There are so many aspects to this, including misinformation on the pandemic, disinformation and foreign influence operations, harassment, engagement algorithms, the effect on our politics and public discourse, the growth in people gambling on their own, scammers and chancers, and at the very worst end, radicalisation and, as we have heard from many colleagues, sexual exploitation. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for the debate, but this is not one subject for debate but about a dozen, and it needs a lot more time at these formative stages, which I hope the Government will provide. My brief comments will be specifically about children.
When I was at the Department for Education, I heard repeatedly from teenagers who were worried about the effect on their peers’ mental health of the experience of these curated perfect lives, with the constant scoring of young people’s popularity and attractiveness and the bullying that no longer stops when a young person comes through their parents’ front door but stays with them overnight. I heard from teachers about the effect of technology on sleep and concentration and on taking too much time from other things that young people should be doing in their growing up. I take a lot of what will be in this legislation as read, so what I will say is not an exclusive list, but I have three big asks of what the legislation and secondary legislation should cover for children. By children, I mean anybody up to the age of 16 or 18. Let us not have any idea that there is a separate concept of a digital age of consent that is in some way different.
First, the legislation will of course tackle the promotion of harms such as self-harm and eating disorders, but we need to go further and tackle the prevalence and normalisation of content related to those topics so that fewer young people come across it in the first place. Secondly, on compulsive design techniques such as autoplay, infinite scroll and streak rewards, I do not suggest that the Government should get in the business of designing applications, but there need to be natural breaks, just as there always were when children’s telly came to an end or in running out of coins at the amusement arcade, to go and do something else. Actually, we need to go further, with demetrification—an ugly word but an important concept—because children should not be worrying about their follower-to-following ratio or how many likes they get when they post a photograph. Bear in mind that Facebook managed to survive without likes up to 2009.
Thirdly, we need to have a restoration of reality, discouraging and, at the very least, clearly marking doctored photos and disclosing influencers’ product placements and not allowing the marketing of selfie facial enhancements to young children. It is not only about digital literacy and resilience, though that plays a part. The new material in schools from this term is an important step, but it will need to be developed further.
It has always been hard growing up, but it is a lot harder to do it live in the glare of social media. This generation will not get another chance at their youth. That is why, yes, it is important that we get it right, but it is also important that we get it done and we move forward now.