My Lords, I am delighted to have secured this debate today. It is a particular pleasure to have followed the right reverend Prelate's debate on A Good Childhood, as the topics that I want to cover follow from some of the themes covered in your Lordships' House already.
The timing is also apposite in that the day before yesterday was the sixth European Safer Internet Day, although I suspect that many of your Lordships, in common with most citizens of Europe, may have missed that fact. My noble friend Lord West was originally scheduled to respond to this debate. However, I understand that other duties have now meant that his place is to be taken, very ably, by my noble friend Lord Brett. However, had my noble friend been responding as initially planned, he would have been able to bring some additional, first-hand knowledge to our discussion today. If the Sunday Times is to be believed—and all of your Lordships will have views on that as a general principle—my noble friend had some unfortunate experiences when he placed his profile on Facebook a couple of years ago, receiving what the Sunday Times describes as an avalanche of suggestive comments of the "Hello, sailor" variety.
In this debate today, I want to focus on the position of children and young people. My noble friend Lord West probably does not fall into that category—nor, I fear, do many of your Lordships speaking in this debate—but I am sure that we all recognise that there has been massive growth in the use of social networking sites by children and young people during the past few years. According to Ofcom, virtually all—99 per cent—of children and young people aged eight to 17 use the internet. In 2005, the average time spent online by children was 7.1 hours per week. By 2007, it had almost doubled to 13.8 hours per week. Almost half—49 per cent—of those aged eight to 17 have set up their own profile on a social networking site. My rough calculation suggests that more than 3 million children and young people in this country under the age of 18 have set up their own profiles.
That should not necessarily horrify or shock us. Indeed, we should recognise that social networking and video sharing sites, online games, iPods and internet-enabled mobile phones are now an integral part of youth culture. While many adults may worry that their offspring are wasting precious hours online, children and young people see online media as the means to extend friendships, explore interests, experiment with self-expression and develop their knowledge and skills.
However, to use the analogy of the inquiry conducted by the Science and Technology Committee into personal internet security, in the same way that young children are taught how to cross the road, but at the same time safety features are built into cars and traffic laws regulate unsafe driving, we need to make sure that our children and young people are protected when they make their way navigating the internet.
As we know, there are real perils for the unwary. Children and young people have been the victims of sexual predators as a result of information they have revealed about themselves on social networking sites; there are increasing problems of cyber-bullying; security weaknesses on sites have led to serious privacy infringements; and young people have discovered the hard way that the permanence of information posted in public cyberspace may not only be embarrassing in later life but also mean that employment offers or university places are not forthcoming.
The Information Commissioner's Office provides examples of young people who have faced unintended consequences of social networking. There was the 16 year-old girl who was held responsible for some bullying lyrics about another 16 year-old posted on a site that she had been involved with. Then there was the widely reported case of Rachel Bell, a 17 year-old from Durham, who was arrested in April 2007 after her family home was ruined by gatecrashers responding to a party advertisement on MySpace. More than £20,000 worth of damage was done to her parents' home after she allegedly advertised the party on a friend's profile. She, however, maintained that the profile was hacked by classmates who invited teenagers from across the UK to the party.
In the United States, there was the tragic case of 13 year-old Megan Meier who hung herself in October 2006 after receiving a message in her MySpace inbox which said, "The world would be a better place without you". The "teenaged boy" who sent the message, Josh Evans, turned out to be a fake identity created by Lori Drew, the mother of a former friend of Megan's and a neighbour of the Meier family. Ms Drew, as well as her 13-year-old daughter and her 18-year-old assistant, used the profile to trick Megan into thinking that "Josh" liked her before sending a series of hateful messages. Megan, who had a history of depression, was targeted by Ms Drew in retaliation for her allegedly spreading rumours about Drew's daughter.
Only last week, an 18 year-old from Wisconsin, Anthony Stancl, was arrested, having posed as a girl on Facebook and persuaded his classmates to send him nude pictures of themselves. He then blackmailed the boys into engaging in sex acts with him, warning them that their pictures would be posted on the internet and e-mailed to friends if they refused. Seven boys were reported to have had sexual encounters with him, the youngest being 15 years old. Stancl allegedly had more than 300 nude photographs of his classmates on his computer.
As I have said, these are real perils and they are taking place in what is for many children and young people their zeitgeist, their social environment. It is clear that they are taking place in an environment that most young people assume is safe. The Information Commissioner's Office conducted a survey of 2,000 young people using social networking sites. It found that 60 per cent had not considered the consequence of the material that they posted remaining online and being seen by other people in the future. Colleges, universities and potential employers use the internet to find information about those who apply for a job or a place in college.
It follows therefore that throughout their education, children should be taught digital citizenship, so that they can make the most of the internet, but also recognise and deal with any dangers that they may encounter. As most parents acknowledge that their children are more internet-literate than they are, there also needs to be a serious effort in parallel to help parents, and perhaps all adults, to keep up with the rapid development of the internet and digital social media. At the same time, privacy laws should be strengthened with an age-related component specifically giving enhanced protection to the data relating to or provided by children and young people.
The US Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, COPPA, while not perfect, provides a model that has required a number of US-based companies operating on the internet to improve their standards significantly. COPPA requires parental consent before personal information for a child of 12 or under can be provided online. This of course exempts most of the big social networking sites, which stipulate a minimum age of 13. But, as I will discuss later, systems for verifying the age that people claim to be are inadequate or non-existent. Moreover, some of the methods used to obtain parental consent are fairly flawed as well. In some instances, e-mail approval from an e-mail address that is controlled by the child has been known to suffice.
Nevertheless, COPPA has had an impact, usually with sites that are commercial ones marketing products, although often with social networking type features. For example, Sony BMG Music Entertainment was fined $1 million in December for collecting information from 30,000 children on 196 websites without parental consent. These sites related to musical artistes and labels. To register for those sites, Sony required users to submit personal information, including date of birth. But, having registered, those children were then able to interact and exchange messages with other fans, whatever their age.
That demonstrates why there should be higher expectations on those responsible for social networking sites or those sites with a social networking component. This should be especially the case for those sites aimed at children or where there are a significant number of users who are children and young people. These higher expectations should include prominent and clear safety information warning about potential dangers. Sites such as There4me.com provide a good guide on internet safety and similar user-friendly, age-appropriate guidance should be an integral part of all processes for registering a profile.
There should be simple systems for reporting abuse, perhaps a prominent button on every page. The site should make it clear that inappropriate or threatening behaviour is not acceptable on that site. The "report abuse" facility should be monitored 24/7 and there should be real-time links to police and law enforcement. This readiness to co-operate with the police should not merely be that issues of abuse will be reported to them automatically where appropriate, but that there should also be a willingness to co-operate with requests from the police or law enforcement agencies. In practice, this means that all such sites should have staff available at any time to respond to police inquiries and to intervene immediately in an emergency if abuse is taking place.
Critical also is the monitoring of content. Sites should have increased numbers of suitably vetted moderators patrolling areas of sites frequented by young people. In particular, social networking sites must review discussion groups and other places where content is published to find harmful subject matter, hate speech and illegal behaviour, and delete that content when it is found. Moreover, sites must find ways to review every image or video that is hosted on their site, deleting those that are inappropriate. In addition, all sites should offer user-friendly systems enabling people to ignore and erase unwanted comments and to erase permanently their own profiles. Social networking sites, as with any other holder of sensitive personal data, must also be under a duty to maintain a high level of server security to prevent hacking and unauthorised access to personal information.
Earlier, I mentioned age verification. Current systems are inadequate and are easily circumnavigated. Yet the problems cannot be insurmountable. Urgent work must now be undertaken by internet and technology companies to find and agree a simple, efficient and cost-effective means of achieving age verification on the internet, to prevent underage persons accessing inappropriate sites and older people passing themselves off as under-18.
The absence of such an agreed solution does not, however, absolve the sites from their responsibilities. Where there are minimum age requirements, some effort should be made to enforce them, and steps should be taken to identify and remove underage users who have misrepresented their age to gain access. In addition, there should be protection for younger users from uninvited communications. Social networking sites should implement default privacy settings that prevent adults contacting those under 16 who they do not already know in the physical world.
Many of those who run social networking sites are alive to the problems and are working hard to conform to best practice. They work hard to co-operate with the police and are proactive in trying to protect children and young people. There have been well publicised initiatives such as the removal by MySpace of the profiles of 90,000 known sex offenders. The significance of this is that those 90,000 were readily identified once MySpace tried, which happened only after paedophile teacher Mark Little was jailed a month ago at Chester Crown Court for five and a half years for abusing a 14 year-old girl he had groomed partly through that site. The reality will be that most paedophiles are unlikely to be very open or truthful about their identity.
While some sites are being proactive, many are not. The "mere conduit" defence highlighted in the Personal Internet Security report I mentioned earlier is a case in point. Some providers, such as YouTube, argue that they are not liable for any offensive or illegal material because they do not look for it. They are in effect hiding behind the 2002 e-commerce regulations, which provide a defence for network operators against legal liability for the consequences of traffic delivered through their networks. This was not, I am sure, the intention of those drafting the regulations but, whether it was or not, it now needs to be looked at.
The reality is that these issues cannot be ignored any longer. With 3 million young people in this country actively engaged in social networking on the internet and with the rapid developments in technology, children and young people need to be equipped to deal with the modern world and encouraged to operate safely within it. I began by talking about the need for all children to be given schooling in e-citizenship, but I have also talked about the responsibility of those who provide services on the internet as well. Both approaches must move forward hand in hand. There is no simple, single solution. Nor must we forget that those who are vulnerable will probably be vulnerable in any environment, whether electronic or not.
Nevertheless, we all have a responsibility. The Government have a responsibility in terms of the regulatory framework and requirements of the educational curriculum; industry and service providers must take more responsibility for safety warnings and the way in which they organise, secure and monitor their services; and, of course, parents too have a responsibility.
The internet and the modern means of communication and interaction that it has created provide an exciting world in which children can grow and learn. The digital world is creating new opportunities for children and young people. It captures their enthusiasm because it provides new means for extending their social world, and because it facilitates self-directed learning and allows independence. That enthusiasm must not be stifled, nor must it be strangled by overweighty regulatory restrictions, but at the same time, sensible safety precautions must be in place. I hope that this debate will help to take forward the discussion on what needs to be done and how to strike that balance.
My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on drawing attention to this timely problem. The social networking site Facebook turned five years old last week. Arguably, it marks a milestone in a progressive and highly significant change in our culture as tens to hundreds of millions of individuals worldwide, including the very young, are signing up for friendship through a screen. Other noble Lords may follow the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and speak on specific regulatory measures that may be taken to ensure that children come to no physical harm. We hope that personal safety and privacy is soon to be improved in the light of the recommendations made in the report on personal internet security from the Science and Technology Committe and in the Byron Review Action Plan. However, as a neuroscientist, I think that there are still two more basic and, if you like, brain-based questions that ultimately need to be addressed. First, why are social networking sites growing? Secondly, what features of the young mind, if any, are being threatened by them? Only when we have insights into these two issues can we devise more general safeguards, rooted not so much in regulation as in education, culture and society.
I turn to the first question, surely the most telling of all. What precisely is the appeal of social networking sites? First, there is the simple issue of the constraints of modern life, where unsupervised playing outside or going for walks is now perceived as too dangerous. A child confined to the home every evening may find at the keyboard the kind of freedom of interaction and communication that earlier generations took for granted in the three-dimensional world of the street. But even given a choice, screen life can still be more appealing. As Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, suggests:
"Building a Facebook profile is one way that individuals can identify themselves, making them feel important and accepted".
Continuing that train of thought, I recently had a fascinating conversation with a young devotee who proudly claimed to have 900 friends. Clearly, there would be no problem here to satisfying that basic human need to belong, to be part of a group, as well as the ability to experience instant feedback and recognition-at least from someone, somewhere, 24 hours a day.
At the same time this constant reassurance—that you are listened to, recognised, and important—is coupled with a distancing from the stress of face-to-face, real-life conversation. Real-life conversations are, after all, far more perilous than those in the cyber world. They occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses, and they require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones, those sneaky molecules that we release and which others smell subconsciously. Moreover, according to the context and, indeed, the person with whom we are conversing, our own delivery will need to adapt. None of these skills are required when chatting on a social networking site.
Although it might seem an extreme analogy, I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction. In the words of one user:
"The fact that you can't see or hear other people makes it easier to reveal yourself in a way that you might not be comfortable with. You become less conscious of the individuals involved (including yourself), less inhibited, less embarrassed and less concerned about how you will be evaluated".
It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world. This so-called "plasticity" has been most famously illustrated by London taxi drivers, who as we know need to remember all the streets of the city, and whose brain scans correspondingly revealed in one study that the part of the brain related to memory is bigger in them than it is in the rest of us.
One of the most exciting concepts in neuroscience is that all experience, every single moment, leaves its mark almost literally on your brain. So you have a unique configuration of brain cell circuits, even if you are a clone—an identical twin. It is this evolving personalisation of the brain that we could view as the mind, and it is this "mind" that could therefore be radically changed by prolonged exposure to a new and unprecedented type of ongoing environment, that of the screen.
So, we come to the second basic question: what might now be in jeopardy? First, I would suggest that it is attention span. If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention deficit disorder. It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for ADHD.
Related to this change might be a second area of potential difference in the young 21st century mind—a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating. Interestingly, and as an aside, one study has shown that obese people are more reckless in gambling tasks. In turn, the sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the "pleasure" of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people; rather, we should be paying attention to whether such activities may indeed result in a more impulsive and solipsistic attitude.
This brings us to a third possible change—in empathy. One teacher of 30 years' standing wrote to me that she had witnessed a change over the time she had been teaching in the ability of her pupils to understand others. She pointed out that previously, reading novels had been a good way of learning about how others feel and think, as distinct from oneself. Unlike the game to rescue the princess, where the goal is to feel rewarded, the aim of reading a book is, after all, to find out more about the princess herself.
Perhaps we should therefore not be surprised that those within the spectrum of autism are particularly comfortable in the cyber world. The internet has even been linked to sign language, considered as beneficial for autistic people as sign language proved for the deaf. Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can—if there is a true increase—be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering.
Finally, I draw your Lordships' attention to a fourth issuer: identity. It seems strange that in a society recoiling from the introduction of ID cards, we are at the same time enthusiastically embracing the possible erosion of our identity through social networking sites. One 16 year-old intern who worked in my lab last summer summed it up as follows:
"I can see that Facebook makes you think about yourself differently when all your private thoughts and feelings can be posted on the internet for all to see. Are we perhaps losing a sense of where we ourselves finish and the outside world begins?".
With fast-paced, instant screen reactions, perhaps the next generation will define themselves by the responses of others; hence the baffling current preoccupation with posting an almost moment-by-moment, flood-of-consciousness account—I believe it is called Twitter—of your thoughts and activities, however banal.
In summary, I suggest that social networking sites might tap into the basic brain systems for delivering pleasurable experience. However, these experiences are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.
When talking about safeguards, surely we need also to think about safeguarding the mindset of the next generation so that they may realise their potential as fully-fledged adult human beings. Of course we cannot turn back the clock, nor would that be any solution to maximising the individual's potential in this new century. However, surely the Government could consider investing in some kind of initiative, the goal of which would be the identification of realistic alternatives—be it in the classroom, on the screen, in conjunction with the media, or in society as a whole—for developing a sense of privacy and identity and, above all, a real appreciation of friendship.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey on securing this debate and on introducing it so clearly and so graphically. I am pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, with all her expertise—I was struck by the phrase "sneaky chemical molecules"—and she has given us a great deal to think about, much of which I find quite scary and depressing. But there we are.
The debate is very timely for me as I have just introduced into your Lordships' House a Private Member's Bill, the Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification) Bill referred to by my noble friend Lord Harris. This is not the same as social networking, but the two issues have some common aspects which I shall discuss in a minute. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, also mentioned the previous debate today on the Good Childhood inquiry, in which I took part. It is interesting that, in a wide-ranging discussion, the influences of the media and the internet were included as part of how children nowadays spend their time.
The Bill was first introduced by Margaret Moran MP in another place. A meeting on the Bill was held in December last year to discuss age verification and issues were raised which are relevant to today's deliberations. First, the internet is a wonderful thing. It is a great tool for education and communication but it has its dangers, particularly for children. We have as a society a responsibility to protect children; the welfare of the child is paramount, as the United Nations convention states. Parents have a difficult, if not impossible, job to police it and to know what their children are doing on the internet. Surely if something is illegal in the real world, then we need to find a way to provide similar protection in the virtual world, and yet, as others have said, legislation is limited.
There is also the issue of international sites. In the case of online child pornography, a self-regulation approach has worked well, even without legislation. So how should we provide safeguards and can government departments combine their efforts to do so? In April last year, Ofcom carried out a study, mentioned by my noble friend, which showed that 49 per cent of all children and young people between the ages of eight and 17 use a social networking site. It is highly likely that this number has increased dramatically by now. Social networking has become, very rapidly, the dominant internet site used by young people. It is easy, it is exciting and it is what everyone does.
Social networking sites have not represented a major technological shift in the internet but have brought together, in a single website, many components which had previously been used separately. It is possible to integrate e-m ail with instant messaging and put them alongside favourite photographs, videos or your favourite music. It is quite brilliant and gives the user a personal profile which can be shared.
The internet has become one of the major ways in which young people communicate. Members of your Lordships' House may be involved in this kind of technology. Indeed, I note from my computer today that we have our own social networking site, which seems to be called Twitter. We can call up Tweets, which link us to the latest reports and inquiries, and remind us about parliamentary business. Will we end up with attention deficit disorder or become reckless gamblers?
I used to be sceptical of any communication via technology. I now use e-mail where I once would have communicated much more by letter or phone. I use the internet for information, and I love it. I am very attached to my Blackberry. I do not use Facebook, MySpace, Bebo or whatever else things are called, but young people communicate a lot via social networking sites. Young people have an internet community. But the information is personal and therefore carries risks. When you put something on the internet, you may be putting it there for ever and you have no control over it. You do not know where the information might end up now or in the future.
A substantial number of employment agencies have acknowledged that they now routinely trawl the internet for information about prospective employees. Imagine some of the scenes that may be on a website photograph. Imagine your most embarrassing moment being recorded for a future employer to find. Imagine naked or drunken scenes which you would rather forget and disown. This is all shocking stuff. Prospective employers or student admissions staff have in theory no right to invade private material of this kind, but they can if they want to. There should surely be a health warning on websites.
Similarly, we know that children have put personal information about themselves on a website which has been picked up by sexual predators or bullies with dire consequences. Bullying on the internet is now, to my surprise, one of the most common forms of bullying. In some cases, children have put on the internet highly sexualised images of themselves. Those are, in fact, child pornography and therefore technically illegal. In the USA, children have been prosecuted for this, whereas in the UK the police have so far issued only cautions.
As I have said before, nearly all the sites allow material to be marked as private. However, not everyone understands the consequences of making or not making something private. This message needs to be reinforced strongly. By and large, the larger social networking sites accept that they have a responsibility to do this, and to work with parents and schools to help make the internet a safer place. However, I am not sure that some of the smaller sites do it, which is worrying. In programmes of personal, social and health education and citizenship, schools might include a section on internet safety and involve parents in being aware of the hazards.
Early last year, the Home Office published its guidance on social networking sites. Later, Tanya Byron looked at the issue independently and reported in September. The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport also investigated how social networking sites were working. We know what needs to be done, but there seems to be no obvious sign that things are happening fast enough. The new UK Council for Child Internet Safety, created as a result of the Byron report, is only now getting under way. Its actions will create great interest and scrutiny, and I am sure that your Lordships will follow it closely.
There is great public anxiety about the complexities of the internet, much of it justified. The basis of policy on the internet in the UK has been self-regulation, which may or may not produce results. If it does not, the Government will surely have to step in with more direct measures. We need action on this. I again ask the Minister how he sees government departments collaborating—for example, the Department of Health, the DCSF and the Home Office—to ensure that our children are better prepared to use social networking sites with caution, and how they can be better protected against their more dangerous aspects.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for initiating this important and timely debate. I would also like to say how much I have enjoyed, and learnt from, the three speeches so far.
I put my name down to speak in the debate because I was part of the Science and Technology Committee that looked at personal internet security, although it coincided with an extended visit to Australia and New Zealand so I felt that I was a bit of a passenger. Nevertheless, I found it a fascinating and important investigation. I thought that, since I was on that committee and knew a little about it, I would probably be able to cope with the debate.
Looking at the issues concerned, I realised that although the report was published on
The importance of these developments was brought home by two reports which have already been mentioned: the Ofcom research report, published last April, Social Networking,containing a massive amount of very interesting information, to which we have been referred, and the report prepared for the Prime Minister by Tanya Byron on children and new technology, published in early April last year.
The degree to which young people use social networking sites has been stressed. Ofcom found that almost 50 per cent of our 8 to 17-year olds use these sites, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. It is probably much more than that because these figures were gathered through a survey that is now more than a year old. There has been an explosion in the use of such sites by young people. There are 6 million young people in the 8 to 17 cohort, so probably somewhere in the region of 4 to 5 million young people are using social networking sites.
Interestingly, although there is an age bar on some sites—for example, in MySpace it is 13—according to the Ofcom report, 27 per cent of 8 to 11 year-olds said that they were active users of social networking sites. Therefore, a lot of very young children are using them, although many use child-accessible sites. Bebo, in particular, is their favourite site, but they regularly post material on YouTube.
Why are children so attracted by the sites? Essentially, it is to keep up with their friends, is it not? Parents used to complain about the amount of time my generation spent on the telephone. Now, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, indicated, that time is spent by these young people—13 hours a week on average—on computers and the internet.
The advantage over the telephone is that you do not just share information with one person; you share it with your whole group of friends simultaneously. You can tell them what you want, or you can reply how you want; you can post or text photos, video clips and video conversations. In effect, young people are doing quite a lot of the video-conferencing that we find slightly awkward, but which is beginning to come naturally to them. They are simultaneously playing games online with other children. A whole range of games is offered to them.
Children and adults get a lot of pleasure from this activity. The Ofcom research indicated that the majority of adult and child users found it a fun and easy leisure activity and were very positive about its benefits. Perhaps because of this the downside risks in relation to privacy and safety are very far from most people's thoughts. Another interesting aspect of this is posting profiles and the degree to which people can use those profiles in a sort of Walter Mitty sense, in so far as they aspire to have a different profile. However, those who use social networking sites must register, and that involves setting up a profile. How much information is posted on the profile is up to the individual, but many children readily register their name, school, address, telephone number and date of birth, post photographs and video clips and describe their likes, dislikes and favourite things. As they get older, they talk about sex, sexual attitudes and, indeed, sexual practices. As I say, the profile is open to all those registered as friends, but unless it is specifically limited to friends or to a particular group by privacy controls it will be open to anyone.
The Ofcom research indicated that 41 per cent of children in the eight to 17 year-old group had set controls to make their profiles visible to anybody. American research has revealed that one-third of sites are regularly visited by strangers. Twenty-two per cent of young adults in the 16 to 24 year-old group deliberately use profiles to communicate with people whom they do not know. There is a certain thrill in communicating with new people and making new friends. Eleven per cent of teenage girls said that they had been contacted via social networking sites by strangers who made them feel uncomfortable.
The risks of sexual harassment and sexual grooming of young people, cyber-stalking and exposure to inappropriate material have been described. If no stops are put on a computer or a mobile phone, violent websites and websites with sexually explicit material can be accessed. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, mentioned violence through games and the changed behaviour that can result from that. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, mentioned cyber-bullying, particularly through the posting of photographs and comments. It is interesting to note that 54 per cent of the 18 to 24 year-old group said that other people had posted photographs on their social networking sites without their consent. Cyber-bullying applies to children and teachers. Indeed, there is a big issue of cyber-bullying of teachers.
Given these risks, why do people not use privacy controls? The Byron report lists four main reasons. The first is a lack of awareness of the risks. Many parents do not have the technological capabilities of their children, particularly teenage children. Those children are far ahead of their parents in terms of digital technology and can use and manipulate activities on site. It is well known that, even where parents invest in parental controls, they often ask the children to set them up for them, and that the children can manipulate those controls. As I say, for young people who see this as such a fun and easy activity, the risks seem very far away. Parents perceive the risks but for young people the activity is fun. They want to get on with it and not worry about tomorrow.
Secondly, there is a lack of awareness of what controls there are and how to manipulate them. Parents, especially when confronted by a proliferation of access points, are confused and find it very difficult to know what controls to use. I stress that it is one thing to have parental controls on the home computer but how on earth do you cope with the proliferation of mobile telephony that now hits us?
Thirdly, it is assumed that responsibility for controlling access to content lies with the site provider. A great many parents, and users of sites for that matter, assume that this is the case and learn the hard way that it is not. Lastly, and by no means least, young people are overconfident that they can handle and manage any such risks. They see themselves as masters of the universe in this area. It is daring to take risks: allowing strangers to see and comment on your profile is a risky thing, but what fun. This is the difficulty one faces.
So what are we going to do about it? I looked back at our report, and I was very struck by this quotation from Professor Jonathan Zittrain, of the Oxford Internet Institute. He referred to,
"the way that the Internet was built to be able to carry data from one arbitrary point to another without any gate-keeping in the middle. It has been a wonderful feature, so-called end-to-end or network neutrality. This design principle means that any desire to control the flow of data, including data which might be harmful data, is not very easy to effect on today's Internet".
Let me follow that up with a quotation from the Byron report:
"The internet is a vast, many-to-many network"— that picks up what Professor Zittrain said—
"which allows users to communicate freely with others all over the world-ideas can be spread quickly, cheaply and freely. One consequence of this is that there is no obvious single point at which editorial control can be exercised. This means it is very difficult for national Governments to reduce the availability of harmful and inappropriate material. However, the majority of material accessed by internet users is hosted by a relatively small number of highly popular sites, the rest of it occupying a 'long tail' of less popular material. This means that we should focus our effortson reducing the availability of harmful and inappropriate material in the most powerful part of the internet".
This is indeed where we are going in terms of controls. Following the Byron report, we have seen the setting-up of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. The emphasis, first, is on the availability of material on the most popular sites, with better regulation of user-generated content, and the development of a voluntary code of practice.
Secondly, the emphasis is on raising parental awareness of their responsibility in managing their children's access to websites, in making sure that children do not reveal personal and contact details. It needs to be made much easier for parents to know what controls there are and to learn how to operate them, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris.
Lastly, children must be empowered to manage risk. As in the off-line world, one cannot eliminate risk completely; therefore one must build up resilience in children and educate them about the risks and how to minimise them. Criminal activities continue to be policed by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, run by the police, which has been, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, very successful. The degree to which it has run down paedophile rings and helped children has been impressive.
One aspect was the rolling-out of an education programme. Last night, I was at a governors' meeting at a primary school where I am a governor, and I was questioning them about internet security. I discovered that, where there is cyber-bullying, they get in touch with the local community police officer. They have a parent liaison worker, who works with the police officer. Then they get the parents in and talk to them about it. All of this struck me as a rather sensible approach to cyber-bullying.
However, we need to consider whether we are doing enough. One of the strongest conclusions in our report raised some questions about where we are going at the moment:
"The current assumption that end-users should be responsible for security"— in other words, parents and children should be responsible for their own security—
"is inefficient and unrealistic. We therefore urge the Government and Ofcom to engage with the network operators and Internet Service Providers to develop higher and more uniform standards of security within the industry. In particular we recommend the development of a BSI-approved kite mark for secure Internet services. We further recommend that this voluntary approach should be reinforced by an undertaking that in the longer term an obligation will be placed upon ISPs to provide a good standard of security as part of their regulated service".
Is the voluntary code of practice under the new UK Council for Child Internet Safety for children enough? Do we not need to go further? Are we doing enough in schools? Schools are safe environments, and their ICT suites are all kept very clean, but kids get outside that environment. Are we doing enough to educate children to make them resilient? Who has responsibility for educating the parents? We could use schools, and there was talk in the Tanya Byron report about using the extended schools initiative. That has not yet been rolled out very far, so who has responsibility for educating parents and how do we propose to do it?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for giving the House this excellent opportunity to discuss what for us is an unusual subject. It is obvious that there have been a number of reviews and reports, but I was struck by the noble Lord's speech, because it almost entirely concentrated on the hazards that come from this internet siting for young people. We have all read and we all know from the papers what happens when things go horribly wrong, as they do, and children are completely misled, not only by adults but by their own friends. There are many areas here where we all feel extremely uncomfortable about the use of the internet, however/ miraculous it is.
Listening to the debate, I felt rather thankful that I had moved beyond the days when my chief worry was about what the children were watching on the television that they had managed to get from the video shop marked, "Not to be seen by the under-18s". They managed to bluff their way through that to look at some unsuitable films that I then had to retrieve. This is a long way from that, and it makes it much more difficult, as many speakers have said, to have parental control and overview of what children are doing.
I was much taken by the insightful contribution made by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, which was unusual and different from those that we might have had from others. It was said somewhere that the noble Baroness was a thinker in residence; perhaps I now know why, with those thoughts coming through.
It is important to try to understand why children feel the need to undertake these pretty dangerous exploits into the internet. The reports have been referred to. Dr Tanya Byron's review covered the social networking internet sites, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned the Select Committee report on harmful content on the internet and in video games. Both reports have informed our debates, and they have certainly informed people's views about what may or may not be able to be done.
The Government have made their contribution in setting up the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. It is clear that the onus for responding to this debate fell to the Home Office, but it could equally have gone to three or four other departments. The noble Lord, Lord Brett, drew the short straw and, as a result, I drew the short straw, so we have all had to do our homework. We have the DCMS, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, and it is essential that there is co-ordination between them if any of the recommendations that have been made are to be effectively implemented. The Minister might like to say how he thinks that co-ordination is taking place at the moment.
Like almost everyone who has issued recommendations on the subject, we agree that self-regulation is difficult and that there is some responsibility on those who run internet sites to supervise and check what is going on and to look at the content. Since many of the firms are based overseas, there are few feasible ways to proceed. Similarly, given the extraordinary rate of change in both technology and usage of the internet, legislation, as we know, can only do so much. However, companies can be involved in the interface between the public and the internet—the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, was not quite sure about this. They are best placed to observe the ever changing risks that are posed and to develop the most effective ways of countering those risks. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said, this must be backed up by the internet sites monitoring what is going on and, particularly, verifying the ages of young users where they can. I was particularly pleased, therefore, to see the announcement this week that 17 of the leading web firms that provide social networking sites have voluntarily signed up to an agreement that increases the protection for minors. Perhaps it is a small step on the road to protection, but it is a step.
Of course other measures can be taken. Setting the default setting of the pages of under-18 year-olds to "private", restricting what they can be searching for, the clear and simple reporting of abuse, which was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, the involvement of schools, and education—these are the sorts of steps that were recommended in the Byron review and which we hope are now being implemented. However, there are further things that could be done: the improvement of take-down times after the reporting of abuse, for example, and the clearer labelling of potentially inappropriate material. I would be interested to hear from the noble Lord if these recommendations are being considered and what is being done about them.
There is much more that the Government could be doing in this area. The most important of these, apart from encouraging more firms to sign up to codes of conduct, is informing the public. This is one of the most serious things to come out of our debate today. The public—adults, by and large—do not seem to be aware of what is going on, what the children are doing, what they are seeing and how they are entertaining themselves. It may be that many adults are simply thankful that their children are quiet and it is not until they come home and find the house trashed that they realise what it was all about. There must be some form of education set up, whether that is for the television and internet companies to undertake themselves, I do not know, but if we do not do it, there will be a lot more trouble and a lot more risks for our children in the future.
Perhaps we cannot rely on sites such as Facebook and MySpace to keep inappropriate material away from children, and parents must take an active role themselves, but unfortunately, not all do. There are tools that can help them in this, such as the parental controls, but it is unfortunate that so many of these are not fully understood and used effectively.
The debate has been timely and interesting. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure this House that the Government are doing as much as they can to keep parents informed about the options open to them, but also to work with companies to ensure that they are not shirking their responsibilities in this matter.
My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey for bringing this apposite debate before us. The Government also welcome the debate on the use by children and young people of internet services, and social networking in particular. The debate comes at a time when there is growing interest in the safety of children on the internet. As has been aptly demonstrated, more and more children have access to the technology and take to it with a vengeance and interest that they do not perhaps show in every other aspect of life.
Of course, the point has correctly been made that there are benefits to individuals and children of being able to use online services such as social networking. They have fun, share gossip, play games and build friendships online. It has allowed more and more children to use these services and, indeed, some of the child-specific social networking services that did not really get a mention in the debate, such as Club Penguin, which are now among the most heavily used sites for younger children. More well known services such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook are heavily used by older children and young adults.
As has also been said, and as I should say from the outset, protecting children from any risk does not divide this House. We would all be united on that. The question has already been put: are we doing enough and can we do more? It might be useful to set out what we are seeking to do. We have heard what is beneficial about the use of new technology, as it was called in my day, and the Government are fully behind and encourage internet use in schools and homes. When used responsibly and with care, these services are a boon to children's lives and children wish to use them. These technologies bring new, fantastic opportunities for fun and enjoyment, but we need to get the balance, which is not always obvious to children. There are risks, and parents have real worries, when children are online. We have always recognised that there is a darker side to the internet, and it rightly falls to the Government to help to develop a response to help to protect our children.
A number of noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Harris, graphically set out the kind of threats and risks to children who are online. While how children use the internet has changed—through, for example, the rapid development of social networking in the past two years—the risks from those who misuse the internet to contact children have been around for some time. Although recent research, both within the EU and the US, shows that the threat of sexual predators contacting children is in reality limited compared to other risks mentioned in the debate such as cyber-bullying, to which I will return, I have no doubt whatsoever that, in most people's eyes danger from predators remains the most potent threat to children's safety online.
The Government responded by setting up the Child Exploitation & Online Protection centre, CEOP, about which I will talk in more detail shortly. It was set up in 2006, the first centre of its kind, to address the growing concerns of which we have heard. Its success in targeting online predators and in forming crucial partnerships with international law enforcement agencies means that the UK is recognised as world leader in serious online protection.
That said, the Government are not complacent about the potential threat to children from those who would seek to harm them by approaching them through social networking services or in other ways. We take the issue seriously and have been active on the matter over a considerable time. Reference was made to the Home Secretary's Task Force for Child Protection on the Internet, which was set up as long ago as 2001 and has been successful in bringing together industry, law enforcement, charities and government departments to develop measures to protect children in the fast-moving world of technology. Internet technology certainly moves much quicker than I can take on board, but not so quickly that 10 year-olds cannot take it on board with much greater speed than adults. That is, of course, one of the problems that has been referred to.
The technology may be new but many of the offences committed that we are frightened of are actually old offences committed in a new medium. There is a need to learn from the experience of law enforcement agencies, charities, industry and other expert groups to ensure that the Government's response to online threats keeps up to date with changes in how online services develop and are used. Indeed, it was through the work of the task force that the Government introduced the offence of "grooming" in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which makes it an offence to communicate with a child and arrange to meet for sexual purposes.
This legislation made it clear that such activities would not be tolerated in the United Kingdom, and subsequently a number of people have been convicted of this offence. We were, I understand, the first country in Europe to introduce this offence and I am aware that other countries have introduced, or are considering introducing, similar offences. Indeed, only a few weeks ago, four and a half years after the UK introduced the offence of grooming, the European Parliament recommended that all European Community members do so.
The Government have also recognised that the growth of broadband and the development of social networking have led to many more children going online regularly. We heard graphic statistics of how this has exploded in only two years. We have considered how law enforcement can be provided to protect children. Again, CEOP has played a crucial role in this area.
I took the opportunity to visit CEOP to talk to Jim Gamble, the chief executive, and his colleagues. I was very impressed by the dedication of the staff, by their efficiency and, most of all, by the work that they are doing, all of which have been covered in a number of contributions. Through its development of a dedicated "report abuse" button and a reporting website, it enables members of the public to make reports directly to law enforcement agencies about possible incidents of grooming. I believe that these reports are now running at approximately 400 per month. I saw for myself Microsoft UK's Windows line messenger, which has the red button on it. Microsoft UK should be congratulated on being the first to ensure that children in danger can go straight to CEOP. Many other companies now provide links to the CEOP website to enable children to report directly to it. As new services develop, we strongly encourage them to speak to CEOP about incorporating this reporting facility on its site.
Much has been said about the need to educate children, parents and carers. CEOP has developed an educational programme for children, their parents and carers, called, Think U Know. This is based on its research and the experience that it has gathered in the course of its work. The Think U Know website contains excellent advice, and I recommend that all noble Lords log in and look at it. It also contains an education programme, delivered by local professionals such as teachers and police officers, who have been specially trained by CEOP. Since its launch in 2006, the Think U Know educational programme has reached 3.3 million children, which is a considerable number.
In introducing the debate, my noble friend Lord Harris mentioned "Safer Internet Day", which took place two days ago. I had the privilege of seeing in advance a video that was produced for that day, which is now available to teachers, schools and parents. It graphically shows a child putting a placard containing all their details in the front garden and leaving the door open. Then 10 or 12 year-old schoolchildren are asked whether that is a sensible thing to do and of course they all scoff that it is a terrible thing to do. By the end of the video, after a number of other examples, they are asked whether they go online, whether they give their name or picture to people they do not know and—this is a key question—whether they have anything on their site that their parents would not like. All of them seemed to giggle and say yes to that. Then it is pointed out that all they are doing in the new meeting place of cyberspace is what they would not do in real life, in their street, road or town. The video seemed very impressive to me, but whether it impresses children of 10 or 12, I do not know. However, I am told that immediately after they have been shown the video, there is a very positive reaction from children. Whether it remains positive when they get home and whether they go through their procedures for privacy, I am not quite so sure. Certainly, the education programme continues.
The Government want children to be able to use these services safely but to ensure that they understand the potential risks that they face. That is a very important point which noble Lords made. To that extent, we recognise that privacy and the protection of sensitive information are a major concern to the users of social networking sites. There is a responsibility upon service providers.
Government, parents and carers recognise the dangers and must ensure that safeguards are available to enable children to protect themselves online. This is not only a matter of ensuring that the providers of information given to children use it in accordance with the law, but that there is a proactive approach to educating all users of the consequences of the use or misuse of information.
Earlier this year, the Home Secretary's Task Force for Child Protection on the Internet, a working group involving industry, law enforcement and charities, considered how children using social networking services could be better guided. Guidance has been put forward, containing a number of recommendations. It focused on how children could be kept safe, by asking service providers to ensure that safety information was clearly available, that there were links to external groups that could provide assistance, including law enforcement and the children's charities, and that there were settings in the service to allow children to keep their personal information private and that tools were provided to empower children to protect themselves from other users whom they did not wish to be contacted by.
The guidance set out recommendations to the suppliers and was brought about by collaborating with the industry. Responsible network providers understand the problems, and we are pleased to report that all the parties, including some of the biggest social networking sites in the world, worked hard to deliver this guidance, which was launched in April last year. It was the first such document in the world. The guidance received support from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the United States and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, and it has been adopted by the European Union as the gold standard for 17 major social networking sites across Europe.
The convergence of games, the internet and other media also poses challenges and the Government continue to monitor these technological changes. As several noble Lords have mentioned, the Prime Minister in September 2007 asked Tanya Byron to look at these challenges, and her recommendations contained an analysis of how we might manage risk in a fast-paced and fast-changing media environment. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Massey, said, the result was that the Government launched the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, or UKCCIS, to carry on the work of the task force and bring together a wider range of groups and industries, and to carry on the dialogue between the different sectors. Some of the emphasis will be on self-regulation; for example, the council is developing voluntary codes of practice for the moderation of user-generated content, but we want these to be developed through partnership working.
More than 100 organisations are now members of the council, which is a reflection of the growing awareness and importance of child safety issues online. UKCCIS will take forward the work of the task force, and later in the year will publish an information resource aimed at parents, to help them to understand how social networking sites can be used safely. This will be based on the work done as part of the development of the social networking guidance. UKCCIS will also work with the producers of other forms of online entertainment, such as online games, to ensure that children are protected when they are enjoying these. The issue of protecting information has also been addressed by the Information Commissioner's Office, which has published guidance for users online on how they should protect their information. It also has dedicated material aimed at children.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and other noble Lords raised a question about age verification or identity authentication. These are difficult issues. There is no silver bullet in this area, as it is not easy to fully authenticate a user because of the limited data sources on children available to the industry that can be checked remotely and in real time—unlike with adults, for whom, of course, there are alternative forms of checking through credit cards, electoral rolls and so on. Notwithstanding this, individual service providers use a range of methods to safeguard children and young people using their services when they are registered as under-18, such as automatically setting their profiles to be shown as private. If there is a message to be taken from this debate, it is that more urgent work needs to be done and there is a considerable desire at large for the reassurance of knowing that age verification could be put in place to exclude children from being exposed to this problem.
I shall try to respond to the other points raised in the debate. The guidance that my noble friend Lord Harris called for in seeking better information will be part of what I have already said. He also raised the question of COPPA. We continue to work on that with our international partners. We are seen as the leader in this field but you cannot be a leader if you cannot learn from the experience of others. That is an important part of continuing to deal with an international problem in a sensible, international way.
I first came across cyber-bullying when I chaired a transatlantic working party on bullying in schools a few years ago. Then, it was almost in its infancy but it has now become a major problem, with some 22 per cent of children saying that they have been subjected to it. Much work has been done on this. UKCCIS is looking at "safe to learn" guidance, which will include special material on how to prevent and tackle cyber-bullying. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, gave a very good example of a practical approach to that in a school.
Ultimately, serious cases of cyber-bullying should be referred to law enforcement, as they can be considered under the Protection from Harassment Act. My noble friend Lady Massey pointed out that children in the US had been charged for this offence, but that has not happened in the UK. To date, the attitude of the authorities has been that it is better to put things right in these circumstances than to criminalise children, but it is a real problem and it is receiving ongoing attention.
I found the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, absolutely fascinating. I cannot pretend that I have anything in my brief that would even start to provide an answer to her. I think that what she raised deserves a debate in its own right, because it goes beyond anything that the Government currently have in mind. In her report, Dr Byron, a clinical psychologist, referred to some literature and reviews which could take us forward, and more research is being done. In her visionary contribution, the noble Baroness showed us the dangers of seeing things only in relation to the speed of the technology. Unfortunately, human beings do not move as quickly as technology, but her contribution opened my mind to things that I had not even thought of, which at my age is fairly rare.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked what we are doing to ensure that parents and others have a better understanding of the dangers involved. An e-safety awareness campaign began last summer. It is supported by a £9 million investment and has been developed in conjunction with UKCCIS. We are aiming to have a one-stop shop approach on our child safety website. People may say, "Well, you've had this campaign, but it hasn't been very successful because I didn't know about it". However, we are endeavouring to use the media in the most sensible way to get information across to parents, and, to that end, CEOP and the council have just launched an e-safety week. We hope that all these things will bring greater awareness.
This debate may not be the most well attended in this House and perhaps it will not be the most watched on television, but that does not in any way suggest that we are any less concerned with this issue as a House. The Government will continue to respond to the need for changes in legislation and they will continue to work with providers. On the question of voluntary versus compulsory work, the short answer is that we hope to get self-regulation to work but, if it fails, undoubtedly calls for more enforced regulation will grow and the Government will have to respond.
I hope that I have covered most of the points raised. We think that we have the right structure in place and are proud of being world leaders. We are not complacent: much more needs to be done, if only to keep up with the technology. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have participated for educating me and others about the ongoing need to increase activity and not to sit on our laurels or be complacent.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate, which has been wide-ranging, extremely interesting and valuable. There was a clear consensus about the need to balance the opportunities and the circumstances in which children and young people can grow using the internet with the need for appropriate and sensible measures to protect their interests.
I was struck by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about how much has happened since the report Personal Internet Security, with which we were both involved, was written. If we couple that with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, about the long-term implications for brain/mind plasticity, it raises some interesting questions about how quickly we are responding to rapid technological investments.
I took what my noble friend Lord Brett said about age verification to indicate tacit government support for the Bill that my noble friend Lady Massey is planning to introduce. Given the consensus in the House about the value of age verification legislation, I am sure that that will be welcomed—if indeed it was tacit support. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, talked about the need for co-ordination. She listed the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. BERR also has a role, as does the Cabinet Office.
My Lords, my noble friend said that I was offering tacit government support. My comments come with a health warning—it is my health that I am concerned about. We cannot relate the comments in this debate to any other proposed legislation. I am responding to this debate only. For the health of the nation and myself, nothing much can be added to it.
My Lords, that must count as one of the most prolific health warnings that we have ever heard in this House. However, I hope that my noble friend will take back to ministerial colleagues and all the government departments that I listed, whose activities need to be co-ordinated, the message that there would be a great deal of support in this House for the principle of age verification.
I close by thanking everyone who has taken part in the debate and I just make the point that we cannot hope to eliminate danger from all children and young people—nor should we. Part of growing up is learning to cope with danger and challenges. We must take the sensible precautions that noble Lords have talked about today. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.