9th August 2022

Community – the Children’s Commissioner’s view

Children should feel safe to play and have fun in their communities, both online and offline, no matter where they live.

What children say about Communities

Children value shared spaces in their local community, where they can play and develop strong friendships and skills. However, after mental health, a lack of safe and fun places in their local area was the second biggest worry for children in the Big Ask, with 1 in 5 children concerned about this. As one teenage boy put it:

“I think there should be more clubs in my local area and interesting play areas” – Boy, 14.

Children also wrote about feeling intimidated in public spaces. Boys were more likely to express fears about physical violence. One boy told us:

“Roadmen, knife crime, drugs, everywhere hating teenagers, no-where safe to chill” – Boy, 16.

Whereas teenage girls wrote powerfully about their experiences of street harassment and of fearing sexual violence in public spaces. A girl said:

“Girls in uniform get catcalled by creeps. […] We deserve better!’’ – Girl, 16.

This generation also spend a large proportion of their childhoods online. Yet children told us that online spaces can also feel unsafe and can affect their wellbeing. As one girl put it:

“I think that we all spend so much time on social media, worrying about how many followers we have, that we don’t get enough time to just stop and do nothing, or go outside or spend more time with our families” – Girl, 12.

What progress we have made to deliver for children on the area of Communities

Online communities

  • Last year the Secretaries of State at DCMS and the Department for Education asked the Children’s Commissioner to explore how the online world can be made safer, both through the Online Safety Bill and in advance of this new law. To understand the issues and how online platforms can be made safer, the Commissioner and her team consulted with children and young people through a series of focus groups and convened a workshop of 16-21-year-olds at the Department for Education.
  • Based on the views of these young people, the Commissioner delivered a set of recommendations to strengthen the Online Safety Bill, four of which were accepted by Government in their rewrite of the Bill in March 2022. These were: full coverage of pornography sites under the Bill; a specific reference to the role of age assurance in protecting children online; strengthened powers for Ofcom to direct companies to scan for child abuse content on private messages; and a new offence of ‘cyberflashing’.
  • The Commissioner appeared at the Commons Committee on the Online Safety Bill, where she spoke about what children had told her about online safety. The Commissioner talked about the pressing need to pass an Online Safety Bill which has children’s voices at its heart. She told Committee members that regulation must have the teeth to hold tech firms accountable where they put children in harm’s way.
  • The office worked with children and young people to publish a guide for parents – “The things I wish my parents had known” – about sexual harassment and abuse online. The guide covered issues including pornography consumption, intimate image sharing and sexualised bullying. This has been the most downloaded document on the Children’s Commissioner’s website, and the office has also received positive feedback from schools on its use in lessons about consent and respect online.
  • A steering group of civil society leaders in the children’s and online safety sectors has guided the Commissioner’s ongoing online safety agenda.  Members have also signed joint parliamentary briefings on the Online Safety Bill – amplifying the importance of putting children at the heart of legislation.
  • The Children’s Commissioner convened a series of roundtables of the social media and adult industries. The roundtables, which were attended by Secretaries of State and Ministers across DCMS, Education and the Home Office, focussed on what more companies can be doing now ahead of online safety regulation to keep children safe online. This included in-depth discussion about the role of age assurance in protecting children from harmful content. Eight major platforms have since shared information with the Commissioner about children’s use of their platforms and their estimation of children’s exposure to harmful content. One tech firm who attended the roundtable recently announced the trial of improved age assurance methods on their social media platform.

Offline communities

  • The Children’s Commissioner was deeply shocked by the experiences of Child Q, told bravely earlier this year. In response, the Commissioner used her data collection powers to investigate the Metropolitan Police’s practice around strip searching children. This week, we have published our findings, which show deeply concerning issues with safeguarding children during strip searches. We will continue to engage with the Metropolitan Police over our concerns, as well as expanding our focus to other police forces in England and the wider national guidelines to ensure that children are kept safe when they interact with the police.
  • The Commissioner’s Office sits on the National Police Chiefs Council task-and-finish group on combatting sexual violence through education. The group builds on Year 1 of the NPCC VAWG framework, with a focus on the prevention of harmful sexual behaviour in schools. The group builds on Year 1 of the NPCC VAWG framework, with a focus on the prevention of harmful sexual behaviour in schools and online.
  • The Children’s Commissioner appeared at the Justice Select Committee’s scrutiny session on the Victims’ Bill. The Commissioner made clear the importance of ensuring that children are at the heart of the legislation, and that protections are shaped around child victims’ specific needs for support following domestic, sexual or serious violence.
  • The Children’s Commissioner has engaged with the community and youth sector through the National Youth Agency (NYA), appearing at the National Youth Sector Advisory Board while the Office gave evidence to an NYA enquiry into the role of youth work and schools.

The vision for children

Online communities

  • An Online Safety Act on the statute book, with strong protections for children, and tech firms held accountable where they put children in harm’s way.
  • Tech firms to take action now, ahead of online safety regulation, to protect children online.

Offline communities

  • Children to have trust and confidence in the police – and for what happened to Child Q to never be repeated. The Children’s Commissioner’s office will work with the Metropolitan Police and other police forces to improve safeguarding in policing, particularly in relation to strip searching.
  • Girls to feel safe in communities, and for there to be a new offence of public sexual harassment. The Government is currently consulting on this issue.
    • The Children’s Commissioner’s Office will continue to push for public sexual harassment to be made illegal, in all its forms.
    • The Commissioner’s Office will also campaign for investment in initiatives to protect girls from sexual harassment, in particular on their journeys to and from school. The Office will also call for pilots to be accompanied by robust evaluation to establish what works to protect girls from sexual harassment in public spaces.
  • Children and young people should have safe places to go outside of school, where they can take part in fun activities and build relationships with trusted adults. The Children’s Commissioner will continue to call for a renewed focus on community youth services, including an updated statutory duty on local authorities to ensure a minimum level of youth provision.