Online Harms Bill: Everything You Need to Know

With 99% of 12 to15-year-olds being online, and with children spending more time online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to recognise how the digital world may threaten their mental, emotional and sometimes physical wellbeing. The Online Harms Bill came back to everyone’s attention over the summer after its delay sparked outrage from senior government leaders. A full response to the proposed legislation is due at the end of this year.

In Lorna’s 23 years plus experience working in the education sector, she has become an expert in safeguarding children, having worked as a mental health lead, the designated LAC (looking after children) lead and the designated safeguard lead. In this post, she has unpicked the Online Harms Bill, explaining what it is, why we need it and how it will affect our schools.

What is it?

The Online Harms Bill is a proposed law based upon a government white paper jointly proposed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office.

The white paper outlines ambitious plans to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online” and “the best place to start and grow a digital business”. The paper also highlights the fact that it is “the first attempt globally to address a comprehensive spectrum of online harms in a single and coherent way”.

Why do we need it?

Concerns about the safety of social media use were exacerbated following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life having viewed a constant stream of negative material about self-harm on Instagram.

Issues about the role of the use of social media were again raised following the Christchurch, New Zealand, terrorist attack in March 2019. This prompted the government to respond with the idea for a broad internet protection bill in 2017, and the white paper consultation was launched April 2019.

What does it say?

The proposed Online Harms Bill outlined the government’s proposals to create a new regulatory framework for online safety where tech companies will have clear responsibilities and greater accountability to keep UK users, particularly children, safer online. It was anticipated that an independent regulator would oversee and enforce a regulatory framework, including a code of practice and a new statutory duty of care on relevant companies “to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their service”.

More information about the Online Harms white paper can found by reading the Home Office article.

What is the latest news about the Online Harms Legislation?

The white paper was reported by the media as being a ‘a significant document’ which ‘marks the first time that the government of a major country has decided to regulate the companies that now dominate the online world’.

However, the Online Harms Bill has not progressed to parliament, despite petitioning from organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

The DCMS has now stated that it cannot commit to bringing a draft of the bill to parliament until the end of 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic was given as the reason for this delay. It is anticipated that the bill now won’t become law until either 2023 or 2024.

What are Online Harms?

Online harms are described as behaviour online which may hurt a person physically or emotionally. It could be harmful information that is posted online, or information sent to a person.

The government has classified online harms into 3 main categories which are:

Harms with a clear legal definition

  • Child sexual abuse and exploitation
  • Terrorist content and activity
  • Organised immigration crime
  • Modern slavery
  • Extreme pornography
  • Revenge pornography
  • Harassment and cyberstalking
  • Hate crime
  • Encouraging or assisting suicide
  • Incitement of violence
  • Sale of illegal goods/ services, such as drugs and weapons (on the open internet)
  • Contempt of court and interference with legal proceedings
  • Sexting of indecent images by under 18s 

Harms with a less clear legal definition

  • Cyberbullying and trolling
  • Extremist content and activity
  • Coercive behaviour
  • Disinformation
  • Intimidation
  • Violent content
  • Advocacy of self-harm
  • Promotion of Female Genital Mutilation

Underage exposure to legal content

  • Children accessing pornography
  • Children accessing inappropriate material (including under 13s using social media and under-18s using dating apps, excessive screen time)

What is the role of education in preventing online harms?

Education is taking on a vital role in the prevention of online harms while legislation is awaited. The Department for Education (DfE) has introduced a new curriculum – Relationship Education, Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education – which is mandatory in all primary schools and secondary schools from September 2020. However, schools can delay teaching until the start of the summer term 2021 if they are not ready or are unable to meet the requirements.

The intention is that there will be a greater focus on teaching children and young people about online harms as a preventative measure.

Schools should also be familiar with the non-statutory guidance Teaching online safety in schools, produced by the DfE in June 2019, which outlines how schools can make sure pupils understand how to stay safe and behave online.

This guidance was introduced to support schools as a part of the existing curriculum requirements as well as the new requirements set out in the compulsory Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education, and Health Education.

The nature of the Online Harms Bill is wide and varied and is outlined as potential harms or risks in the teaching online safety in schools’ document. It is important that the teaching of such harms is communicated to children and young people in a safe and helpful way, so that students remain dutifully cautious and not fearful.

Potential harms covered in the guidance include:

  • Age restrictions
  • Content: How it can be used and shared
  • Disinformation, misinformation and hoaxes
  • Fake websites and scam emails
  • Fraud (online)
  • Password phishing
  • Personal data
  • Persuasive design which keeps ‘users online for longer than they might have planned or desired’
  • Privacy settings
  • Targeting of online content
  • Abuse (online)
  • Challenges [to do something and post about it]
  • Content which incites…hate, violence
  • Fake profiles
  • Grooming
  • Live streaming
  • Pornography
  • Unsafe communication
  • Impact on confidence (including body confidence)
  • Impact on quality of life, physical and mental health and relationships
  • Online vs. offline behaviours
  • Reputational damage
  • Suicide, self-harm and eating disorders

The Teaching online safety in school guidance also reminds schools that when teaching about these safeguarding topics, staff should be aware that there may be a child or young person in the lesson who is or has been affected by these harms.

During or after a lesson, a pupil may be prompted to disclose about something that may have happened online. If this is the case, it should be reported to the school's designated safeguarding lead

When planning any safeguarding related lessons or activities (including online) it is good practice to consult with the school’s designated safeguarding lead ‘who will be best placed to advise on the safeguarding context of the school community and how to support any pupils who may be especially impacted by a lesson’.

Another useful document to refer to when planning online harms lessons is Education for a Connected World Framework (UKCIS, 2020) which offers ‘age-specific advice about the online knowledge and skills that pupils should have the opportunity to develop at different stages of their lives’.

Online abuse and keeping children safe in education

The amendments to the safeguarding guidance Keeping children safe in education 2020 includes changes to guidance relating to online abuse where schools are encouraged to consider this as part of a whole school safeguarding approach.

However, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic makes this more challenging as more children continue to learn from home. The Government has however published guidance entitled Coronavirus (COVID-19): support to parents and carers to keep children safe online. This document provides parents and carers with information in relation to different types of child sexual abuse.

This is important advice for parents and carers to be able to identify signs of abuse, particularly at a time when their children are not attending school or spending less time with their teachers.

Still Have Questions?

Interested in becoming a member? Contact us today to find out more.

An Online Safety Advisor will be in touch within 24 hours