online safety within schools, colleges and children and youth services and organisations. Additionally, it will seek to skill up practitioners who work with children, young people, and families.
On developing evidence-informed quality standards for online safety provision, the plan proposes to facilitate better understanding of the scale of the problem through research and data collection. Also, it has specific actions for strengthening self-assessment processes for online safety, including the promotion of the use of good practice audit tools across Northern Ireland.
Beyond the three years of the plan, the policy envisages the potential introduction of an accreditation scheme for online safety training delivery organisations.