My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have chosen to speak this afternoon, and very much look forward to each of their contributions. I refer the House to my interests on the register, particularly that as founder and chair of 5Rights.
Fundamental to this debate is the fact that we invented a technology that assumes that all users are equal when, in fact, a third of users worldwide and a fifth of users in the UK are children. It has been 150 years since we pulled children out of the chimneys and put them into school. Since that time we have fought on their behalf for privileges, protections and inalienable rights that collectively constitute the concept of and offer a legal framework for childhood.
Childhood is the journey from infancy to maturity, from dependence to autonomy. We design and mitigate for it in multiple ways across all aspects of society. We educate; we require doctors to obtain additional skills to practise paediatric medicine; we do not hold children to contractual obligations; we put pedestrian crossings near schools; we rate films according to age. Children have special protections around sexual activity. It is illegal for kids to smoke, drink and gamble. We even take steps to protect them in environments where adults smoke, drink and gamble.
In short, we provide a complex but widely understood and respected set of social norms, educational frameworks, regulatory interventions and national and international laws reflecting the global consensus that society as a whole must act in the best interests of the child, in the light of the vulnerabilities and immaturities associated with their age. The digital environment fails to reflect that consensus, and the cost of that failure is played out on the health and well-being of our children.
In setting out this afternoon’s debate, I shall concentrate on three areas: the nature of the digital environment, my concern about the way we conceive online harms and, finally, how we might support children to flourish. For children in the connected world, there is no off or on. Their lives are mediated by technological devices and services that capture infinitesimal detail about their activities, frame the choices available to them and make assumptions—not always accurate—about who they are. Theirs is not a world divided by real and virtual; it is a single lived experience augmented by technology. The vast majority of a child’s interactions are not deliberate decisions of a conscious mind but are predetermined. A child may consciously choose to play a game, but it is machine-engineered Pavlovian reward loops embedded in the game that keep them playing. A child may consciously opt to participate in a social group, but it is the stream of personalised alerts and the engineered measures of popularity that create the compulsive need to attend to that social group. A child may wish to look up a piece of information, but it is the nudge of promoted content and automated recommendation that largely determines what information they receive.
Those predetermined systems are predicated on a business model that profiles users for commercial purposes, yet businesses that sell devices and services in the digital environment deliver them to children with impunity—even though we know that screens eradicate the boredom and capacity for free play that very young children require to develop language, motor skills and imagination; even though we know that a single tired child, kept awake through the night by the hooks and notifications of a sector competing for their attention, affects the educational attainment of the entire class; and even though we know that for teenagers, the feedback loops of social validation and competition intrinsic to social media play an overwhelming role in their state of mind and ability to make safe choices.
The children we work with at 5Rights make the case that it is simply not possible to act your age online. As one young boy said, “Online, I am not a kid but an underage adult”. His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge said about the tech sector:
“Their self-image is so grounded in their positive power for good that they seem unable to engage in constructive discussion about the social problems that they are creating”,
“fake news, extremism, polarisation, hate speech, trolling, mental health, privacy and bullying”.
Last year, I was in Africa when a young girl was auctioned as a bride on Facebook. I have sat with the parents of a child bullied to death online. I have been with a young girl at the devastating moment in which she realised that she had been taping sexual acts for a group, not just for the man with whom she thought she was in a relationship. I have been witness to scores of children who have ruined their family life, educational opportunities, reputation and self-esteem through overuse, misuse, misunderstandings and straightforward commercial abuse. An individual child does not, and should not be expected to, have the maturity to meet the social, sexual, political and commercial currency of the adult world.
In December, the Nurture Network, a multidisciplinary group of academics, mental health workers and child development experts, agreed that the three existing agencies of socialisation—family, friends and school—have now been joined by a fourth: the digital environment, an environment of socialisation in which the status of children is not recognised. In an interconnected world, the erosion of the privileges, protections and rights of childhood in one environment results in an erosion of childhood itself.
That brings me to my concerns about how we conceive harms. I will briefly raise three issues. First, our public discourse focuses on a narrow set of extreme harms of a violent or sexual nature. Ignoring so-called “lesser harms” misunderstands that for a child, harms are often cumulative. It fails to deal with the fact that one child will react violently to an interaction that does not harm another, or that vulnerable groups of children might merit specific and particular protection. Crucially, it ignores the fact that for most children, it is the quotidian and the everyday that lowers their self-esteem, creates anxiety, and inflicts an opportunity cost in which education, relationships and physical and personal development are denuded, rendering children—or, should I say, “underage adults”?—exposed and unprotected. Children’s rights are deliberately conceived as non-hierarchical. We must take all harms seriously.
Secondly, it is not adequate to define children’s experience of the digital environment in terms of an absence of harm. As long ago as 1946, the World Health Organization declared that well-being was,
“not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
The NHS defines it as a feeling of “physical, emotional and psychological” well-being. We must set our sights not on the absence of harm but on a child’s right to well-being and human flourishing.
Thirdly, whether we are tackling the problems of live streaming, child sexual abuse, gaming addiction or thinking towards a new world order in which the fridge knows more about your child’s dietary tastes than you do and can exploit that fact, we must not wait until harm has been done but consider in advance the risks that children face. Technology changes fast, but the risks consistently fall into four categories: content risks, both unsuitable and illegal; contact risks, often, but not always, involving an adult; conduct risks, involving risky behaviour or social humiliation; and contract risks, such as exploitative contractual relationships, gambling, aggressive marketing, unfair terms and conditions, discriminatory profiling and so on. Most experts, including many in the enforcement community, consider that upstream prevention based on militating against risk rather than waiting for the manifestation of harm is by far the most effective approach.
There is much we can do. The Minister knows that I am not short of suggestions, but I will finish with a modest list. The digital environment is now indivisible from other environments in which our legal and regulatory arrangements embody our values. Parity of protection has been called for by the NSPCC. It was the approach taken in the Law Commission’s Abusive and Offensive Online Communications: A Scoping Report, and was articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, in establishing that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 applies equally to artificial intelligence. What plans do the Government have to bring clarity to how our laws apply to the digital environment? Specifically, will the Government bring forward a harmonisation Bill to create an obligation to interpret legislation in a manner that offers parity of protection and redress online and offline, in a similar manner to Section 3 of the Human Rights Act?
Designing out known risk, often referred to as safety by design, is standard across other sectors. We like our brakes to work, our food to be free of poisons and our contracts to be fair in law. The Secretary of State has said that he is minded to introduce a duty of care on the sector. That is very welcome—but to be effective, it must be accompanied by impact assessments, design standards, transparency reporting, robust oversight and a regulator with the full toolkit of persuasion and penalty. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are planning this full suite of provisions?
The age-appropriate design code introduced by this House demands that companies anticipate the presence of children and meet their development needs in the area of data protection. I hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s determination to produce a robust code across all areas of design agreed during the passage of the Data Protection Act. The code’s safety by design approach could and should be an exemplar of the codes and standards that must eventually form part of an online safety Bill.
Finally, companies make many promises in their published guidelines that set age limits, content rules and standards of behaviour, but then they do not uphold them. It is ludicrous that 61% of 12 year-olds have a social media account in spite of a joining age of 13, that Facebook says that it cannot work to its own definition of hate speech or that Twitter can have half a million pornographic images posted on it daily and still be characterised as a news app. Subjecting routine failure to uphold published terms to regulatory penalty would prevent companies entering into commercial contracts with underage children, drive services to categorise themselves accurately and ensure that companies say what they do, do what they said and are held to account if they fail to do it. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that this measure will be included in the upcoming White Paper.
Technology is often said to be neutral, and when we criticise the sector we are told that we are endangering its promise to cure cancer, educate the world and have us experience space travel without leaving our home, or threatening the future prosperity of the nation. Technology is indeed neutral, but we must ask to what end it is being deployed. It could in the future fulfil the hope of its founders and offer the beneficial outcomes for society that we all long for—but not if the price is the privileges, protections and inalienable rights of childhood. A child is a child until they reach maturity, not until the moment they reach for their smartphone.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the chance to have this debate. I enjoyed listening to her address very much. I do not join her in all things. My overall view on the large-scale effects of the association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use accords with that of Amy Orben, as published in Nature Human Behaviour at the beginning of this week, whose study of large-scale databases found that the overall average effect of digital technology use accounted for 0.4% of the overall well-being of the young people concerned—up there with a fondness for potatoes. In other words, it is extremely statistically insignificant and of no practical significance whatever. The same study pointed out that, on the evidence, the main positive effects on well-being were getting a good enough breakfast, enough sleep and vegetables; and, on the downside, drink, drugs and bullying. In other words, what we are dealing with is looked at on a large scale and on average is not something that children as a whole find it difficult to deal with. However, the fact that something is not a problem generally does not mean there are not specific problems. I thoroughly recommend to the Minister the NSPCC briefing for this debate. I line up behind all its recommendations.
It is important that we properly regulate the social media giants. When they started out, many of us might have believed that at their heart they were good and wonderful and intended nothing but delight and helpfulness to the rest of humanity. I think most of us now realise that they are exploitative and immoral, with no care for us in any particular way, just like the commercial behemoths before them. Under those circumstances the Government have a crucial role in mediating on our behalf, with the immense power that these organisations have. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, pointed out, there are many things to be done. Some very good intentions have been expressed, and we very much hope that the Government will carry them through.
At local level, schools and parents have to take many decisions concerning social media. We need to encourage sensible, locally decided practice. We want our children to have a life beyond social media—to do homework and to succeed at school. I very much commend to the House the work done by Katharine Birbalsingh at Michaela, where she has an absolute ban on mobile phones in school. That works for her. That is not to say it should be everywhere, but we as a Government should look at good practice, understand what works and tell people about it. We should support parents in making good decisions, as we do in many other aspects of health and family, through good public information. I very much hope that my noble friend will commit to that.
My Lords, I have always had the highest respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and her opening speech this afternoon has just increased that respect. It has also almost disabled my ability to contribute to this debate, because I cannot think of a single thing she has said that I do not agree with or can usefully add to. But never mind; I will press on.
I press on as, fundamentally, an analogue human in a digital world. I have had much to learn from the noble Baroness and from other people, for example, from your Lordships’ Communications Committee, with whom I have had the privilege to work. I do not want to enumerate the harms; that was done extensively and extremely powerfully by the noble Baroness in her opening speech. I want to put a little context around them and to talk a little about mitigation in one respect.
We must acknowledge what is unique and unprecedented about the challenges we face now, but we should remember that some of what we are looking at is old problems in new clothes. That is not to say they are not problems; I simply say let us not frighten ourselves by thinking that everything is new and we do not know anything. All adult generations fear the harms that may befall their children; that is their job. All innovation creates anxiety, and most new technologies have downsides as well as upsides. Alongside their brilliance and ingenuity, human beings have always had a capacity to turn what they have created to malign as well as benign ends. Then there is the unpalatable truth, but a truth none the less, that physically and intellectually mature humans have always seen immature humans—children—as a valuable resource, seeking to take advantage of their vulnerability for a variety of purposes, individual and corporate. These purposes have historically ranged from child labour, through child prostitution and other forms of sexual abuse, to the exploitation of child spending power and, latterly, data harvesting.
The point I really want to make is this. It has long been the job of legislators, working with the institutions of civil society, to articulate where at any time boundaries must be drawn and, where necessary, to regulate and enforce those boundaries. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, the idea of childhood as a protected space is relatively recent and, as legislators, we need to recognise that it is under threat from tech companies that do not properly distinguish between children and adults, as the noble Baroness so forcefully described.
The question of how new boundaries are to be set is a matter not only for the Government but for everyone. We genuinely are all in this together. However, it is for the Government to set the tone, and education is one of their most important tools. However, as the 5Rights report Towards an Internet Safety Strategy says, education is,
“frequently used to demand that users, particularly children, be resilient to a system that does not respect or protect their safety and security”.
It notes the increasing involvement of tech companies, including Facebook and Google, in education provision. For example, the report points out Google’s educational programmes, widely deployed here and in the US, which present Google as “impartial and trustworthy”, even though the programmes do not address risks associated with how companies like Google operate. Putting foxes in charge of the chicken coop comes to mind.
We cannot reasonably add yet another set of directives and associated sanctions to the duties of hard-pressed schools and teachers without providing significant new resources to help them deal imaginatively with the challenge. By this I mean both a revised curriculum and proper investment in teacher training, both initially and through continuing professional development. There is also a growing need for consistent practical messages from government to parents and other adults, free of commercial bias.
Finally, I want to say what I always say about the value of creative, arts-based education in developing the critical thinking and reflective skills which, in conjunction with other initiatives, our children need more than ever to help them participate fully in the digital future, able to seize the opportunities while understanding the risks. We owe them that. I support everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has said and recommended. I hope the Government will confirm that they do too.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this debate. I sometimes wonder what the relationship is between digital technology and the health and well-being of adults, particularly when I hear my smartphone ping just as I am about to go to sleep or when an email alert pops up when I am trying to concentrate on an important speech. The focus of this debate, however, is very properly on children and young people, who comprise the first generation of digital natives.
In the Industrial Revolution, the impact on children and young people was significant, especially on those who worked in factories. Health and safety was very much an afterthought, if that. The digital revolution has been much faster and the impact much greater, with much greater penetration: at least 95% of children own or have access to a digital device. To minimise the bad effects of digital technology, action must be taken by central government, providers, advertisers, schools and of course parents.
I am afraid to say that successive Governments have not even attempted to regulate providers in any serious way. In 2017, the Green Paper promised to make Britain,
“The safest place in the world to be online”.
In May 2018, the Government’s response to that consultation recognised, not unsurprisingly:
“More and more people are concerned about safety online … there are no clear standards for behaviour and … social media companies are not taking responsibility for what happens on their platforms”.
On mental health, they acknowledged:
“While the evidence around the impact of social media and internet use is not yet conclusive, there are potential negative impacts. These include … social isolation, competitive pressures, increased vulnerability, increased exposure to abusive content, increased likelihood of cyberbullying and the risk of grooming for exploitation”.
The Government talked about a “digital charter”. If you will excuse the pun, there is as yet little evidence that the Government are getting their finger out. Where is the promised White Paper? Having talked the talk for years, the Government are just beginning to walk the walk. They are considering—only considering—new policy areas,
“on safety that have been identified during the consultation process that warrant further work, including: … age verification … policies aimed at improving children and young people’s mental health … tackling issues related to live-streaming; and, … further work to define harmful content”.
One example of where the Government’s abject failure has made matters worse is their taking the responsibility for the rating of video games away from the British Board of Film Classification and giving it to the Video Standards Council. It has refused a classification for only one game, and games are littered with violence, sexuality and rape.
Every parent and every adult has a duty to campaign to minimise the damage that digital technology may cause to the health and well-being of children and young people. The NHS 10-year strategy devoted a whole section to coping with the mental health problems of children and young people. Perhaps if we did a little more about prevention, there would be less distress for young people and their families and less pressure on expensive cures. It is incumbent on the Government to do all that they can to regulate at least the worst excesses of the industry, and to provide the resources to schools to ensure that children and young people can become resilient.
One immediate step the Government could take is to finally make up their mind about personal, social and health education. When are the Government going to agree that this should be taught in all schools and provide the resources and the training—and, if they are short of money, make Google and Facebook pay more than a fraction of their dues in corporation tax? That would provide enough for a decent programme.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this timely debate on an important topic to society. I reiterate that I have little to add to her excellent speech. I refer the House to my interests as outlined in the register.
As other noble Lords have acknowledged, most children and young people use at least one form of technology on a daily basis. The majority of such use is positive. The internet enables us all to access up-to-date, relevant information which can be an invaluable aid for learning and for homework in particular. Children who live in villages in rural communities, as I do, have seen their opportunities to access information revolutionised with fast broadband, and it is vital that we remember how difficult it was for some young people to connect not only with information but with their families and friends prior to having access to the internet.
Smartphones facilitate us all in keeping in contact with family members and are now used by young people, “digital natives”, to assist with their health needs—the mobile app designed for adolescents to monitor their dietary intake if they have type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes being one example. Similarly, cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety and depression provided by the internet is widely accessed by our young people, who find it a positive method for accepting delivery of mental health services at a time and place of their choosing. Conversely, we see young people seeking likes and perfection through platforms, such as Instagram, which seem to be linked to increasing anxiety and depression in vulnerable groups.
The excellent Library briefing for this debate outlines, however, that one in 10 children and one in five young teenagers have encountered something worrying or nasty in the past year, including pornography and violence on video-sharing websites. However, it is not possible to determine whether the internet has increased the overall risk to young people or whether it is merely an alternative location for risk experiences which have always been present in society.
We know that the Children’s Society has highlighted the negative impact of cyberbullying and Public Health England contends that longitudinal research has identified the causal relationship between experiencing bullying and poorer health outcomes. We have enough evidence to be certain that there is a relationship between exposure to bullying and mental health problems experienced by young people. Therefore, as we also know bullying occurs both on and offline, we must somehow reduce exposure to it.
Some research indicates that the amount of time that young people spend on the internet may be adversely related to their health and well-being but there remains the need for further research in this area, as outlined in the recent report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health on the impacts of screen time on young people’s health. This guidance suggests there is no one size fits all, with parents needing to balance the risks and benefits in their family.
Yet parents need guidance free of commercial involvement, as highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. The one strong recommendation in that report is that young people have at least an hour off-screen prior to going to bed as there is a strong correlation between sleep pattern interference and screen use in the golden hour before sleep. We also have clear evidence that sleep is essential for well-being and good health.
This leads me to two questions for the Minister. If we want to make Britain the safest place in the world to be online, what is the Government’s safeguarding role in terms of monitoring and controlling content that can be accessed by young people, including advertising? Secondly, if, as the NSPCC states in its briefing document for this debate, self-regulation has failed to protect children sufficiently to date, will the Government use their power to introduce a regulatory model that holds social network providers to account to improve the safety of the internet for young people?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for raising this subject and for her outstanding introduction to this debate.
Fifty-five thousand children in this country are classified as problem gamblers. The Gambling Commission’s report, Young People and Gambling, published in November, shows that gambling participation has risen, with 14% of 11 to 16 year-olds having spent their own money on gambling. That is a greater proportion of young people than have drunk alcohol, smoked cigarettes or taken illegal drugs.
Today’s children are being conditioned to think that the normal way to enjoy sport is to bet on it—as opposed to what I was brought up with, where you simply enjoyed seeing people competing with one another. They face a barrage of adverts during sports broadcasts. Young people today see an average of 3.8 gambling adverts daily, and 66% of children have seen gambling adverts on TV—a product of the £1.2 billion spent by the industry on advertising. The wild west of the online world is compounding the problems among young people. These digital natives, who are wonderfully adept with technology, are most at risk from the digital switch that the gambling industry is currently undergoing. The many millions of children and young people on social media sites have the option to follow accounts created by the gambling lobby, which often floods the very same sites with adverts, all without any need for age verification.
Yet, more than this, the very nature of gambling is changed by being online. No longer are people limited by how long a bookie stays open and no longer are people easily prevented from gambling if they are underage. Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones of Imperial College has highlighted how young people can disengage from previously rewarding activities and relationships in the real world and move towards using screens excessively. This is the very seedbed in which gambling disorders can easily take root. The report refers to what any parent already knows: children’s predilection to seek immediate gratification makes them particularly susceptible to habit-forming rewards. Take away time limits or age verification on phone and online games, and they can all too easily become addictive.
The online world has changed dramatically since the Gambling Act 2005. Nowadays many in-app games are promoted by popular TV personalities. Before 2005, words such as “loot boxes” and “skins” would have been met with blank stares—indeed, I suspect they still may be from many people in this Chamber—yet they are now commonplace language among young people. It is not simply my opinion that loot boxes function as gambling in everything but name; the Belgian Parliament has outlawed them because of its worries.
This debate is centred on the challenges facing young people. I believe we need urgently to monitor the use of online games that use skins and loot boxes. We need to adopt the precautionary principle in limiting, or preferably banning, online gambling adverts. Therefore I hope the Minister will set out the steps that Her Majesty’s Government are taking to monitor and respond to this worrying aspect of the digital world.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness on securing this debate. Whenever we discuss this enormous issue, I am reminded of the words of Bismarck, who would no doubt have had a thing or two to say about recent events, who once said that people cannot create or divert the stream of time; they can only travel on it and steer with more or less experience and skill. For all of us in 2019, that stream of time is to be found in the transformative power of digital technology, which is sweeping all before it.
This awesome industrial revolution—for that is what it is—is having its greatest impact on young people. Every aspect of their lives and their careers is being shaped by it. A survey for Ofcom last year showed that one-fifth of young people aged 16 to 24 are so addicted to smartphones that they spend more than seven hours a day online, which is equivalent to more than two full 24-hour days per week. For a generation born at the millennium, smartphones are now an indispensable part of life.
We know what the damaging consequences of digital technology on the lives and well-being of young people can be. Social isolation, cyberbullying, radicalisation and an increased propensity to depression are all very real problems but, used properly, with comprehensive safeguards and with parents and teachers playing an active role in informing children about potential dangers, digital technology can be a fantastic enabler, with a central role to play in educating healthy, happy and well-informed students, making them more literate and developing critical thinking skills. Indeed, perhaps instead of focusing quite so much on the dangers of technology, those involved in the development of public policy should also understand the opportunities and benefits it provides, or we will risk restricting its positive impact on creativity, education and well-being.
One area which demonstrates this positive impact extremely well is music education, and here I declare my interest as chairman of the Royal College of Music. Studying music has a profoundly positive impact on young people. It increases cognitive ability, improves attainment in maths and English, boosts employability and helps maintain good physical and mental well-being. So learning music at school is absolutely crucial for the way that children develop, although, shockingly, too many people are currently denied that.
Where children are lucky enough to have access to music education, digital technology can assist extremely effectively, although I must underline that it is an enabler, not a substitute, for proper academic learning. The UK music industry is leading the way in developing the technology to support it and to ensure that a musical experience is accessible to all. Key to that is seeing digital devices as musical instruments, allowing teachers to involve everyone in a class.
One teacher I know from the Royal College of Music told me how he used technology in his classroom to enable a performance in public for every year 9 pupil in the school, playing Pachelbel’s “Canon” on iPads. That technology allows pupils to write and rehearse compositions, to provide context for film music, which allows them to see their compositions combined with film, and to learn new instruments at their own pace. Those are fantastic achievements and point the way to the future. A growing number of digital services and websites are being developed to deliver this essential support, including Tido, Charanga and the innovative daveconservatoire.org, which is used by 3 million people around the world and by schools on every continent.
Digital music technology, safely and intelligently deployed, enables all children to learn the vital skills of collaboration, public performance, practice discipline, self-direction and the development of an independent creative voice. Those skills are transferable across a whole range of activities and career choices later in life, which is why they are so important.
Of course, we must be alive to the dangers posed by digital technology. We must keep under review the case for greater regulatory safeguards, as we have heard in a number of speeches; ensure that parents and teachers play an active role in educating children on how to use technology as a balanced part of their lives; and make accessible and affordable high-quality educational resources available online—an area where government has a key role to play. If we do that, it is absolutely right that technology should now be at the heart of every child’s education. Our country’s creative economy and the future of music, which are very much in jeopardy, will be all the stronger for it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this important debate, and for her excellent speech.
Last month we debated the Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations 2018, which will see commercial pornographic websites placed behind age verification. I very much welcome that decision and ask the Minister to give the House an update on its “go live” day.
I fear, however, that significant problems remain in relation to child access to adult content, as a number of concerns have been raised about the exclusion of social media from the scope of the regulations. Indeed, in November the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, noted that the Digital Economy Act 2017, while seeking,
“to restrict children’s access to pornography based on scale … failed to bring platforms such as Twitter within scope, despite 500,000 pornographic images being posted daily”.—[
Clearly this is a subject that needs to be kept under review, and I hope that the Government will address it in the online harms White Paper.
I have been a consistent supporter of parental filters for online services. We discussed this subject in detail during the passage of the Digital Economy Bill in 2017, but I would be grateful if the Minister updated the House on what both large and, crucially, small ISPs are doing about online filtering. The most recent Ofcom report on children’s and parents’ media use and attitudes, published in 2017, says that 39% of three and four year-olds use home network-level filters, as do 37% of five to 15 year-olds. Although this is an increase on previous years, it is still surprising to me that more parents do not use that option. Does the Minister have any new data on the use of filters?
As I said last month, I remain concerned about online gambling. We know that, notwithstanding the Gambling Act, young people gamble online. I very much welcome the Gambling Commission’s efforts to ensure stricter age-verification checks for those seeking to gamble online or who play free-to-play online gambling games. I very much hope that the new licensing conditions proposed in the recent consultation on proposals to strengthen age and identity verification for online gambling will come into effect soon.
I am very concerned to note that in last year’s report on young people’s gambling, 13% of 11 to 16 year-olds had played gambling-like games online, for free and without prizes. Some 40% of those who played online gambling-style games played these before gambling for money. I also note with great concern that information about gambling is easily accessed by young people: 59% have seen gambling advertisements on social media, more than one in 10 follow gambling companies on social media, and they are three times more likely to spend money on gambling. Of those who have ever played online gambling-style games, 24% follow gambling companies online. We are surrounding our young people with messages about gambling from a young age. If we are serious about living up to the licensing conditions in Section 1 of the Gambling Act, I do not believe it appropriate to passively accept this situation.
Lastly, I am concerned that 31% of 11 to 16 year-olds have bought so-called loot boxes, which, as has already been mentioned, allow for in-game purchases. In the 2017 Ofcom report, 30% of parents of five to 15 year-olds were concerned about the pressure on their child to make in-game purchases, and they were right to be so. There is a particular concern about loot boxes, also known as mystery boxes because the purchaser does not know what is in the box—it is an act of chance. A recent academic paper states that,
“loot-box systems share important structural and psychological similarities with gambling”.
The Gambling Commission itself has acknowledged that there is a blurring around the edges of gaming and gambling.
In this context, and again mindful of our obligations under Section 1 of the Gambling Act, I believe that the time has come for the Government to take robust steps to protect children and young people from loot boxes. The DCMS Select Committee in the other place is looking into this issue. I shall read its report with interest, and I sincerely hope we are going to hear more from the Gambling Commission about how many young people are betting on e-sports—that is, competitive video gaming—and whether they are betting with cash or with items won or purchased while playing video games. Above all, we need to ensure that young people do not get drawn into gambling unwittingly.
My Lords, we are halfway through this important debate and we are very tight for time. I ask Peers to adhere to the four-minute time limit.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for the opportunity to speak in this timely debate. Having been a tutor in neuroscience at Oxford, and as CEO of a biotech company, Neuro-Bio, I shall focus on how digital technology influences brain function.
Humans occupy more ecological niches than any other species on the planet because of our superlative ability, compared with any other animal, to adapt to the environment. Our brains become highly personalised through the development of unique configurations of connections between our brain cells that characterise the growth of the human brain after birth, personalising it into a highly individual “mind” that is in constant dialogue with, and continuously updated by, the environment.
Digital technology opens up an unprecedented environment. Now, for the first time, you can live effectively in a parallel universe: recreation via video games, friendship via social media and learning via search engines. Let us take each one in turn. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have both recently characterised addictive internet gaming as a psychiatric disorder. The neuronal mechanism of addiction is an enhanced release of the chemical messenger dopamine, which underlies the anticipation of reward, raised arousal levels and the neuronal mechanisms of drug addiction.
We know that dopamine inhibits the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is particularly dominant in humans. This region becomes fully operational only in late-teenage years; until then, there is a well-recognised characteristic profile of recklessness, short attention span and—most significantly—overdependency on external stimulation. An immature prefrontal cortex, coupled with surges of dopamine during video gaming, could result in a mindset driven to have, literally, a “sensational time”.
What of social media? When you meet someone face to face, only 10% of the total impact is dependent on language; much more relies on the tone and volume of your voice, eye contact, body language and of course physical touch, none of which is available via a screen. If we do not rehearse these skills, we will not be very good at them. Face-to-face interaction will be ever more aversive, resulting in impaired interpersonal skills, increasingly referred to nowadays as “virtual autism”.
What of learning? Two secondary school teachers in Washington DC, Joe Clement and Matt Miles, recently published Screen Schooled, a book that persuasively sets out the evidence and arguments that too much screen time has resulted in students who lack focus and critical-thinking skills—and we should remember that information from the screen is not the same as knowledge. The profile of the mid-21st century mindset could comprise: a short attention span, addictive, reckless, low on empathy, and with a fragile sense of identity and poor critical thought.
A key factor is an overemphasis on the sensory pull of the immediate moment, oblivious to any relationship to the past or future. Yet it is just such a linear sequence of a merging of past, present and future—more generally, a beginning, a middle and an end—that characterises the thought process itself, leading to language, sentences, stories, life stories and hence a robust individual identity. Surely we need to promote behaviours that, instead of multitasking, mandate sequencing single actions in a specific order over an extended timeframe—cooking or gardening, for example. Perhaps the most obvious form of sequencing would be reading, ideally from a real book.
Sport is another activity that precludes multitasking. Moreover, physical exercise results in the production of new brain cells, enhanced academic performance and a reduction in mental impairments, not to mention the benefits against obesity.
In 1964, the writer Isaac Asimov predicted life 50 years on. He said:
“The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine”.
It is ironic that excessive use of digital technology may well be eroding the very talents we will need to compete with AI in the workplace of the future. To thrive in our current culture, we need to refocus our priority on nurturing self-confident and thoughtful individuals for whom digital devices do not drive the agenda of their daily life but are merely part of a more diverse toolkit for attaining personal fulfilment in the real world.
My Lords, digital technology offers children a range of wonderful opportunities to have fun, create, learn, explore and socialise. However, not all progress takes us forward, because emerging evidence shows that digital technology can expose children to a vast range of online harms: inappropriate content, online gambling, body shaming, the production and distribution of child abuse imagery, and online grooming. The impacts can be devastating. Tech firms are failing our children and they will not take action until they are forced to.
Children make up one-third of global internet users and they see little distinction between their online and offline worlds. The NSPCC has developed an important set of regulatory proposals to keep our children safe in their digital playgrounds—and it should be listened to. When children consume things such as food, toys and clothes, those all meet standards that let us know they are safe. The online world should be the same. The age appropriate design code is an important step in building child-protection features into the online environment. Platforms should give children the highest privacy settings and make sure that geolocation is switched off by default. A statutory duty of care must be imposed on social networks by a social media regulator with the teeth and power to hold social networks to account and enforce this duty.
The spread of child sexual abuse images is getting worse and increasing in severity among the younger age group. Last year, the Internet Watch Foundation removed a record number of child abuse images from the internet. The IWF has a zero-tolerance approach and thanks to its work the UK has the fastest removal times of anywhere in the world.
The spectrum of online harms, other than child sexual abuse, is not so simple to legislate for, because harm is not recognised in law, or because it is technically difficult to enforce any law that is in place without compromising user privacy. But the Government need to consider the technical, legal and social implications and begin the serious debate about what the future of internet regulation might mean for citizens in the UK. Despite these issues rising up the agenda for concerned parents, many do not know how best to protect their children from harm online. It is up to policymakers to make effective legislation that considers the technical and social issues in dealing with a specific harm.
Play has been a big part of our lives, but a report by the Association of Play Industries—a movement for movement—reveals that today’s children have never moved so little and points to substantial evidence that screens are a key reason. By the age of eight, the average child will have spent one full year sitting in front of a screen. The report says:
“Unless the government takes steps to help parents reduce children’s discretionary screen time, current attempts to tackle childhood obesity and poor mental health are likely to fail”.
For years I have been saying, “Take the television, phones and computers out of the bedroom so children can get a good night’s sleep”. I know that teachers support this.
The All-Party Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, which I co-chair, produced a report looking at children’s mental health and the issues surrounding screen time. One of the contributors, Dr Aric Sigman, has written numerous medical papers and concludes that by the time children reach middle adolescence they spend more time using their screens than they do sleeping. That is increasingly linked with risks to their mental health and well-being.
So-called screen dependency disorder covers a wide range of harms, such as compulsive internet use, video game addiction, mobile phone dependency, social network site addiction and so on—all growing problems. One of our report’s recommendations was for policymakers to be vigilant in detecting and publicising conflicts of interest and to familiarise themselves with the influence of the technology companies in lobbying, funding research and influencing the way the media portrays discretionary screen time and screen dependency disorders. For example, recent media coverage of a report supposedly claiming that screen time is not harmful to children failed to make it clear that the report was about television viewing, which nowadays accounts for only about half of children’s screen time. The report did not cover social media, computer games, smartphones or computer use.
Childhood lasts a lifetime, so it is our duty to get it right. Yes, all interventions involving children should be evidence-based, but when it comes to the important issue of keeping children safe from abuse and harm online, we must double our efforts, because we have had 10 years of failed self-regulation. If we do not act now, we risk harming another generation of children, so I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this crucial debate.
I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating the debate and for giving me the opportunity to take part in it. We are all too aware that there is an immediate need for a greater focus and action in preventing cyberbullying online content being published in the first place. Online abuse remains an issue for millions of our young citizens, against the view that what is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online. The consensus is that abusive or offensive posts should be automatically removed from social media platforms. Government has a major part to play in driving an online world that is fit for purpose for our younger generation, who can in many cases be so easily influenced. This is so that everyone can abide by the values that we all live by, with the attitude and behaviours we duly expect in the offline world.
The use of screens has become nearly inescapable in our daily lives as we search the net to access entertainment, communicate with others, socialise and of course to do shopping. With the development of new technology, most children and young people now use at least one form of technology every day but research demonstrates that cyberbullying can in many cases have serious effects on health outcomes, independent of the effects of traditional bullying. We see that the number of young people being cyberbullied at age 15 is almost double that at age 11, with girls more than twice as likely as boys to report being a victim.
As an interesting aside, it is noticeable that those young people who report come from a background of high family affluence, where they are most likely to say they had in fact been cyberbullied. It seems that young people who are assured and converse well with their parents are more likely to have better health and social outcomes, and be better equipped as they go through adolescence and early adulthood. It is the opposite for those who receive free school meals; they are, seemingly, less likely to report being a victim. Schools and colleges should be supported and encouraged more in their role to work closely with students, not only for academic success but to help them feel safe and have a place to belong. As research has also shown, where young people live—together with a good community environment—can have a significant impact on health and well-being.
Turning to physical health issues, as we witness young people using at least one form of technology every single day, that leads to less exercising. This is more prevalent in teenage girls. The opportunity to exercise more is a given, as it promotes helping to sustain emotional and mental health well-being. It delivers positive steps to improve self- confidence and determination and to manage stress and anxiety, so that our young people feel better about themselves.
Finally, this is about getting the right balance: using digital technology and keeping active. Ultimately, listening to every voice is so important, as it is for them to have fun, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said. The Government must make this the safest place in the world for children and young people to be online, and the sooner the better.
My Lords, the topic of this debate is often understood in ways suggesting that what is at issue is either a generic problem with the use of online technologies or a more specific problem arising from the use of social media. I declare an interest as someone who does not use social media, but whose life is greatly dependent on digital technologies. We are mistaken if we focus excessively on social media.
The generic problems for children and young people are said to include too much screen time, loss of sleep, educational damage, less social life and less exercise—I agree. The specific problems of social media use by children and young people, but not them only, are said to include a lurid list that runs across the risks of cyberbullying, a loss of privacy, exposure to porn and extremist propaganda and lots more. I agree entirely that each of these can damage young people; for that matter, they can damage older people as well. But the tech companies may, even if pretty belatedly, conclude that failure to curb these harms is damaging their reputations and commercial interests, so they will do more to prevent these harms. How successful they will be remains to be seen. So far, moves to take down harmful material have not been wholly successful.
However, these may not be the most damaging harms done by digital technologies and, more specifically, not the harms which most damage young people. The harms I have mentioned are all private harms in the economist’s sense of the term: they are harms suffered by individuals who are bullied or whose privacy is invaded, or whose education is damaged. There is a second range of less immediately visible harms that arise from digital media. These are public harms that damage public goods, notably cultures and democracy.
There is a large and growing body of knowledge about ways in which digital technologies are used to subvert democratic processes, including elections and referenda. It has happened in many jurisdictions. Such use of technology is cheap and its influence can be purchased and peddled by those who are not citizens, including corporations and states, among them hostile states and their intelligence services. Moreover, it can be done anonymously. Our electoral law, which regulates party-political expenditure during campaigns, is pathetically inadequate for dealing with hidden digital persuasion.
Equally, there is now substantial evidence of the use of digital technologies to undermine the reliability of news and information. This has often been hailed as a point of pride. When Mr Mark Zuckerberg first propounded his now infamous slogan “Move fast and break things”, one may assume that he took it that everything that would be broken would be something unjust and exclusionary that obstructed the dissemination of knowledge and information to the public. In the event, the digital revolution has swept away not only the wicked intermediaries, the censors, but essential intermediaries without whom we would have no serious journalism, no editorial judgment nor reliable ways of telling whether we were encountering fake news or the real thing. The wholesale destruction of intermediaries is a form of cultural vandalism, damaging to all but the perpetrators and the hidden persuaders, and in particular to young people.
I am all for pursuing the agenda of protecting young people from the private harms inflicted by uses of digital or of other technologies, but I think that we short-change the next generation if we do not protect them also from the public harms that such technologies enable. Protection from them will be far more difficult, I suspect, because it will not be in the commercial interest of the big tech companies that organise the data obtained from many sources—not, by the way, always social media—and package it for sale to those who pay to target specific groups for political and commercial purposes cheaply and, once again, anonymously.
In September 2018, Sir Tim Berners-Lee expressed his disappointment about what has happened to the web in these words:
“I’ve always believed the web is for everyone. That’s why I and others fight fiercely to protect it. The changes we’ve managed to bring have created a better and more connected world. But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas”.
We have been warned.
My Lords, I join all those who have thanked my noble friend Lady Kidron not only for tabling this important debate and her masterly introduction but for her relentless concentration on the issue in legislation and on other occasions. I also thank Nicole Winchester for her excellent Library brief.
My contribution will be limited to two personal observations about which I have been asking questions ever since making them. In 1997, as Chief Inspector of Prisons during a thematic review of young offenders, I visited the only young offender institution in Scotland, which I was told had an outstanding governor. To my surprise, as we were walking around, he suddenly said to me that if, by some mischance, he had to get rid of all his staff, the last one out of the gate would be his speech and language therapist. Never having come across such a person in any YOI in England, I naturally asked him why. He replied, “Because the young people cannot communicate, either with each other or with us, and until they can, we cannot begin to know what problems and needs they have or how to begin helping them to overcome them”. He went on to say that too many of them had never been communicated with by their parents or sat down to meals as a family, being dumped in front of the television or encouraged to play on their electronic devices, leading to their being able to communicate only in “binary grunts”. Having met his wonderful therapist, I learned what she was able to do for both young offenders and staff. I have been campaigning ever since for such a therapist to be appointed in every YOI. This inability to communicate is the scourge of the 21st century, for which I hold the amount of time children and young people spend using digital technology partly to blame. As the Library briefing points out, the range of topics relating to the impact of digital technologies on the health and well-being of children and young people is vast and there is no clear agreement on the impact, positive or negative, of screen time on an individual’s well-being.
My second observation is based on my chairmanship of a criminal justice and acquired brain injury interest group, which has a particular interest in the effects of such injuries on the developing brains of children and young people. Possibly influenced by evidence of a possible link between brain tumours and excessive use of mobile phones, there are those who suspect that too much digital technology use may cause damage to the growing brain. Hard evidence is impossible to come by, largely owing to the technology being comparatively new. Two years ago I remember being shown two scans, one of a 10 year-old’s brain taken 10 years ago and one taken that year. You did not have to be an expert to see that there were differences, which might be because they were different people. Experts admitted that they could not interpret the difference or what it meant in the long term, but it was sufficiently worrying for them to say that, while it was too early to predict any long-term implications, excessive use of digital technology could not be ruled out as a possible cause.
My Lords, an unregulated digital environment is causing moral decay. There is no time to reiterate the various harms that are being caused, but they are deep-seated, corrosive and pervasive. Just last week I was at a school in Essex talking to 7 to 11 year-olds about their use of a game called TikTok. All of them were using it. The lower age limit for using it is 13. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, pointed out, the digital world assumes that all users are equal and all users are adults, whereas in fact one-third of users worldwide are children. Therefore, their health, well-being and development require us to ensure that the internet, and the many ways that children access it, are as safe as they can be. This has usually meant creating special safe places for children or safety options that can be activated.
Would it not be better to turn this whole approach on its head? With any other public space, be it a cinema, a shopping mall or a city square, our assumption is that this is a safe place for all ages to gather and therefore safe for children. Regulation and, where necessary, legislation supports this view and then we create dedicated spaces for adults—not the other way round. In the cinema we do this through film classification. In a public park or a city square we do it through public order legislation. The internet is a public space. Indeed, for children and young people it is the public space. This means that regulation and guidance to make the internet safe by design are all the more necessary. Far from inhibiting the internet, as some vested interests claim, it will enable the internet to be the democratic, creative and liberating space it is meant to be. It is the lack of regulation that makes it dangerous and debilitating. Achieving a common standard does not make the internet restrictive for adults; it just means that we apply the same principles to all parts of our common life.
Let me put it another way. In the 1970s we added fluoride to water and to toothpaste. Dental hygiene was transformed. We stopped dealing with the symptoms of tooth decay and designed a way of improving everybody’s health. There is an important philosophical question here. What sort of world do we wish to build in this digital age? It is no good shrugging our shoulders and saying that it is all too difficult. Nor is it acceptable for Facebook, Google and Amazon to say that they are not to blame because they are just platforms. They curate the way we receive the information they gather, and this gives them a powerful editorial voice. Increasingly they are publishers as well, and their big bucks distort the whole ecosystem of our media economy. They are creating monopolies that it is hard to imagine us tolerating in any other industry.
The forthcoming report of the Communications Committee—on which it has been my privilege and education to sit, alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—will present some recommendations on how we might regulate the internet. Most of all, we need to make it safe by design, and teach children how to inhabit it. Without this, we will sell them short and allow the liberating genius of the internet to be compromised and stymied. In other walks of life, if it were your child in the betting shop or flicking through a pornographic magazine, with their worldview being shaped by an increasingly narrow echo chamber of gossip, speculation and fake news, you would want to do something about it. That is our job. We need to find a way of putting fluoride in the internet.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this debate. I rise to express my concern about one particular way in which the internet can adversely affect children’s health—online gaming addiction, which has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield.
Gaming on the internet is enjoyed by millions of adults and children across the world. For them, it is the most wonderful form of stimulation, and a way to interact with friends and family. But for a minority of young players it can turn into an addiction. It mainly affects young men aged 12 to 24, and the results can be devastating. They can play up to 16 hours a day and their escape into a virtual world can devastate their lives, their schooling and their family. Games are becoming ever more complicated, with ever more attractions, and as result they are becoming ever more addictive.
I would like to share with your Lordships the case of one young addict. Let us call him Troy. He reported to his local child and adolescent mental health services at the age of 15, suffering from long-standing low mood and suicidal thoughts. The therapist discovered that for the past year he had been gaming for up to 15 hours a day. Not surprisingly, he was becoming isolated and lived as a recluse, reluctant to leave the house for any reason. His single-parent mother tried to restrict his excessive gaming, but stopped when he threatened suicide.
Troy was diagnosed with internet gaming disorder. The therapists set him a reduction plan and encouraged him to develop activities beyond the game. But, after initial success, he was encouraged by fellow players to go back. Soon he was back up to 14 hours a day. When at the start of the new term he was forced to stop playing, he became so distressed that he tried to jump out of his bedroom window. Doctors discovered that Troy's levels of brain stimulation, from extended online gaming, were similar to those of people who had taken amphetamines and other stimulants. The addiction can lead to depression, paranoia and difficulty in enjoying the simple pleasures of life—eating, walking or meeting friends.
This and other case studies are just anecdotes, but this form of addiction is so new to psychiatrists and to policymakers that, although they are aware of the increasing problem, they do not have a definitive way of measuring its extent. The World Health Organization is considering including gaming disorder in the international classification of Diseases 11 at the May meeting of the WHA. Its inclusion will be a vital step in enabling clear diagnosis of the condition, and in providing a standardised tool for comparing the problem in different countries. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government support this move.
As policymakers in this country grapple with the issue, they can take some guidance from China and South Korea, where gaming addiction is widespread among young men. They are working with parents and schools to raise awareness and prevent the spread of the addiction. But Asian policymakers are also working with manufacturers to reduce the addictivity of games. They have had some success: one game now sends a message warning the player of how long they have been playing; another can be set to time out after a certain number of hours. This work needs to be put on a more systematic basis. We already have regulation for sex and violence in games; this should be extended to regulating their addictivity as well.
If and when we leave the EU, I suggest that the Government investigate how EU regulations in this area would work. They should bring together stakeholders to rate the addictivity of existing games and horizon-scan new games. This could be done through a new regulatory body, but I hear the groans from DCMS at the great difficulty of doing that. Maybe we should just extend the remit of the Gambling Commission to cover gaming. These regulations could certify games with a score, warning players of their addictive nature. They could also work on preventive measures to ensure that vulnerable children are protected, particularly during their teenage years. Above all, they could co-ordinate work with gaming companies to build in more ethical design. It would create a win-win situation, encouraging trust in the companies and allowing all players to have an entertaining time playing games rather than becoming addicted. I urge the Minister to act now before further damage is done to our young people.
My Lords, I too thank my noble and formidable friend Lady Kidron for securing the debate but also for keeping people aware of the issues we have been talking about today. Everyone who has spoken today has pointed out that digital technology and the web are not risk-free, especially for young people, and we have a responsibility to safeguard our children and to bring some order to what the NSPCC has called the “Wild West Web”. I am therefore very pleased to welcome the promise of an online harms White Paper. Some of us heard from the Secretary of State about this earlier in the week. I will say only that this should no longer be delayed; the risks are substantial, obvious and growing, and this is an urgent problem for us to address.
The NSPCC and the London Grid for Learning recently carried out research which showed not only that 24% of all children have been involved in live streaming and video chatrooms but that 12% of those children have video chatted with someone they do not know, while 6% who have live-streamed have been asked to change or remove an item of clothing. These are specific examples of the risks and dangers. In spite of this, very few live-streaming sites have taken proactive steps to monitor activity for abuse, to introduce effective moderation or to design in safety practices. All these are possible but they have not been done. As a result, it is now as likely that grooming will take place online as offline.
One of the most popular online games is called Fortnite. I know that some noble Lords play it regularly, but for those who do not, it has upwards of 45 million players. One of its most popular modes requires you to create an account by providing an email address or username. The game is rated 12-plus by the App Store but there is no age verification, so plenty of children under 12 play the game and are encouraged to do so because of the social media coverage, so as not to feel left out. The game also provides an unmoderated chatroom; it can be disabled, but most parents would not be aware of that—assuming they are even aware that their child is playing the game. The risks are obvious.
I want the Government and providers to take practical action to address those various risks, rather than just offering warm words. First, social media companies should be expected to direct resources to artificial intelligence—as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, who is unable to be here today, has suggested—to detect under-13s using their platforms, given that the Children’s Society found that 61% of young people had a first account at the age of 12 or under.
Secondly, live-streaming sites should be required to adopt and publish specific standards that ensure that children are able to communicate only with approved contacts. The provider should be required to introduce real-time moderation, and again, algorithms should be used to detect inappropriate activity on site.
Social networks should be required to tell parents and children how safe their networks are, measured against clear criteria, how they maintain those standards and how they deal with reports and complaints. Yes, I absolutely agree with those who have suggested that the time must surely have come for an independent regulator to establish mandatory child safety rules. Every attempt at self-regulation has failed, and the industry has now had its opportunity to self-regulate.
Finally, I would like companies to follow the example set by O2, which is working with the NSPCC to provide advice to parents on the controls that can be introduced to keep their children safe online. The fact is that many parents are simply unaware of the dangers and how they can mitigate them. As I said, the Secretary of State has promised a White Paper. It needs to be produced very quickly. There is no reason why some of the things we have spoken about today cannot be introduced before the White Paper or legislation.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating this important and extremely well-informed debate. She did it in such a thoughtful way, especially in emphasising the positive right of the child to flourish and the importance of harm prevention in this context.
Since we debated the first Digital Economy Act 10 years ago, public understanding of and attitudes towards the internet have changed markedly. Several noble Lords emphasised the benefits of digital technology, but in that time evidence has mounted of the effect of social media and connected devices on young people in particular, impacting on their health, mental well-being and educational attainment. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, unpacked that issue in an extremely instructive way.
Of course one could debate further the impact of the internet and digital technology on our democracy, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, demonstrated, but today I fear I have little time and it is necessary to concentrate on online harms to children. It has become clear that people—children and adults—should have the same rights online as they have offline. As the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, said, we must align online and offline behaviour and recognise the unique dangers that online access sometimes poses.
This House has already had an impact through the limited amount of regulation we have been able to impose on the internet. Too many Members are involved for me to mention them all, but there are the age-verification provisions; the age-appropriate design code, which was the inspiration of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron; and the new offence of revenge porn, which my noble friend Lady Grender was instrumental in introducing, with government support, through the Criminal Justice and Courts Act.
However, so far, government efforts specifically to deal with the abuses of social media have been extremely limited and there is still a culture of hands-off regulation of the internet, which favours the platforms. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Storey pointed out, in the case of classification of video games, we have gone backwards. As he mentioned, we have had the Government’s digital charter, a Green Paper before that, and the Government’s response last May to the internet safety Green Paper. As many noble Lords have mentioned, we are also promised shortly a White Paper on internet safety strategy, which will set out plans for legislation covering,
“the full range of online harms, including both harmful and illegal content”.
Can the Minister convert that promise of “shortly” to “imminently” today? That would be an improvement to many minds.
The Secretary of State for Health last October asked the Chief Medical Officer to review the impact of too much social media use on children’s mental health and draw up guidance to help patients. Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, suggested that Ministers should consider taxing social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter to,
“help stem the tide of mental ill-health”,
“at least help pick up the pieces”.
That is all heading in the right direction, and I hope it demonstrates the White Paper’s direction of travel. However, where is the promised interim review from the Chief Medical Officer?
In her report last year, Who Knows What About Me?, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, set out a series of recommendations on what our policy-makers should do to protect children. As advocated by Carnegie UK Trust, she believes that a statutory duty of care should govern relations between social media companies and the audiences they target. Recently, Ofcom has argued for tech companies such as Facebook and Google to be regulated in the same way as the mobile phone and broadband industry. I do not believe that this goes far enough, but it is interesting nevertheless that Ofcom, which is not known for its proactivity in this area, is prepared to argue for that. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has said that the Home Office is considering the idea of an online safety commissioner. Those are all good indications.
Of course, many broadcasters have also got together to call for the independent regulation of online platforms’ operations in the UK. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, who has been almost as redoubtable a campaigner in this area as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. Last year, doteveryone produced a report entitled Regulating for Responsible Technology—Capacity, evidence and redress: a new system for a fairer future. As a number of noble Lords mentioned, the NSPCC has come up with an interesting combined scheme with suggestions for not just a duty of care but a regulator to enforce a set of compulsory standards through that duty. What the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said about the possible ingredients of that was very good. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford mentioned the House of Lords Communications Select Committee, of which he is a member. We all await with bated breath what I hope will be a worthy successor to its excellent report, Growing Up with the Internet.
It is becoming clear that we need the Government’s internet safety White Paper to be much more strategic and comprehensive in nature, and to have real teeth in terms of standards, regulation, transparency of reporting and enforcement. To cap it all, if the Government have not written the White Paper already, I hope that they will take serious note of the excellent 5Rights paper, Towards an Internet Safety Strategy, for which the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, was responsible. It sets out seven pillars of a safety strategy in a comprehensive framework. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, my noble friend Lord Storey, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and other noble Lords have emphasised, it is down to the Government to regulate this area. The Government should absolutely be proactive here.
As my noble friend Lady Grender stated so eloquently in the November debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, this is about recognising that parents can do only so much to protect their children from online harms. I am the parent of an online gamer and the uncle of a pioneering addiction researcher, so I am particularly aware of some of the issues here. Of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, is the expert, but the former Facebook president backed her. He let the cat out of the bag by stating that social networks had been designed to “exploit” the psychological vulnerabilities of their users, and that “dopamine hits” are built in to create addiction. That is what the algorithms are designed to deliver. It applies to gambling and gaming just the same.
We heard from a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Watkins and Lady Greenfield, about screen time. It is very instructive, is it not, that so many senior tech executives in Silicon Valley send their children to Waldorf schools—the equivalent of our Rudolf Steiner schools—which limit screen time? They believe that screen time has a major impact. I am not sure that I buy what techUK said in its briefing to us about the impact of screen time. The jury may be out on this, but I am afraid that I am pretty sure in what direction it is going.
We might pick and choose which regulator would be specific to this area. It could be the ICO, which has been very effective in the data field, it could be Ofcom or it could be a special commissioner. Nevertheless, we need to make sure that that body has the right resources and that we put the responsibility on to a single organisation so that we know who is accountable.
I do not have time to follow up on many of the points made by my noble friend Lord Storey about education, but it is absolutely crucial that our children are digitally literate—indeed, it is important that adults are digitally literate. That can be achieved in part through PSHE and partly through the kind of creative education that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about. However, ranging more widely, I would mention again the doteveryone organisation, because its identification of digital blind spots and how we are targeted by social media and digital technology is extremely important. We have to make sure that this is not just the responsibility of our teachers, and that we have in place other mechanisms to ensure that we achieve a high level of digital literacy. I have a huge amount of time not only for doteveryone but for people like the Good Things Foundation, which is doing a great deal in the community in this respect. We must ensure that we know who has power over our children, what values are in play and when that power is exercised. It is vital to the future of our children, to the proper functioning of our society and to the maintenance of public trust.
My Lords, this has been an extraordinary debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and I met on the internet, or at least in a debate on the internet. I had responsibilities thrust upon me that I was quite unprepared for when the Data Protection Bill came to this House. There were three female Members of the House, the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding, Lady Kidron and Lady Lane-Fox. The three graces were truly extraordinary in providing the educational material that I took away, most of which I had been ignorant of before. It is so nice to see sitting beside the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, who once upon a time I interviewed when she arrived in startling fashion on a motorbike and in leather gear. It is good to see her in her place. She has extraordinary expertise and I do not know what kind of neuroscience it takes to produce the results that she has clearly mastered.
Last week, we had a debate about the influence of sport and the arts on the well-being of children, so this issue is clearly in the air. We do ourselves no favours if we simply forget the fragility of the young. I have always felt that poetry can tell us about how children have within them the capacity to flourish but also the readiness to live and die. Dylan Thomas wrote a famous short story about a visit to Swansea beach and he said it all:
“But over all the beautiful beach I remember most the children playing, boys and girls tumbling, moving jewels, who might never be happy again. And ‘happy as a sandboy’ is true as the heat of the sun”.
We must hold on to a picture of the child who is ready to become an adult and inhabit a world that the rest of us would want to warn them about. We must treasure the moment of a child being not quite there yet. I love the spring. I love flowers in bud. I love everything that has potential rather than the actual. It is that potential which I hope we can keep in mind as we talk about these things here today.
Since that meeting on the internet, I have made it my business to become more educated about something I was so ignorant of. My latest incursion into that field is to read this extraordinary book, Democracy Hacked: Political Turmoil and Information Warfare in the Digital Age by Martin Moore. It truly is an eye-opener about not just the potential but the real danger that faces us. Now I am retired, I never buy a book other than on the basis of two good reviews, one of which said:
“The digital age was supposed to be democratic, but under Google, Facebook and Twitter it has become a quest for profit at any cost”.
Let me read just one paragraph from the bit of the book that looks at young people and education:
“Tech CEOs know nothing in particular about education, for another thing”— he had been talking about the health service—
“but are canny enough to see that it is a huge potential revenue centre, if only they could persuade schools to use their software and computers. Actually, Google is already doing a very good job of that. By mid-2017, the majority of schoolchildren in America were using Google’s education apps, which of course track the activity of every child, creating a store of data that—who knows?—might come in useful when those children grow up to be attractive targets for advertising”.
These are the algorithms to which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred.
We have aired well enough the dangers and our fears for the uncritical use of these various modes of imparting information. Various learned bodies have given it their attention too. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, about the report from the Royal College of Paediatrics. It talks about the impact of children who lose parental control, are compulsive in their use of media, indulge in self-harm and suicide, et cetera—a whole list of stuff—but prefaces that list of potential difficulties by admitting that research into and training on the concept of addiction and gaming is needed. We can pick up the remarks about gambling by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and others. I have made the point in previous debates that the research deficit is worrying. We need to have empirical research and to dedicate real resource to accumulating it in a managed way so that we can all use and learn from it.
I must not go on, because we have run on longer than we should have, and I will try to be responsible. I read in the Library briefing that:
“Children see as many as nine junk food adverts during one 30-minute episode of their favourite TV shows, so it’s not surprising this leads them to pester for, buy and eat more unhealthy foods”.
It seems the world of advertising is geared towards getting profit from whatever strata of society it can, including children and young people and at the expense of their well-being.
I will respond to hints and body language from across the Floor. We attended a meeting earlier this week where the Secretary of State promised a significant piece of legislation that will be all-encompassing, the first in the world and the greatest ever made. We will, of course, measure success as it unfolds. That meeting has put me in a position to be able to inform the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, of the real meaning of “shortly”. But I believe that is a responsibility for the Minister, and I leave that to him now.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for curtailing his remarks—I sometimes feel that he could go on for a lot longer. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for convening a debate on this important subject and for discussing it with me beforehand. Finally, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I will race through my response because I want to leave a minute or two for the noble Baroness to respond.
We all agree that the internet offers a huge range of opportunities and benefits. However, as we heard today, there are legitimate concerns about the relationship that young people have with digital technology and the impact it can have on their health and well-being. A great deal of work is taking place across government, and I will come to some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on that. Work is also ongoing in the tech sector, health services and the education sector to ensure that young people can access the benefits of the internet safely. However, we recognise that more research is required to better understand the impact that the digital world can have on health and well-being. This is new technology, changing before our eyes, so it is not surprising that we are experiencing unintended consequences, nor that the evidence is incomplete and sometimes contradictory, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned in his excellent speech.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, was a bit dismissive of the digital charter. However, through the charter we have already seen age verification, age-appropriate design, data ethics and innovation bodies set up, the Green Paper and hours of interaction within the sector. There is of course more to do, and I will come to that in a minute, but we have not been doing nothing in the meantime. The principle is ambitious—to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online—and we want to achieve it. That will include taking specific steps to support children and young people.
The forthcoming joint DCMS and Home Office online harms White Paper will be published this winter. It will set out a range of non-legislative and—I say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin—legislative measures detailing how we will tackle online harms. It will set clear responsibilities for technology companies to keep all UK citizens safe, particularly children and other vulnerable users. There are, however, difficult lines to be drawn between liberties, freedom of speech, the freedom of the internet and protecting the public. We will therefore continue to encourage participation as we further develop our proposals. As has been mentioned, the Secretary of State had a useful first meeting open to all Peers on Tuesday this week, and we will encourage further discussion with Peers as the process goes on. I will say more about the White Paper in a minute.
We spend a lot of time in this House and at the DCMS talking about harms, especially to children, but it is important that we acknowledge the benefits of digital technology and social media. As my noble friend Lady Redfern said, it is about balance. The technology enables young people to access educational resources, make social connections, build relationships and demonstrate their creativity. It has impacted every area of our lives: the genie is out of the bottle and we cannot put it back. We therefore need to find solutions.
While we recognise the benefits, we also understand the concerns about the impact that digital technology may have on young people’s physical and mental well-being. The impact may relate to the device itself or to the content being accessed. For example, we know that parents and professionals are concerned that digital technology can lead to a lack of sleep and a lack of exercise, both of which are well documented as playing an important role in maintaining good health and well-being. There are also concerns about the impact of specific online harms which may not be illegal, such as cyberbullying, the encouragement of self-harm and online grooming. More generally, there are concerns about the impact of celebrity culture, disinformation and the pressure to live up to unrealistic portrayals of other people’s lives.
We have seen in recent years that the technology industry can deal with some of those harmful impacts through technical solutions and guidance—for example, filters and new well-being tools—and parents can use apps to set controls to limit their children’s access. Some of the big technology companies have provided resources for teachers and parents, so they are doing something. However, I am not suggesting that this will get them off the hook.
We recognise that companies can do more and, in particular, our internet safety strategy consultation highlighted that users, civil society organisations and professionals working with children felt that platforms needed to do more to manage the content and behaviour on their platforms. In addition, more can be done to make technical tools more effective and guidance more accessible.
The online harms White Paper I have mentioned will concentrate on supporting everyone’s ability to access the benefits of the internet while staying safe. In answer partly to the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, it will consider how we will protect children and vulnerable people in particular, and outline measures targeted at improving children’s safety online specifically.
Although we have had some success working with companies at a voluntary level, legislation is necessary to ensure that progress is extended across a greater range of platforms—we are not talking about only social media—and replicated in countering a wider range of online harms, and to give confidence to the public, which is important, that standards apply to and are enforceable on all platforms.
The White Paper will establish a government-wide approach to online safety, delivering the digital charter’s ambitions of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, while leading the world in innovation-friendly regulation that supports the growth of the tech sector. It is a complex area and we are taking a thorough and traditional policy approach. We had the publication of the Green Paper, a consultation and the Government’s response, and now the White Paper which will precede legislation.
The noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones, Lord Bichard and Lord Storey, implied that progress was slow. However, this is a complex area so we are taking it at a reasonable measure. We expect and earnestly hope that we will be able to legislate, I have been asked to say “imminently” rather than “shortly”, but I have been around long enough not to get involved in that game. At least I did not say “in due course”. We wish to proceed and get to legislation once the White Paper has been discussed.
We are also engaging with industry, civil society, peers and academia, who sit at the heart of our operation, which we hope will enable us to develop world-leading law that is future-proof. As well as setting out the expectations for the tech industry, it will highlight the role of education and technical solutions in supporting young people online, and will build on the important work which the Department for Education has already taken forward in relation to ensuring that children are taught about online safety in schools.
Let me turn to what we know about these problems. There are, rightly, concerns about the impact of digital technology on young people’s health and well-being. We realise the need to build evidence about specific harms and to ensure that consistent advice is available. As has been mentioned, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has commissioned a systematic evidence review of the impact of social media use on children’s and young people’s mental health. This review covers cyberbullying, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, and we understand the issues around safeguarding in this respect. It covers online gaming, sleep problems and problematic internet use—also known as internet addiction—where there is a social impact.
I have found the evidence, particularly as described in the media, confusing and sometimes contradictory. The only overwhelming view seems to be that we should not look at a screen before we go to bed—which, incidentally, most people should do earlier for optimal health. We are continuing to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Secretary of State there, a former DCMS Secretary of State, knows about the issues concerning digital.
I shall try to deal with a few questions quickly as I have not got much time. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned education. I reassure them that we think that the arts are very important in that. In fact, quite a lot of work is being done in the Department of Health about arts for health. Although we are behind this and are making the case in government, we hope we have the Department of Health with us on that.
Perhaps I should start on the questions asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans about gambling as this is the third day running I have been talking about this. I shall be very brief because I have a lot to get through. In 2017, the Gambling Commission set out its continued commitment to tackle issues arising from a potential convergence between gaming and gambling, and to look at developments such as skins betting and social casino gambling. In September 2018, the Gambling Commission, along with 16 other regulators from Europe and the USA, signed a declaration which outlined common concerns about gaming and gambling. It is also seeking to work with the video games industry to raise awareness of this.
The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, asked about online gaming and addiction. The response to the Internet Safety Strategy outlined how we will work with online platforms and agencies, such as the Video Standards Council Rating Board, trade bodies and others, to continue to improve. He can look at that. I am not going to go through it in detail now.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked what we are going with regard to loot boxes. The Gambling Commission has strong powers. We are aware of the concerns that entertainment products such as video games could encourage gambling-like behaviour, so we will look at evidence around that very carefully. The Gambling Commission is aware of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the importance of communication, and my noble friend Lord Lucas talked about parents. It is important that we do a lot to help parents because they may not have the skills needed to supervise what their children are doing. That was certainly highlighted in the Internet Safety Strategy consultation. We were keen to receive more information on data protection, mental health impacts, et cetera. The new UK Council for Internet Safety will be tasked by the Government to review current online safety materials and to identify any gaps. One problem is that parents frequently express an interest but do not turn up to schools, for example, when these things are discussed, so we will have to be imaginative in looking at how we can help parents. The Chief Medical Officer is going to consider providing advice for parents in spring 2019, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned. Also, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recently published The Health Impacts of Screen Time: A Guide for Clinicians and Parents, which the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked about.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, asked whether we were dealing with disinformation in the online harms White Paper or in another way. The UK Government take the issue of online manipulation very seriously, and tackling disinformation is already a key pillar of the digital charter. We will explore how we can use measures in the White Paper to address its harmful impact on society. I can also tell the noble Baroness that, as I mentioned before, we are not confining the online harms White Paper to social media.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford talked about safety by design. That is absolutely critical and we agree with it. We will get updates from tech companies that are developing new products to ensure that internet safety, cybersecurity and data protection are all part of the design process.
I am afraid that I have to stop. I have a lot more to say and will write to noble Lords, but I want to leave a couple of minutes for the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I thank noble Lords for all their questions, and I realise that we have more to do. I finish by saying that we are committed to ensuring that the UK is the safest place to be online and we will work with a wide range of partners, including the tech industry, civil society and online safety experts, to ensure that young people can fully access the benefits that the digital world can bring safely and with confidence that tech companies and platforms will act in a responsible manner.
My Lords, this has turned into something of a “Today” programme moment, where, having been asked the question, you have no time at all to answer. I am very sorry about that but I thank everybody for their contributions. It has been a hugely interesting debate and very diverse. The one thing that I would like to say in concluding—
My Lords, the time allotted for this debate has now elapsed and I must put the Question to the House.
House adjourned at 5.26 pm.