Michelle Donelan: Protect children from 'Wild West' of social media

Michelle Donelan: Protect children from 'Wild West' of social media

Becoming a mother has convinced me we MUST protect children from the ‘Wild West’ of social media says Science minister Michelle Donelan as she returns to work from maternity leave

  • Michelle Donelan said becoming a mother has renewed focus on law change
  • Online Safety Bill aims to protect children and adults from harmful content 
  • Comes after Molly Russell, 14, took her own life after viewing content online

Just three months after becoming a mother for the first time, Michelle Donelan is back at work in her new role as Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary.

During maternity leave she oversaw the Online Safety Bill and held her first meeting about the legislation only five days after her son Noah was born.

The Bill aims to protect children and adults from harmful and indecent content online and on social media, and is expected to become law this autumn.

It comes after distressing cases such as that of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who killed herself after viewing images of self-harm and suicide on Instagram.

In her first interview since her return to work, Ms Donelan told The Mail on Sunday how having a baby had put a renewed focus on her drive to protect children from harmful content on the internet.

Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan, pictured with her new son, has revealed that becoming a mother has given her a renewed drive to protect children from harm on the internet

During her maternity leave, Donelan oversaw the Online Safety Bill, which aims to protect children and adults from harmful and indecent content online and on social media

She believes the Bill will clear up the ‘Wild West’ that is the internet, ‘especially when it comes to children’. 

Donelan: Maggie inspired me as a child 

Big Dreams: Michelle Donelan aged six

The Minister in charge of creating new jobs in technology, and ensuring the British people have the skills to do them, decided on her own job – to be a Tory MP – when she was just six.

‘Obviously I didn’t fully know at the age of six what an MP did,’ she says. ‘I was watching TV one day and I saw Margaret Thatcher and I thought, ‘Golly’. 

I asked my mum and she told me all about what she did, and I thought she was inspiring.

‘As a kid growing up in the North West, seeing people around me not necessarily having the same opportunities as in some other areas, and the pressures that they faced without those opportunities, I thought, ‘This can’t be right.’

She says she has long been passionate about the issue. ‘But having my son Noah has reinforced it because I look at him and I think, when he is on social media in a few years’ time, I will be in a position where I want to have comfort knowing that there are those protections in place.’

‘You need to have the reassurance that when they’re online they’re in a position of safety and there are controls and checks and balances in place, and the platforms are held accountable if not.’ 

She warned, however, that the pace of technological change means legislation could soon need updating. 

‘It’s the first time we’ve done a piece of legislation in this space and it’s not a Bill for policing the entire internet. It’s not going to achieve everything in perpetuity – there will have to be other Bills.’

Another focus of her new role is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the battle to harness the opportunities it provides – as well as addressing its potential dangers.

On whether AI could help new mothers like herself return to work, she said: ‘I think the opportunities are limitless.’ 

Rather than being a threat to humans, she thinks robots could open up new jobs – jobs that she sees her son doing.

Ms Donelan – who has continued her work in her constituency of Chippenham, Wiltshire, during her maternity leave – described becoming a mother as a ‘masterclass in juggling’ and has only been able to return to her role because her husband has taken a career break and her parents are also helping.

‘I never really stopped working during maternity leave. I’ve been very fortunate to have a family set-up that enables me to do that. Not everybody would have that.

‘But I think people should take the time that’s right for them and their family. It’s an incredibly special time but it’s also very challenging.

Ms Donelan wants the UK to be a leader in AI safety – which, in turn, would make Britain an attractive place for the sector to set up home.

She says AI has huge opportunities, such as with breast cancer screening and ways of reducing hospital waiting times.

But she concedes: ‘It’s undeniable there are huge risks as well and that’s why we need to make sure we have the guard rails in place.’ 

the Online Safety Bill comes after distressing cases, such as that of 14-year-old Molly Russell, pictured, who killed herself after viewing images of self-harm and suicide on Instagram

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