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Will Someone not Think of the Children?’ The Protectionist State and Regulating the ‘Harms’ of the Online World for Young People

Higson-Bliss, Laura



Since 2018, following a green paper exploring the regulation of the online world (HM Government, 2018), the Conservative Government in the United Kingdom have continued the rhetoric that they wish to become one of the safest places in the world to go online. To do this, following several white papers and draft bills, the UK government has introduced the Online Safety Bill before Parliament. And despite the emphasis being originally on the regulation of online companies, in particular the likes of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, much of the recent discussions have centred around the protection of children. The online world has become the modern ‘moral panic’ of the digital world, with parents now more worried about their children online than smoking or drinking (PSHE Association, 2016). The ‘harms’ to young people from the online world are well documented, with barely a week going past without stories emerging in the press of the dangers of the online world for children (see for example: Acres, 2023). In turn, the State takes a protectionist approach as we have seen with the Online Safety Bill. Here, we will regulate or criminalise such behaviours to protect young people. However, what is often missed from these discussions is the voices of these young people we are trying to protect, alongside the positive sides of the online world. Instead, we as adults seem to decide what we believe is harmful to young people and then prohibit such behaviour. This paper will explore two growing areas of ‘harms’ associated with the online world and young people: (1) sexting and (2) discussions around mental health. It will outline the concerns we as adults and the State have towards these behaviours, before turning to examine how young people view the online world. This paper will reject this traditional protectionist stance. Instead, the paper will argue that a protectionist approach to combatting the ‘harms ‘of the internet will not tackle the underlying causes of such behaviours – social norms and lack of adequate legal, technological, and pastoral education. It will suggest that instead of young people viewing such content on ‘regulated’ sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, echo chambers will instead be created on smaller ‘unregulated’ sites which in the long run will do more harm. The paper will conclude by emphasising the importance of centralising the voices of young people in developing legal, policy and educational responses to online harms and will provide the basis for a future grant application.


Higson-Bliss, L. (2023, April). Will Someone not Think of the Children?’ The Protectionist State and Regulating the ‘Harms’ of the Online World for Young People. Paper presented at British and Irish Law Education and Technology Association, University of Amsterdam

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name British and Irish Law Education and Technology Association
Conference Location University of Amsterdam
Deposit Date Jun 2, 2023