Meanwhile, ministers are insisting the law will not be scrapped and Michelle Donelan, current DCMS foreign secretary, reached out personally to Molly Russell’s father this week to reassure him of her commitment to getting it through. When the bill eventually returns to Parliament, the government is expected to scrap provisions that restrict legal but harmful adult content but strengthen protections for children. “We have to focus on old-age security,” explains de Souza. “We need to make sure we have a deterrent that works.” She says she recently met with Donelan to clarify the point. She points to a new analysis conducted by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) and shared with The Telegraph ahead of its publication next week, which found 90 per cent of all parents surveyed agree there is a minimum age limit for social media should give media platforms.
The survey shows that when parents are asked to rate different methods of old-age security, the most popular is a facility where parents confirm their child’s age before the child is allowed access to a particular website. Among parents who advocate a minimum age for using social media, nearly a third (31 percent) chose asking a parent to enter their child’s age as their preferred method. More than a fifth (23 percent) opted for identity verification of children, followed by 17 percent who opted for a system where a child is asked to enter their own age when registering.
OCC research finds that there are systems in place in the offline world that prevent children from accessing items and experiences that are likely to have harmful effects. It said: “People wishing to purchase alcohol or enter a casino or nightclub would need to show identification such as their passport or driver’s license. We don’t normally ask a person’s age and take it at face value.”
The pandemic – which has left schools closed for extended periods and children stuck indoors, often with little more than staring at screens to while away the time – has only fueled the fire when it comes to the dangers facing represents the online world for children. Researchers believe lockdowns may have damaged children’s vision, with young people nearly twice as likely to be nearsighted than before Covid, possibly because they’ve spent less time outdoors and longer in front of a screen.
During the pandemic, the UK closed schools longer than anywhere else in Europe except Italy. Between January 2020 and July 2021, British children were out of the classroom for almost half (44 per cent) of the days. For a long time, young people were not only allowed to attend school, but also not to see their friends. These sacrifices also weigh heavily on de Souza.
“It really, really impacted them and I don’t think as adults we realize the impact of that or how upset they actually were,” she says, speaking of the fear that affected many school children in the UK. “Don’t forget these kids who are in lockdown for us – essentially, they wouldn’t really be negatively impacted by the virus.”
She explains that while most people worry about the impact of school closures on youngsters graduating from high school, that fear is misplaced. “Having been a principal for many, many years, I knew schools would be really good at making sure these kids caught up and thrived. Schools in general have rightly focused on this group and I think we have seen some positive results there.”
“I worry more about very young children. The impact on speech and language that we are seeing in younger children – we should make sure that children are really being supported with reading, phonics and arithmetic. We have to make sure that they are really good at the end of primary school.”
Their concerns are reinforced by official data released earlier this year, which showed young children’s language and motor skills have plummeted in the wake of the pandemic. Experts said repeated lockdowns have deprived young children of the opportunity to play and learn how to communicate, which has set back their development. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has expressed concern that the gaps now observed could widen in the coming years as more children struggle in school because basic skills are never learned.
But the development of the early years 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 reiterates her desire to give each child a unique identification number so the services can ensure they are working together to support them . “I was obsessed with it from the start,” she says. “I have used my powers to get the data from each local government on how many children they have in their area, how many children are missing from education and how many children were severe or absent. We have an approximate number of about 100,000.”
And then there are the 1.7 million “perpetually absent” students who miss more than 10 percent of their time in class. De Souza says these kids fall into three main categories: those with mental health anxiety, those with special educational needs, and those who just play hooky.
“It’s getting better, but we can’t slow down,” she says. “The Prime Minister’s absolute priority is to get children back to school.”