The Children’s Commissioner for England believes that the world of social media is twisting young minds – and we need to act fast
It’s not every day that Dame Rachel de Souza is shocked by what she finds at work. As the Children’s Commissioner for England, a job in which she is tasked with protecting and promoting the rights of children, she spends her time speaking to some of the country’s most troubled youngsters, and has, to some extent, become inured to what they tell her. But it was after one meeting with a roomful of perfectly ordinary teenagers that she was confronted with a stark fact: the majority of them had been exposed to graphic beheading videos.
“I was asking them what they had seen online and two thirds of the room of 15 to 16 year olds had been sent images of a beheading. You’ve got to ask yourself what they’re experiencing out there.”
De Souza, who was commissioned by the Government last year to review online safety for children, made a series of worrying discoveries during the course of her research. Not only did she find that it is “quite likely” for eight year olds to come across pornography online, she also learned of the “insidious” violent content that teenagers are confronted with.
“I honestly think that we will look back in 20 years time and be absolutely horrified by what we allowed our children to be exposed to,” she says. “And that’s something that should be of concern for all of us.”
De Souza has had more than a couple of decades of industry experience to get to this conclusion. After finishing her philosophy and theology degree at UCL, she took a PGCE at King’s College, then steadily worked her way up in education, becoming a head teacher at secondary schools in Luton and then Norwich. In 2012, she went on to cofound Inspiration Trust, which ran a series of schools in Norwich, becoming one of the youngest chief executives of a multi-academy trust.
After taking over two failing schools, she became renowned for sending staff to drag students out of bed and introducing uniforms designed by Savile Row tailors. Her tough methods – although controversial at the time – led to both schools improving their results. In December 2020, she was nominated as Children’s Commissioner and it’s this role and her years working as teacher that have allowed her to now reach a firm conclusion: that the best way for parents to keep their children safe is to buy them old-fashioned mobile phones without any ability to access the internet at all.
“Personally, I think that parents should think long and hard about monitored access to social media or actually access to social media at all,” she says. “I feel strongly that we need to be careful and manage this. So, if you’re worried about your child walking home from school, for example, buy a non-internet-connected phone, so they can always contact you.”
That’s easier said than done when you have teenage children feeling desperately left out because they don’t have a smartphone – and therefore the means – to stay in touch with their friends. But while de Souza sympathises, she’s typically forthright. “I understand that you want to do the best for your child and you want your child to have whatever the other child has and to be part of it,” she says, but insists that mothers and fathers must not be pushed into it and succumb to arguments from their children that all their friends have one. “Because I can almost guarantee that won’t necessarily be the case.”
She also believes that schools and teachers have an important role to play in terms of getting the message out to both parents and children.
“Schools are getting better at advising around the phone issue because it’s just such a massive issue,” she says. “Now, we know the internet can be an amazing resource. But I think we also know the problems and the darker side – whether it’s access to pornography, violence, gore, dieting material. And what the Molly Russell story really shows us and, talking to her mum and dad, is just that they didn’t know what she was looking at.”
She’s referencing, of course, Molly Russell, the 14-year-old found dead in her bedroom in November 2017 after months browsing dark images and videos on social media as she battled with depression and anxiety.
The recent inquest heard that Molly would often scroll through Instagram in a “cluster of binges” in the early hours and that a whole raft of posts would be saved by her within a minute or two. Among the posts which Molly saw and still remain in circulation are a monochrome image of a woman’s face, bearing the words: “Read my lips, I’ve told you a lie, I said ‘I’m fine’, but look in my eyes, I want to die.” This was one of the last posts saved by Molly to her Instagram page before she took her own life.
Her story provoked widespread calls for new duty-of-care legislation, campaigned for by this newspaper, to protect children from harmful content online. An inquest into her death ended with Andrew Walker, the senior coroner, saying that social media “more than minimally contributed” to the death of the schoolgirl.
“Given what I know now about the use of algorithms,” de Souza says, “and having talked to Molly Russell’s father about the materials [he later found out] she was seeing, I think parents should be absolutely demanding that these tech companies clear up the space and this insidious use of algorithms to send harmful material to children.”
These are demands that she has been amplifying on behalf of parents up and down the country – in the most part by pressing home to ministers the importance of passing the Online Safety Bill. De Souza meets with representatives of the biggest tech companies every six months to challenge them on what progress they have made in keeping children safe online including TikTok, Snap, YouTube, Twitter, Google and Meta, which runs Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
From these meetings, she has reached the stark conclusion that self-regulation has not worked and new measures are required. “We have to put support around children and young people,” she says. “And while parents are the best people to do that, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need legislation as well.”
Legislation is in the wings but has been stymied by an interminable back and forth between opposing parties. In essence, the Online Safety Bill aims to protect children from stumbling across a wide range of harms on the internet, including sexual abuse and exploitation, grooming and pornography, as well as the promotion of content about suicide, self-harm and eating disorders. It was piloted through the Commons by the former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, but it has proved controversial among Tory MPs who have warned that it could lead to an assault on civil liberties.
Earlier this year, a group of senior Tories demanded that plans to regulate “legal but harmful” content online should be axed, arguing that any government could use the laws to censor free speech. The group – which included former ministers Lord Frost and David Davis as well as chairman of the 1922 committee Sir Graham Brady – wrote to the then-culture secretary warning that the plans would hand the Government unprecedented powers to designate “harmful” content. They said this could lead to “political censorship” online as social media companies would respond by suppressing such content as well as allowing a future secretary of state to use the power to lean on the tech giants to remove speech they subjectively dislike. This prompted yet another intervention – this time by five former culture secretaries – who wrote an article for The Telegraph arguing that children could be put at risk by attempts to rewrite the Online Safety Bill. They said attempts to remove protections against “legal but harmful” content could leave children exposed to material promoting self harm, anorexia, hate speech or anti-Semitism.
Circumstances, too, have worked against the Bill being passed. It was due to complete its Commons stages before the summer recess but was pulled amid the chaos over Boris Johnson’s final days in power. It was then timetabled for earlier this month but was again dropped. Its return to Parliament has been subject to multiple delays as ministers wrangle over how to strike the balance between protecting children from the potential damage of unfettered access to the internet and concerns that it will create a chilling effect on free speech.
There are now growing fears the bill could be further delayed, raising the prospect that it may run out of time in the current session. There have even been internal warnings by civil servants in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) that any further delay risks the collapse of the legislation as parliamentary rules bar it from being carried over into another session.
“I want our politicians to step up and show some moral purpose as well as the tech companies,” says de Souza. “Children’s experience online is an existential issue. It’s the issue of our age. The questions around the adult side of the bill must not get in the way. We absolutely need to take this once-in-a-generation moment to ensure children are kept safe online and in the online world. Nothing should get in the way of supporting child safety online and getting this Bill back.”
Meanwhile, ministers are insisting the Bill will not be killed off and Michelle Donelan, DCMS’s current secretary of state, has reached out personally to Molly Russell’s father this week to assure him of her commitment to getting it through. When the Bill finally returns to Parliament, the Government is expected to strip out provisions clamping down on legal but harmful content for adults but strengthen protections for children. “We need to be focused on age assurance,” explains de Souza. “We need to ensure we’ve got a deterrent that works.” She says she has met with Donelan recently to press home this point. She points to a new analysis carried out by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC), shared with The Telegraph ahead of its publication next week, which found that 90 per cent of all parents surveyed think that there should be a minimum age on social media platforms.
The survey shows that when parents are asked to rank different methods of age assurance, the most popular one is a setup which would see parents confirm their child’s age before the child gains access to a particular site. Among parents who were in favour of having a minimum age for social media use, almost a third (31 per cent) chose asking a parent to enter their child’s age as their preferred method. Over fifth (23 per cent) chose identity checks of children, followed by 17 per cent who opted for a system whereby a child is asked to enter their own age at sign up.
The OCC research notes how in the offline world, there are systems in place to prevent children from accessing items and experiences that are likely to have harmful effects. It states: “People wishing to buy alcohol, or enter a casino or nightclub, would have to show ID such as their passport or driver’s licence. We do not usually ask for someone’s age and take it at face value.”
The pandemic – which saw schools closed for prolonged periods of time and children stuck indoors, often with little more than staring at screens to occupy their time – has only added fuel to the fire when it comes to the dangers posed to children by the online world. Researchers believe that lockdowns may have damaged the eyesight of children, with young people nearly twice as likely to be short-sighted than before Covid possibly because they spent less time outdoors and longer in front of a screen.
During the pandemic, the UK closed schools for longer than anywhere in Europe other than Italy. Between January 2020 and July 2021, British children were out of the classroom for almost half (44 per cent) of days. For long periods of time, youngsters were not only banned from going to school but also from seeing their friends. These sacrifices too weigh heavily on de Souza.
“It really, really impacted on them and I don’t think, as adults, we realise the impact of that or how upset they actually were,” she says, talking about the anxiety that affected many school children in the UK. “Don’t forget those children locked down for us – in the main, they were not really going to be negatively impacted by the virus.”
She explains that most people have been worrying about the impact of school closures on teenagers who were taking their GCSEs and A-levels – but in fact, this fear is misplaced. “Having been a head teacher for many, many years, I knew that actually schools would be really good at making sure that those children were caught up and were successful. Schools in general focused on that group, rightly, and I think that we’ve seen some positives there.”
“I’m more concerned about very young children. The impact on speech and language that we’re seeing in younger children – we should be ensuring that children are really supported with their reading, phonics and maths. We have to make sure that by the time they get to the end of primary school, they’re in a really good place.”
Her concerns are backed up by official data published earlier this year, which showed that toddlers’ speech and motor skills dropped sharply in the wake of the pandemic. Experts said that repeated lockdowns had left young children without the chance to play and learn how to communicate, setting back their development. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists raised fears that the gaps being witnessed now could widen in coming years, with increasing numbers of children struggling at school because basic skills were never learned.
But early years development is not the only casualty of the pandemic. De Souza has also sounded the alarm about the 100,000 “ghost children” who have been missing from school since early 2020, and repeats her wish to give each child a unique identity number so that services can ensure they are working together to help support them. “I’ve been obsessed about this, right from the start,” she says. “I used my powers to get the data from every local authority area on how many children they have in their area, how many children are missing from education, and how many children were severely or absent. We have a roundabout figure that came to about 100,000.”
And then there are the 1.7 million “persistently absent” pupils who are missing more than 10 per cent of their time in the classroom. De Souza says these children fall into three major categories: those with mental health anxieties, those with special education needs and those who are simply playing truant.
“It’s getting better, but we must not take our foot off the gas,” she says. “The absolute priority of the Prime Minister is to get children back to school.”