BLOG POST: Stop frightening the children – Chris Davies

Chris-Davies-profile-232x300On the surface of things, it would seem difficult to object to an organisation whose chief aim is the protection of children. But not everyone is sorry to see the back of Jim Gamble, who has just offered his resignation as head of CEOP (the Child Exploitation and Online and Protection centre). This was in protest at government plans to merge CEOP with the new National Crime Agency. His argument is that it will lose its distinct identity. Many people in the Internet industry are quite glad, though, to see him go because they see him as “an extremely aggressive person” and a “loose cannon” who “loves the media spotlight”.
CEOP’s approach to the whole business of young people and the Internet was vividly demonstrated by the scare-mongering performance of a Gamble supporter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week, who talked about the “unimaginable evil” that is waiting for children on the Internet in shocking terms: “children being raped, .. sex with babies, children being tortured or forced to have sex with animals”. You can’t help wondering whether throwing around such notions on national radio at 7.30 in the morning in such an uncontrolled manner might not constitute a rather more disturbing invasion of young minds than anything most of them might encounter on the Internet. It was the kind of thing you would also often hear from Gamble’s own media performances.
I have observed some of the CEOP guidance being offered to a group of looked after children when being presented with their very own laptops (through the last government’s Home Access Targeted Group programme) last year. By the time they had been shown the appalling CEOP movie clip called “Where’s Klaus?” and heard a whole litany of truly dire CEOP warnings about what was waiting for them online, most of these already vulnerable children looked like they would prefer to leave without their lovely new laptops after all.
There is a confusion of roles here. CEOP is a police agency, and was set up in 2006 to find and convict paedophiles, a serious and important task. Since 2006, it has safeguarded 624 children by arresting sex offenders and breaking up networks, which is clearly an excellent achievement, as well as an accurate representation of the specialised scale of the problem. At the same time, it has also placed itself at the centre of discussion of how the vast majority of young people should use the Internet. But it is not an educational agency, and shows little understanding of how to help and encourage young people to benefit from the Internet in positive ways. By relentlessly demonising the Internet, CEOP has led the way in unnerving parents and children alike, to the extent that young people are in danger of becoming unnecessarily fearful and tentative in their uses of it (something increasingly evident in our own recent research). Maybe a change of leadership and identity might in fact prove very timely.

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