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Protecting Children from Harmful Online Content

– in the Scottish Parliament on 14th January 2016.

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Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-15111, in the name of Stewart Maxwell, on protecting children from harmful online content. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament is concerned about children and vulnerable people accessing potentially harmful content online, including in the West Scotland region; welcomes the announcement that the UK music industry, Vevo and YouTube have agreed that the pilot to age-rate music videos by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) should now be made permanent for videos produced by artists signed to major UK labels and that independent labels will also take part in this voluntary initiative; notes that, according to BBFC-commissioned research, 78% of parents value age ratings on online music videos and 75% would like online channels to link those ratings to parental controls; notes calls for US and other non-UK record labels to voluntarily submit online music videos for classification by the BBFC and also for more online platforms to carry prominent age ratings and content advice for music videos classified by the BBFC and link those age ratings to parental controls; welcomes the decision of Scotland’s four mobile networks, EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, to place mobile content that would be age-rated 18 or R18 by the BBFC behind access controls and internet filters to restrict access to that content by people under 18, and further notes calls for similar protections to be put in place for public WiFi and home broadband to ensure consistency of approach in protecting children from harmful content online.

Photo of Graeme Pearson Graeme Pearson Labour

I stand in support of the motion by Stewart Maxwell and congratulate him on bringing this important issue to the attention of Parliament. The issue of protecting children from harmful content is easily manipulated in terms of questions about whether we are being nanny statish in the way in which we approach the issue, and whether we are creating a problem where many people would say that freedom of access is pre-eminent. I offer the view that we are not being overly protective. Stewart Maxwell rehearsed for us in his speech issues that are of great concern to us.

Looking around the chamber, I hope that I am not being unkind to the members who are here when I say that the issue would probably be more productively discussed at the Scottish Youth Parliament, whose members would understand the issues a great deal better than the members who sit alongside me today, given our average age; SYP members are closer to the issue. I hope that I am not being unkind to my colleagues, but there is not only a lifetime of difference between our aspects, but centuries of difference between the approach that a 16 or 17-year-old would take to the matters that we are discussing and the approach that we are trying to develop here today.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

As one of the younger members in the chamber, I agree with Mr Pearson’s point that it should also be for the Scottish Youth Parliament to have this debate; perhaps that will foster a wider contribution from Scotland. However, as a younger member and as someone who has two young children, I think that it is also relevant and important that this Parliament, and other Parliaments and Assemblies in the UK, should have the same discussion.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I will give you a little extra time, Mr Pearson.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

I thank Stewart Maxwell for bringing this topical debate to the chamber. I have been looking at the consequences for a long time.

I welcome the conversation around classification. Classification has been long overdue, not only in the movie industry but in the games industry, as Graeme Pearson said. As the mother of two sons, I have always been a bit alarmed at the content of some of the games and music videos to which my sons were exposed, which seemed to normalise as aspects of everyday life things that should not be normalised.

I will touch on a topic that I have spoken about in the chamber a few times: the consequences of our amazing ability to access anything that we want, anytime, anyplace, anywhere, via 3G or 4G or a wi-fi connection. The ability to do that is valuable in opening up the world to our young people and giving them insights into so many things. However, there is a dark side to it, too—the technology can be used against young people, who can be exposed to things that are alarming and frightening and which normalise perhaps abnormal and scary behaviour. I want to talk about such consequences in the debate.

At a very early stage of the debate, I raised in the chamber the issues of revenge porn, the sharing of intimate images, the objectification of women and the use of such imagery to normalise a pattern of behaviour that makes people think that it is okay to get involved in such things.

The issue for me is that the sharing of images can lead to young people being groomed online, or being bullied into sharing intimate images of themselves that are then used on shaming sites. Some of those sites have such derogatory names that I will not repeat them in the chamber, because they do not merit the attention—“shaming sites” is a catch-all term.

For some young people, that has led to serious self-harm or attempted suicide. In some well-documented cases, it has led to the suicide of young people who have been shamed so much by the sharing of intimate images across all platforms, whether on the internet or on social media.

I will focus my final remarks on the responsibility that internet and social media providers bear to some extent for such consequences. I know of many young people who have found it very difficult to have comments, mocked-up photographs or actual photographs and images of themselves removed from internet sites. The internet provider that they use in this country may be registered in another country and may therefore fall under a different jurisdiction. In that regard, there is an issue with the use of international law to protect our children. That is a real worry for me, and it must be looked at seriously. Internet and social media providers should take a leaf out of the BBFC’s book; they should look at the work that it is doing and consider taking forward some of its ideas.

The time has come when we need much stronger policies in this area, not only for the young people who access such information and use it to bully or shame, or who receive information that causes them desperate alarm, but for us as parents or as members of the community. How can we put pressure on organisations to ensure that when our young people go into the amazing world of online media, with all the benefits that that brings them, they are not exposed to some of the dark, scary stuff that is in there? How can we ensure that if they are exposed to it, they are able to handle it? As the parents and adults in young people’s lives, we must be equipped with information to ensure that we can support them when they have that type of experience.

The debate has been a long time coming, but we should not stop debating the issues. Technology moves on at a great speed, and we must be fleet of foot and move at that speed too. I would be keen to hear views on that.

Finally, the European Union is looking at taking action on a Europe-wide basis, and we should keep a weather eye on what is happening there. If we can take action across boundaries and borders, we will remove the problem of internet providers being registered in a different country, which enables them to say, “It’s not our problem—it’s a different jurisdiction.” That is the direction in which I would like to go on the matter. I thank Stewart Maxwell for bringing the debate to the chamber. We should continue to focus on the issue.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I congratulate Stewart Maxwell on bringing this extremely important debate to Parliament. I also pay tribute to the preceding speakers in the debate, who have made some excellent points.

The fact that children and young people are accessing potentially harmful content online is a matter that concerns us all. That is particularly the case with music videos, given their wide-ranging popularity and the fact that, until very recently, they did not have age ratings. Parents are clearly right to be worried about the ease of access to such videos and the challenges that that presents, as Christina McKelvie has just set out.

It is well known that some music videos contain explicit violent and sexual imagery that is totally unsuitable, so it is of paramount importance that parents are empowered with the tools—which Graeme Pearson spoke about—to enable them to make informed choices for their children.

Stewart Maxwell’s motion refers to the research that the BBFC has undertaken, stating that

“78% of parents value age ratings on online ... videos”.

In addition, 70 per cent of parents of children under the age of 12 are worried about their children being exposed to inappropriate content. Further, the BBFC found that as many as 60 per cent of the children who were surveyed said that they had watched music videos that they know their parents would not approve of. The message is coming from children just as much as from adults, and the combination of the views of parents and their children can take us quite a long way forward in trying to address the issue.

In October 2014, the UK Government launched its pilot programme—as Stewart Maxwell mentioned—in conjunction with Vevo, YouTube and the major UK music labels to introduce the new ratings system. The early signs are that that is proving to be very successful. I am pleased that that successful pilot scheme has captured the imagination of other parts of the music industry in the UK. I take this opportunity to commend the BBFC, YouTube and Vevo, as well as the wider UK music industry, for the voluntary proactive role that they have played. The people who have come to the Parliament to help us become more informed about the matter also deserve great credit.

Classification is a positive step in preventing children from viewing harmful content online. Christina McKelvie made an important point in that regard about children being able to understand the choices that they have to make, which is something that has to get back to parents. Graeme Pearson made the perhaps ageist but nonetheless sensible point that we should be taking advice from those who are perhaps a bit closer to the issue than some of the rest of us.

Of course, that is not to say that there is not a great deal more work to do. One vital step is to ensure that age ratings are linked to online parental controls. Stewart Maxwell mentioned the phone companies’ activities, which are also very positive.

I warmly welcome the progress that has been made to date.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I will say this now and will probably never say it again: I commend the work of the UK Prime Minister on this issue. I know that he has personally taken a very close interest and intervened directly in it—I think that his wife might have had some role in that. He has directly intervened to support work on the issue being pushed forward. I ask Liz Smith, as a Conservative member, to urge him to redouble his efforts to ensure that we spread the work to not just independent producers of music videos in the UK but those in other countries. He can talk to them in a way that none of us can. I am thinking particularly of the US and of ensuring that US companies and artists voluntarily sign up to the same classification scheme.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Mr Maxwell’s kind comment about the Prime Minister is a true reflection of David Cameron’s interest in the issue. With regard to Mr Maxwell’s request, I think that we will be pushing at an open door because I know for a fact that the Prime Minister is very determined on the issue; the Minister for Children and Young People has probably had discussions with him on it. However, I certainly undertake to pass on what Mr Maxwell said.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the closing speech from the minister, Aileen Campbell. Minister, you have seven minutes or thereby.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

Like all the other speakers in the debate, I am grateful to Stewart Maxwell for bringing this important issue to the chamber and creating the space for us to contribute to what has been a responsible debate that allows us to consider what more we need to do to keep children safe.

The protection of children’s wellbeing is the responsibility of us all. We each have a duty to take the steps that we can to ensure that children and young people are not exposed to harm. That is the case as much in our increasingly digital world as it is in our homes, schools, businesses and communities.

Although matters of internet regulation remain reserved to the United Kingdom Government, I continue to encourage it to collaborate fully with us through the UK council on child internet safety in recognition of Scotland’s devolved responsibilities in key areas of internet safety. I say that because it took a bit of work for the Scottish Government to ensure that we were always involved in those discussions. Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s clear commitment to the issue, there needs to be an understanding that internet safety transcends boundaries and that it is important for us, with our devolved responsibilities for keeping children safe, to have the door to those discussions always open.

Like Graeme Pearson and Stuart McMillan, I recognise the need for young people to have input to the discussion. As I think Graeme Pearson was trying to say without offending us about our ages, young people are not necessarily to be found on Facebook, because that is often where their grandparents are. As new things develop online, we need to know where our young people are online—just as we want to know where our young people are when they are offline. We need to stay ahead of the game in that regard, which is why it is important to get young people involved in the discussions. They are the ones who can inform us about what is important to young people and how they are communicating with their peers.

Like Stewart Maxwell, Liz Smith and others, I welcome the voluntary steps that are being taken by the UK music industry to ensure that music videos are given age ratings by the British Board of Film Classification. I am committed to ensuring that we continue to work with the BBFC, as part of its advisory consultative committee, and with other partners within the industry to see whether more can be done to persuade companies that are based overseas and which have not yet committed to the initiative to do so.

Allied to that is the decision by the four main mobile networks to place content that is rated 18 or R18 by the BBFC behind access controls, meaning that such content can be excluded by parental controls. Those are important signals that the industry is taking seriously the valid concerns of parents about the ease with which children can access inappropriate content. I also welcome the scheme that allows businesses to display the friendly wifi symbol to show that the wifi provided by them is filtered and safe for children and young people to use.

Although those developments are welcome, they should not ever allow for complacency. There are still myriad ways in which children might be exposed to harmful content, whether it be on the covers of newspapers or magazines that are displayed in shops and newsagents within a child’s eye line, or online. The most significant online risks faced by our children and young people will not easily be eliminated by increasing parental controls or filters. The increase in peer-to-peer sharing of indecent images—revenge porn, as Christina McKelvie said—the growth in live streaming of child sexual exploitation, grooming for the purposes of blackmail and exploitation and the objectification of women all happen on platforms that lie outside the specifics that are mentioned in the motion.

The majority of content that is uploaded and online is not subject to a classification system that lends itself to parental controls or effective filters. A recent Ofcom survey demonstrated that many parents choose not to employ parental controls, so although parents want more control, in some cases and for many reasons, they are not taking that action. The reasons for that are many and varied. Some parents feel that their children can be trusted without the need for additional controls, while others point out that their children are never unsupervised while they are online. However, a significant proportion reported concerns that setting up controls appeared to be complicated and beyond their technical know-how. Industry therefore has a continued role in ensuring that such controls are accessible to as many people as wish to use them.

There is also a job of work for us to do. That is why the Scottish Government’s digital participation strategy focuses efforts on helping everyone to develop the skills and confidence to become active digital citizens, and on giving the parents who have such concerns help, should they wish to use it. The Scottish stakeholder group for child internet safety will work with Police Scotland and other key partners in co-ordinating our response to the challenges in conjunction with the work that is being undertaken as a result of our national action plan on child sexual exploitation.

We must make it absolutely clear to perpetrators of online crime that the full force of the law will be brought to bear on them. We must not forget that the responsibility for crimes being committed online lies with those committing the offence, and we must ensure that deterrents are as robust as possible.

Moreover, the national sexual crimes unit within the Crown Office is doing important work on increasing the number of successful convictions of sexual crime, and Police Scotland’s national child abuse investigation unit complements that work by providing consistent, high-quality support for robust investigations into reports of complex child abuse and neglect, including child sexual exploitation and online child abuse.

We should also acknowledge the work that practitioners do to protect children every day, whether in education or other children’s services. Many examples of original and creative approaches are being developed by schools and youth groups to educate our children and young people about the risks in a meaningful way that engages with them where they are.

It is also important to remember that we must not demonise the internet. As many members have noted, children and young people use the internet in ways that are unimaginable to those of us who did not grow up in the digital age, and we all want to see a Scotland where children are encouraged and enabled to benefit from the huge opportunities that are offered by digital technologies. We do not want to push our young people into the dark and scary places that Christina McKelvie talked about by constantly demonising the internet. Our language and actions need to be appropriate.

In conclusion, I welcome the approaches that the industry has taken so far, while recognising that more can and should be done. Parental controls are important tools, but the use of technical controls must be seen as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, broader approaches that make it clear that parents do not shoulder the full weight of keeping children safe online. We must ensure that Scotland is seen as a hostile environment for online crimes, while promoting the digital world as being essential to our growth and prosperity, and encouraging and enabling all of our citizens to take part in online life to the fullest extent and to do that in the safest possible way.

Once again, I extend my thanks to Stewart Maxwell and the other members who have taken part in today’s debate. I look forward to continuing our dialogue as we strive to ensure that our children can grow up safe from harm, especially in the online world.

13:05 Meeting suspended.

14:00 On resuming—

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I am delighted to introduce this debate on the very important and topical subject of protecting our children and other vulnerable groups from harmful online content. First, I welcome the announcement that the pilot by the British Board of Film Classification to put an age rating on music videos made by artists signed in the United Kingdom is to be made permanent. That has been agreed by not only major music labels Sony Music, Universal Music and Warner Music, but YouTube and Vevo. It represents a big step forward in the regulation of online content.

The internet has really only been available in homes for about 20 years. It is a new and mostly unregulated medium. While it has many advantages, the lack of regulation has created some corresponding problems. Those problems have been compounded in recent years by the increasing availability of mobile devices such as tablets and smart phones, which mean that children who might before have been sitting at the family’s personal computer in the living room are now in their bedrooms, where their viewing is entirely unsupervised.

Music videos only really began in the 1980s, with the rise of MTV, but they quickly became an integral part of pop songs. Quite often, a powerful video could help to sell a rather weak song. Music videos make a strong impression and sell records or downloads, which gives those videos great commercial value. The drive for sales has led to increasingly extreme lyrics and videos; the accessibility of the internet has contributed to that. Songs and images that could never have been commercially successful in the past because they were too explicit to have been shown on television can be made and streamed on the internet to be viewed by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

In the past, people producing music and videos that they wanted to sell to young people had to get past gatekeepers to access radio and television stations, through which they could communicate with young people. The radio and television stations were licensed and regulated and the organisations that ran the media companies were answerable for the content that they broadcast. Nowadays, music and video producers can talk directly to a child without the parents scrutinising or authorising what is being shown or said.

We are all aware of how impressionable children, particularly young children, can be, and of the highly sexualised, violent and, worst of all, sexually violent content of certain music videos. I am sure that that is a great concern to many of us. Analysis of academic research into music videos has found that women—disturbingly, particularly black women—are routinely portrayed in a hyper-sexualised fashion. That objectification of women, particularly along racial lines, is extremely unhealthy for boys and for girls and it is right that we shield children from those disturbing images, specifically those which involve criminality such as drug taking, which is a particular issue in some rap music videos.

I am, therefore, heartened that after the success of the British Board of Film Certification’s pilot for major labels, independent labels in the United Kingdom are now taking part in a six-month trial to submit their videos to the BBFC for age rating. I hope that they follow the example of the major labels in making that classification permanent.

I was interested to note that, during the initial trial of the major labels, which took place in 2015, of the 132 videos that were reviewed, 56 were classed as suitable for children aged 12 or under and were given a 12 classification; 53 were given a 15 classification; and one video was classified as an 18. That sample shows that about 50 per cent of the music videos that are produced in a six-month period by UK-signed artists are unsuitable for people under the age of 15. However, I would be surprised if they had not been viewed by a large percentage of children under that age.

One of the major advantages of this system of classification is that it is the same as that for films and is simple and widely understood. Everyone with children will be able to interpret the classifications immediately. A consultation that was carried out by the BBFC in 2013 of more than 10,000 people across the UK found that the public has great confidence in the classifications. The public agree with the BBFC’s classifications in more than 90 per cent of cases; 95 per cent of parents with children who are under the age of 15 check the BBFC classification; and 84 per cent of parents with children who are aged between six and 15 consider that the BBFC is effective at using age-rating classification to protect children from unsuitable content. The system enjoys a high level of public confidence and support, and that is another heartening feature of this extension of the BBFC’s classification system to music videos.

It is interesting to note that independent research into the pilot that was commissioned by the BBFC shows that 78 per cent of Britons would value age ratings on online music videos, and that up to 60 per cent of people aged between 10 and 17 are watching music videos that they think their parents would not approve of.

The rating system would provide clear guidelines for parents and children and make it easier for parents to impose and enforce rules in homes across the country about what can be viewed. I believe that many children will also welcome the classification system. I am sure that there are young children who have been shocked and distressed by some of the images that they happen to have seen and would welcome the fact that they have the security to be able to watch a video in the knowledge that they will not be upset by what it might contain.

Let me be clear: this is not about banning material that is suitable for adults; it is about ensuring that material that is not suitable for children is not available to children.

Another heartening development is the decision by Scotland’s four mobile networks—EE, O2, Three and Vodafone—to place mobile content that would be rated 18 or R18 by the BBFC behind access controls and internet filters. It is worth noting that R18 is a special category for films that are particularly strong or explicit. R18 DVDs cannot be ordered by mail order, and have to be viewed in a specially licensed cinema or sold over the counter in a specially licensed shop. It is particularly important, therefore, that that material is not available to children. The BBFC is the independent regulator of mobile content and the system that has been voluntarily adopted by the mobile operators means that filters can be put in place by parents to restrict the ability of people under the age of 18 to access online pornography and harmful sites such as pro-anorexia sites from their mobile phones. Nevertheless, there is a problem in that children can access those sites via their devices through public wi-fi in places such as coffee shops and shopping centres.

Different standards apply depending on how the information is accessed, whether through a public wi-fi system, mobile networks or home broadband. I believe that the time has now come to put stricter controls in place so that age ratings apply to accessing information via public wi-fi, in order to create a consistent system without loopholes that protects our children and other vulnerable people, no matter where they are accessing the internet from.

The BBFC’s classification system is clearly a step in the right direction, but it applies only to online music videos for artists signed to labels in the UK. Non-UK-signed artists are not covered by the classification system and that is a problem. I therefore call on labels in the United States of America, from where so much popular music emanates, to voluntarily submit their music videos to the BBFC for classification, particularly as some of the most controversial music videos come from the USA.

The BBFC is an independent non-government body that was set up in 1912, so for more than 100 years it has been providing guidance for parents on the suitability of films and, later on—in fact, since 1984—guidance on the suitability of videos for children. It is to be congratulated on extending its role to online content to keep up with changes in technology, and I am pleased to commend the work of the BBFC to the chamber, while at the same time reminding colleagues across the chamber that there is still some way to go in ensuring a consistent approach to protecting our children from inappropriate materials online.

Photo of Graeme Pearson Graeme Pearson Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I agree wholeheartedly with what has been said. I am not suggesting for a moment that it is not a matter for us, and I hope that I did not give the impression that that was the case. It is important, but we need to listen to those in the Youth Parliament environment, because they have things to tell us that we are probably not aware of, particularly in the context of the technologies that we speak of. We are somewhat distant from the modern developments that occur almost daily, although we need to try to keep up to date with those developments.

Stewart Maxwell has brought to our attention the important impacts that arise from the access to the internet that can be gained as a result of new technological developments. Harmful content online demands that all practical steps necessary to protect children must be taken. In this fast-changing world of new technologies, Government and other authorities should keep abreast of the developments in order to maintain security.

I invite Stewart Maxwell to consider that not only children but vulnerable adults need means of protection, because they can be influenced by what they might see on devices such as tablets. He touched on the point that it is not solely in the music industry but in the games industry where access to extensive violence, particular attitudes and a culture impacts on individuals who then become imbued with similar views. Across the world, we have seen people who have spent extensive time viewing unpalatable images on the internet become involved in extreme violence and death.

This morning, I googled the subject of protecting children from harmful content. It took less than a second to get 92 million results. That is a matter of deep concern, yet The Herald reported in 2011 that only one in four parents in Scotland had initiated controls on their systems to limit the internet to try and protect those in their family from the distasteful images that might be available.

A standardised approach is necessary and the British Board of Film Classification provides a useful input in that regard. However, the authorities that oversee gaming should also standardise their approach with that of the BBFC.

I whole-heartedly support the motion.