Will the minister give us further information about how we might support parents in particular? I note that actions with parents and carers are highlighted. Adults will be one of the most difficult groups to educate and to reach. Of course, we all recognise that children are probably, in many senses, more expert than the adults are in the environment that we are talking about.
I thank Mr Stevenson for his intervention. He has somewhat pre-empted what I was going to speak about a little later, but I will respond to him directly now. I absolutely agree with him and I recognise the situations that he describes. As a parent, I sometimes find it difficult to relate to my daughter’s online activity on her tablet device. I would not class myself as being all that old, although others may disagree. At the same time, I recognise that the internet and how it is being used has moved on substantially over a short period and we must ensure that all society is able to cope with the pace of change and that we protect children as part of that work.
Our on-going engagement includes UK-wide discussions with social media companies, technology firms, young people, charities and mental health experts, focusing on industry responsibilities to society, how technology can improve safety, helping parents face up to and discuss dangers and how to help young people help themselves.
As we developed the action plan, we spoke to children and young people. They told us that one of their main concerns online is bullying. Any bullying is totally unacceptable and we should intervene early and deal with it quickly, whenever and wherever it happens.
Importantly, it is clear that online bullying should not be treated any differently to offline bullying—young people have told us that themselves. Online bullying—or cyberbullying as it is often referred to—is the same behaviour as offline bullying and it certainly does not feel any different to those who experience it.
The Scottish Government continues to fully fund respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, which provides direct support to local authorities, schools, youth groups and all those working with children and young people.
We expect all schools to develop and implement an anti-bullying policy, which should be regularly reviewed and updated. A school’s policy should reflect the overarching local authority policy and our refreshed anti-bullying guidance, the “National Approach to Anti-bullying for Scotland’s Children and Young People”, which will be published later this year.
We want all children and young people to learn tolerance, respect, equality and good citizenship to address and prevent prejudice, as well as to learn about healthy relationships, which are all relevant to both online and offline environments.
Education is one of the most important areas where we can work to promote internet safety for children and young people and we are committed to making sure that child internet safety is properly recognised in Scottish education. Children and young people will learn about the safe and responsible use of different technologies, including the internet and social media, as part of their broad general education under curriculum for excellence.
I am still making rookie mistakes one year on, Presiding Officer.
I welcome the minister’s comments about incorporating those elements into the broad general education, but can he elaborate on and provide some details about the training that will be undertaken by teachers who are already practising?
Mr Johnson makes a fair point. The Government is committed not only to ensuring that we review initial teacher education but to looking at the continuous professional development that is available to teachers and how we can make that more relevant. We have a number of programmes under way that focus on how we empower pupils and teachers in this regard, and I am more than happy to write to Mr Johnson with more detail on the specific programmes that are in place and to keep that matter under review.
Although I have made it clear that education is one of the most important areas where we can work to promote internet safety for children and young people, I also believe that, as I have highlighted to Mr Stevenson, empowering parents and carers to guide and support their child’s online activity is most definitely another. Smartphone and tablet ownership among children and young people is on the increase, and it means that they are accessing the internet everywhere they go, including their home. Ofcom recently reported that more than half of three to four-year-olds and 75 per cent of five to 15-year-olds use a tablet in their home, and that is in addition to their owning a smartphone and having access to a smart TV, game console, a desktop computer or laptop. It is therefore more important than ever that parents and carers feel confident in engaging in this activity.
In addition to its anti-bullying service, respectme delivers parent training sessions on internet safety across Scotland, providing practical advice to parents and carers on online settings and security. Indeed, there is a wide range of resources and opportunities out there for parents and carers that is provided by industry, third sector organisations and Police Scotland, but not all parents and carers are aware of those resources or know which ones to use. I have therefore committed to engaging with parent and carer organisations across Scotland to host a series of events aimed at empowering parents and carers to support their children’s online activity. That includes enabling parents and carers to feel confident about having open conversations with their children, encouraging them to communicate responsibly with their children and, through the promotion of the vast array of existing resources that I have outlined, letting them know where to go for help if they need it.
We also need to equip children and young people themselves to stay safe online. For a start, we need to ensure that all children and young people are fully armed with the knowledge of their rights and the skills that they need to use the internet safely. That includes an understanding of cyber-risks and threats at a time when we are experiencing unprecedented rates of cybercrime. Children and young people told us that the most important thing that would improve online safety for them would be support for building their personal resilience, so we will work with our partners to ensure that children and young people are supported to build their resilience online.
Young people also told us that talking about staying safe online through peer networks was one of the most effective ways of reaching them, and we continue to support Police Scotland’s choices for life be smart peer mentoring programme and to fund the mentors in violence prevention programme, both of which encourage young people to think carefully about their behaviour online and ensure that they remain safe and supported.
As we work to improve internet safety for children and young people, it will be vital for us to listen to their voices. The Scottish Government is proud to support the 5Rights campaign and has awarded £100,000 of funding to Young Scot to help place young people at the heart of the 5Rights coalition in Scotland and to support them in developing insights and making recommendations about rights in the digital world.
One of the rights that the 5Rights coalition has set out is the right to remove. What analysis has the Scottish Government done on the specific legislative powers that the Parliament—or indeed the UK Government—has with regard to enforcing that right? One of the key issues is that when content goes out into the public domain and is shared numerous times, it becomes very difficult to trace who actually owns it. How do young people know where to go to get that content off the internet once it has gone into the public domain? That is a really big area.
As an Internet Watch Foundation champion, I welcome the debate and acknowledge the excellent work that the Internet Watch Foundation carries out. Undoubtedly, it has one of the most successful hotlines in the world. It has reduced the amount of child sexual abuse content that is hosted in the UK from 18 per cent in 1996 to less than 1 per cent, since 2003. I thoroughly recommend that every member sign up to be an IWF champion. As Mark McDonald said, it carries out amazing work. I strongly urge people to do that.
The internet is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. I am sure that we all agree that we would be lost without our emails, social media and online shopping. People can access information in milliseconds in volumes that are beyond the capacity of our minds to quantify. The internet is a fantastic tool for educating children and young people, who can be virtually transported to the four corners of the world—to deserts, polar ice caps and mountains high—just with the use of Google Maps. They can watch inspirational speeches from the likes of the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill and can watch other monumental events in history on YouTube. They can learn to cook, learn a new language or videocall a friend on the other side of the world. The internet provides endless opportunities to broaden children’s minds and let their boundless imaginations flourish.
Although the internet provides that vast sea of opportunities for children and young people, we know that it has a sinister side, which has brought us here to have this debate. From the start, we need robust and concrete guidance for teachers, parents and guardians to ensure that children and young people are not harmed by the internet and the people who abuse it. I welcome the “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People”, which is a step forward in developing an effective way of supporting children and young people while tackling head on the problem of abuse on the internet. I hope that it helps children and young people who are affected by bullying. As the minister stated, that is at the core of the issue.
We must tackle the ever-increasing problem of cyberbullying, which has emerged over the past few years. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, one in three children has experienced cyberbullying. It is a serious problem that blights children’s lives, and it must be nipped in the bud. In years gone by, bullying mostly stopped at the school gate: children went home and could escape the problem. Sadly, in the digital age, the threat now reaches beyond that and into our homes. Children and young people can be bombarded with harmful texts and offensive messages on social media 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Explicit and inappropriate media have been sent to children and young people using apps such as Snapchat.
Underlying all those issues is the impact on children’s mental health. Children and young people who are abused online are often silenced by their abusers and are too scared to turn to their parents for help. The anxiety and stress that build up in children and young people are often things that they cannot describe or explain. That can leave them in the awful position of bottling things up, which results in mental health issues later down the line. Given that, I welcome the plan’s list of actions to tackle online grooming. Children and young people need to be informed of how to be aware when someone is not who they say they are.
If we are to ensure that our children and young people are safe online, it must be done in a collaborative way, with parents and teachers working together. We must properly implement the national action plan, but we must go further than that.
It is often easy—particularly for those of us who are of a generation that is slightly older than that of the minister—to be passive and not take an interest in how our children use the internet and social media. It is imperative that we strike the balance between monitoring our children’s activities and allowing them the freedom to explore the internet with the necessary knowledge to spot dangers and know how to avoid them. A robust set of guidance and advice would work well to ensure that we can educate parents, too, on the dangers that can arise from misuse of the internet.
Moreover, the guidance should encourage parents to learn which social media platforms are appropriate for their child. Given that one in five eight to 11-year-olds has access to some form of social media, it is more important than ever to make sure that parents are aware of what potential problems could arise from young children using social media platforms. Children and young people are often unaware of the pitfalls of having an online presence, so their parents have a duty to inform them and keep track of any posts.
On a constructive note, although the action plan is a positive step forward, it should go further. In order to support and assist parents in the ever-changing world of social media, the Scottish Government should provide a parent-friendly website, which could give advice on topics from social media security to spotting signs of online abuse.
As the plan mentions, teachers must also be better informed to educate children and young people on internet safety. As recently as yesterday, in the Education and Skills Committee trainee teachers highlighted the point that there is very little or nothing on internet safety in the postgraduate diploma in education course. I welcome the minister’s commitment today to provide proper training.
Another significant problem on which the action plan could go further is revenge pornography—the abhorrent and cruel act of sharing inappropriate images without permission. It has a massive negative impact on children’s self-esteem, mental health and perceptions of body image. Sexting and the issues associated with sending explicit images must be addressed.
During 2015-16 there were 1,392 counselling sessions on sexting, which is a 15 per cent increase on the previous year. That is very worrying and we simply cannot allow it to increase any further. Younger children who are forced to send images to an abuser often struggle to turn to a parent or teacher for help for fear of being given into trouble. As part of the plan, advice for children and parents must be available to help children who are victims of revenge pornography and sexting.
In conclusion, I welcome the plan than has been put forward by the minister. However, although it should be commended as a very positive step forward, it is delivery and implementation of the plan that are important. In the Conservative amendment, we mention that Parliament must be updated regularly on progress on implementation of the national action plan. That is crucial to ensure that real progress can be measured, and in order to identify areas where improvement needs to be speeded up.
It is vital that we can report back to constituents on the plan, because many parents want to see real action being taken on the matter. Furthermore, we would welcome a delivery timescale so that we can determine whether the action plan is being delivered on time, and to give better clarity to the public.
The plan does not mention the cost of implementation, so we would like that to be published in the near future. We have a duty to ensure that the plan is well adopted by all stakeholders in order that we can tackle and stop the problems that can arise so that our children and young people are safe online.
I move amendment S5M-05515.2, to insert after first “Young People;”:
“expects that the Scottish Government will update the Parliament regularly on the progress of the implementation of the plan;”.
I broadly agree with Mark McDonald and Annie Wells on the broad thread of internet safety for children and young people. I will concentrate my brief remarks on how young people grow up and learn as much as on the legal aspects and the issues of safety and prosecution that the minister and Annie Wells mentioned.
Without question, social media, the internet and the online presence that everyone now has are a double-edged sword. I do not know how many parents my colleagues across the chamber share time with, but parents will say that the internet is on the one hand the greatest thing that we have ever had and on the other hand the greatest pain in our lives, as we deal with the pressures on our children and young people and encourage them to have the resilience that we expect of them.
When I started looking into the issue last night, I found a
Times Educational Supplement Scotland investigation into it that began with a point that is important to bear in mind, as it gives us context. It stated that, in 370 BC,
“the Greek philosopher Socrates warned that this new-fangled business of writing would lead to forgetfulness in students if they no longer had to remember everything. The advent of the printing press in the 15th century and television in the 20th century sparked the same moral panic: technology was a dangerous force set to rob our young of their senses, turn brains to mush and leave society in ruins.”
Well, none of that happened—the opposite happened—and it will not happen with the internet, either. However, Mark McDonald and Annie Wells are right that, arguably, we need to put in place more safeguards with the internet than we have had to with learning to write, with the printing press or with television.
I am struck that not much research has been done on young people learning and growing up on the internet. The Government might wish to consider that for the future. However, the
Times Educational Supplement Scotland article that I referred to mentioned one social scientist who has observed that one problem area that is linked to the growth in the use of the internet is linguistic skills—the basic skills that we expect of our young people, such as the ability to listen to someone, concentrate on what they are saying, make eye contact and have human interaction. They said:
“It’s ... about the social cues that you get from people when they’re talking to you: non-verbal cues, body language, negotiation skills and turn-taking. You can’t get that from a computer.”
The same is true of a tablet or mobile phone, even when a parent is on FaceTime to their seven-year-old—or maybe especially then. There is much merit in those arguments.
The evidence is important to consider in thinking about how we develop the proposals in the action plan that we have heard about. We could go as far as the new President of France, who said in his election campaign that he would ban mobile phones in schools for all children under the age of 15—children would leave them at home and not take them to school. We could do that but, as we have lowered the voting age to 16, I suspect that it would be an extremely unpopular policy that no Government of any political persuasion would bring in. However, Macron makes a serious point, which teachers have also reflected to us, about the use of mobile phones in schools, what it means and how it invades life—and, more to the point, classes—and about the dangers that Annie Wells rightly highlighted. How do parents, carers, teachers and, above all, young people cope with the vast influx of information that is at their beck and call?
As has been mentioned, training and guidance are vital. That is why I was slightly taken aback by the evidence from young teachers to the Education and Skills Committee yesterday that their courses did not include training on internet safety—none of them dissented from that. That is not in the training of the cohort of men and women who will be the teachers of the future.
I am grateful for the point that the minister made, but I am looking for a change in the action plan or at least for consideration to be given to having an action point that specifically and clearly draws out the need for some kind of module in teacher training. All the controversy yesterday was about the fact that literacy forms only one component week of teacher training. Online safety could be said to be an equally important matter for training.
Page 14 of the minister’s action plan says:
“Children and young people will learn about the safe and responsible use of different technologies, including the internet and social media, as part of their broad general education under Curriculum for Excellence.”
The action plan is right about that, but it does not say from whom children will learn. I want the Government to ensure that teachers are properly supported in the future, which means supporting existing teachers, but as importantly, it means that knowledge and understanding should be built in earlier—during teacher training—and that should take place in time for the start of the new academic year.
The action plan describes the importance of resilience, and I hope that considerable attention will be given to exactly how that will be taken forward. That leads me to the second area in which I suggest to the minister that change is necessary, which concerns the use of youth workers to assist in secondary schools, both in broad general education and in the senior phase. Across most, if not all, of our secondary schools, pupil support structures and guidance tend to be provided by promoted teachers at the moment.
There is a strong argument for the use of youth workers, given not just the need to address internet safety during school but the challenges of addressing mental health, suicide prevention and other social challenges that we lay on schools all the time. I hope that the Government will consider carefully how youth workers can be more involved in relation to internet safety and those other areas, particularly in the context of the clusters, which are the right approach to the future delivery of education.
The point about youth workers was best made to me by Jim Sweeney and YouthLink Scotland, which provided three points for me to use in the debate. YouthLink Scotland said that there is a need for
“further resources for the development and delivery of up to date training for youth workers on supporting young people’s safety and wellbeing online.”
I am sure that the minister would readily accept that point, although I understand the usual challenge of resources.
YouthLink Scotland rightly argues that
“There is a range of training out there and guidance around child protection and policies around social media, but there is not a consistent picture across the sector. All youth work organisations will have child protection policies in place”— that is absolutely the case in Shetland—
“with varying degrees of incorporation of social media.”
There is an argument about consistency.
With Young Scot, YouthLink Scotland co-hosts the digital youth network of practitioners, which will look at how to future proof digital and social media policies in the coming months.
That takes me back to the start. To argue for better teacher training, as I hope that I have, means recognising that the world never slows down or stops; it keeps evolving and developing. That means that no part of teacher training and course design can ever lie in aspic—it must steadily evolve. That in itself is a challenge, but I hope that our teaching institutions can work with the Government, YouthLink Scotland, other agencies and young people—as the minister rightly said—in designing the broad thrust of a proposal that can make the difference that we will all depend on for young people’s safety.
I move amendment S5M-05515.1, to insert at end:
“; is concerned that teacher training does not adequately cover online safety for children and young people, and calls on the Scottish Government to work with education institutions to rectify this emerging requirement in training classroom teachers.”
On behalf of the Scottish Government, I am pleased to open this debate on child internet safety and to move the motion in my name.
On 21 April this year, I launched the “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People”, which sets out 23 actions for the Scottish Government and partners to improve internet safety for children and young people. In developing the action plan, we worked across Government with third sector organisations, Education Scotland, Police Scotland and, importantly, with children and young people themselves.
The action plan has two overarching aims: first, that children and young people are able to enjoy the internet, show resilience and take advantage of the many opportunities that it has to offer, with a key priority to equip children and young people to stay safe online; and secondly, that children and young people are protected, safe and supported in the digital world. Priorities include ensuring that parents and carers feel empowered to support their child’s online activity, supporting children and young people who have suffered abuse online and deterring potential perpetrators from committing online abuse in the first place. The plan also emphasises the role that wider society, including the online industry, must play in enhancing internet safety for children and young people.
I will highlight some of the actions from the plan in the chamber this afternoon. Before I do that, however, it is important to highlight that the internet and mobile technologies have positively transformed the lives of children and young people, bringing vast opportunities for learning, empowerment, communication and support. We must ensure that we equip our children and young people to benefit from those opportunities and to do so safely.
The amount of time that children and young people spend online has more than doubled since 2005, and they spend more time online than they do watching television, using apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp, to name only a few. The ways in which young people are online continue to develop, with new apps and developments in gaming allowing greater interaction online than ever before. I recognise that for many children and young people, there is less and less distinction between the online and offline worlds. Many young people no longer understand the concept of “going online” in the way that many of us in the chamber do; their lives and identities are inextricably linked to their ability to interact and exist across the internet.
However, increasing reliance on online technologies makes us all—especially children and young people—potentially vulnerable to those who seek to exploit those technological advancements for malicious, fraudulent or criminal purposes. Being aware of the risks associated with that changing behaviour is important to ensure that our children and young people feel confident when going online and that we feel empowered to support them effectively.
Unfortunately, we are all aware that the internet is increasingly being used as a cover and a vehicle for those who wish to harm and abuse children. To understand the scale of the issue, over a six-week period in summer 2016, 523 children were identified as victims, or potential victims, of online child sexual abuse or other related abuse during Police Scotland’s operation Lattise, which was the first national operation of focused activity to tackle the many forms of online child sexual abuse. Extrapolation of those figures means that more than 4,500 children a year are being harmed or potentially harmed online, and potentially many more. Online child sexual abuse is a national threat, and the reality is that it is happening now to children of all ages.
As part of the action plan, we will work to ensure that professionals and communities have the appropriate skills and knowledge to provide support to children and young people, including those who have suffered abuse online. We will work with the Marie Collins Foundation, a UK charity, to pilot the “Click: path to protection” training module in Scotland, which is targeted at all professionals charged with safeguarding children who have been sexually abused and exploited online. Although the Government is already committed to progressing child protection training for professionals working with children and young people, including teachers, I take on board the need to ensure that that includes equipping teachers who have skills and knowledge in online safety to teach digitally—as they will increasingly do in the future—with confidence, so I am happy to accept the amendment in Tavish Scott’s name.
We should not single out any one group of professionals or one part of our population. We must all see the protection of children as our collective responsibility; we must all work together to ensure that children and young people are protected online.
Importantly, the industry—and social media providers in particular—must also see the protection of children as a core responsibility. The NSPCC and O2 recently found that four out of five children consider that social media companies are not doing enough to protect them from pornography, self-harm, bullying and hatred on their sites.
The children and young people who were surveyed said overwhelmingly that social media providers need to do more to protect them from inappropriate or harmful content. That makes it clear that children and young people do not feel that they are protected from inappropriate and upsetting content online, and that social media companies need to do more to protect them.
I recognise the efforts of the online industry, including internet service providers and social media providers, to keeps children safe online. Many have made efforts to provide support for parents, have run campaigns to address key issues and have developed responses to the changing challenges faced by those using their platforms. I also acknowledge and welcome the engagement by industry with those in the third sector and Government. However, I strongly agree with children and young people that the online industry needs to do more.
As part of the action plan, we have committed to working with digital media providers and industry to ensure that parents, carers and families, as well as children and young people, have access to appropriate information and support.
I will give way in a second.
As part of the action plan we have committed to working with the South West Grid for Learning to promote and update the 360 degree safe tool that is used by schools in Scotland to help ensure that schools continue to have robust, up-to-date e-safety policies in place.
I give way to Daniel Johnson. [
Jamie Greene is quite right to highlight the issue, and I thank him for his intervention. As he will be aware, much of the underpinning legislation remains reserved to Westminster, but we remain in constant dialogue with our UK Government colleagues on how best we can ensure that inappropriate content is removed from the internet as soon as possible.
I have had a very constructive discussion with the Internet Watch Foundation, which is actively working to remove inappropriate content. I believe that it sent a briefing to members ahead of the debate. I certainly encourage members to enter into discussion with it and help to highlight its work and how people can contact it in their local communities.
The 5Rights coalition has identified a youth commission, which consists of 19 people from across Scotland, to develop informed insights, ideas, recommendations and solutions in relation to how Scotland can become a nation that realises and respects children’s and young people’s digital rights. I look forward to its final report in the coming weeks, and we will carefully consider its findings in future policy development.
As the Minister for Childcare and Early Years and a father of two, I want all children and young people in Scotland to be protected, safe and supported in the online world and able to enjoy the internet, show resilience and take advantage of the opportunities that it has to offer. That is not just the responsibility of industry and social media providers, parents, teachers or other professionals; it is the responsibility of us all as a society. It is everyone’s job to do all that we can to keep our children and young people safe, whether in our local communities or in the virtual world.
Although there is no doubt that the digital world that our children and young people inhabit now and will inhabit in the future does and will contain risks and challenges for their wellbeing, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is a fundamental part of their lives. It is a fantastic source of education and entertainment and is often the first place that they go to talk to their friends. I encourage young people to embrace the internet’s huge potential.
That the Parliament notes the publication of the Scottish Government’s
National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People
; supports the right of children and young people to be safe and supported online; recognises the positive uses of the internet for children and young people, including the vast opportunities for learning and communication, and agrees that everyone has a role to play in keeping children safe online.
This is an unusual debate in a lot of ways. It is an incredibly difficult topic, but not because we differ on its importance, on the analysis, or even on what the solutions might be. None of us will disagree that our children are at risk—all children, rich or poor, urban or rural, boys or girls—and none of us will argue anything except that we must act to protect them. The problem is that we are all struggling to understand those risks, and struggling even more to develop our responses.
Where we normally divide, driven apart by our competing certainties, in this we unite, drawn together by our shared bewilderment.
Yet this issue goes to the heart of the human condition: the challenge of how to be a good parent and to ensure the safety of the next generation. It also goes to one of the core dilemmas of modern life: the balance between privacy and security on the one hand, and connectivity and interaction on the other.
Parenting has never been easy. There has always been a contradiction between keeping our children from risk and allowing them to engage and grow in the world. That is as true of cyberspace as it is of physical space. We are, after all, just beginning to understand that we have perhaps become overprotective of children in the real world, curtailing their freedom to play and learn outside the home, when it seems to many of us, quite suddenly, that the greatest risks appear to be in that very home—in their bedroom, their school or even the pocket where their smartphone lies.
As Barnardo’s pointed out in its briefing for today, and as the Government motion acknowledges, the rapid development of digital technology is an incredible opportunity for our children, not just a danger. It can provide access to knowledge and information for them in a way that we could not have imagined when we were young. However, the risks are real, and they are not exaggerated. They are risks that we struggle to understand, often conducted in a language of acronym, abbreviation and slang that is opaque to us. They are risks that seem to multiply every day.
Just as we come to terms with understanding the potential of the digital world for predators who groom children for their own ends or who multiply the abuse of their victims exponentially online, we are confronted with the reality of sexting and cyberbullying, where the risk lies in our own children and grandchildren’s actions and the malice of their peers, not with strangers.
How, then, do we proceed? We have to start by admitting that we find those risks frightening and difficult to understand, but we have to confront them and find a way to gain that understanding. Back in 2011, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “The Protection of Children Online”, provided some first-class analysis of what the OECD calls the “typology of risks”. It shows us that the risks are multifaceted but they can be understood as a first step to addressing them.
The diversity of risks takes us to the next principle to which we must aspire, which is that absolutely everyone has a role to play here: parents, Government, teachers, police, social work—everyone, not least children themselves.
The Scottish Government’s action plan recognises that, with a series of resources and events that are aimed at increasing parent awareness, with participation in the work of Parent Zone International and the Internet Watch Foundation. I wonder, however, how many parents are aware of those initiatives and how many are engaging with them.
I accept that point—and I think I did so in my speech. That is why I have committed to working with parent and carer organisations, which are often those that are best placed to reach out to some parents who will perhaps not access some of the opportunities that already exist but which are perhaps not as well publicised as they could be. That is why I have made that commitment to engage with those organisations: to attract more parents to take an involvement.
I very much appreciate that response from the minister. I do not mean this as any kind of criticism, but it is crucial that we find a way to go beyond ticking boxes. The danger for all of us is that we allow ourselves to be satisfied with that. That is heartening to hear.
The action plan contains a crucial commitment to the training of professionals in recognising and responding to inappropriate behaviours, bullying or predation online. As Mr Scott made clear, however, the Education and Skills Committee heard only yesterday from trainee teachers who do not believe that their basic preparation for their profession covers that at all. My colleague Daniel Johnson will say more about that evidence later, but it makes the amendment in Tavish Scott’s name both sensible and desirable. I hope that the Scottish Government will take that on board this evening—I think that it will.
For all of us, one of the hardest realities to come to terms with is the degree to which children themselves can put themselves at risk or can become the perpetrators of abuse. As Barnardo’s tells us, children and young people are increasingly turning online for information about sex and relationships. The truth is that we have to be prepared to create an open and realistic attitude to sex if we are ever going to expect them to be open about the problems that that may lead them into. We have to find ways, legislative if necessary, to ensure that every child receives high-quality, age-appropriate education about sex and relationships. Every day that we fail to do that sees the risk to children exacerbated by their own uncertainty about finding their way in this aspect of life.
The minister is right—we have to demand much more in the way of responsibility from the companies that provide, create and of course profit from the digital technology that is the platform for these risks. How we do that is a whole other vast and difficult topic. No one can deny that, as the minister indicated, the companies have engaged with the likes of Internet Matters, the Internet Watch Foundation, and other partnerships. However, that seems to me only to scratch the surface of the fundamental responsibility that those corporations have because they are, unavoidably, the enablers of the risks that we are discussing.
I said that this is a difficult and often bewildering topic. That does not mean that we should talk about it less; rather, we should talk about it more. We in this Parliament cannot allow this debate to be a box-ticking exercise and the Conservative amendment is right to demand that we return to the topic regularly. After all, given the rapidly accelerating development of digital media and the fleeting nature of those wonderful but vulnerable years of childhood, time is not on our side.
The past two decades have seen a tremendous growth in internet use, in no small part thanks to the combined proliferation of social media, ever-increasing broadband speeds and exponential improvements in hand-held technology. Most of us in the chamber might recall the days of dial-up modems 15 or 20 years ago, when getting even a low-speed internet connection could largely be a game of chance. However, nowadays we rely on the internet for almost everything—shopping, travel or even booking a haircut.
As internet use has risen, we have seen the arrival of a criminal element who take advantage wherever they can. Termed cybercrime, the actions that these individuals and groups take include the theft of intellectual property, attacks against essential services or critical infrastructure, identity theft and fraud, bullying and, finally, sexual exploitation. In the context of Scotland’s young people, it is likely that those last two points will be the most relevant and the most emotionally damaging.
The 2015 report by Barnardo’s and the Marie Collins Foundation, “Digital Dangers”, examined some of the ways in which children can be sexually exploited or groomed online, in a few cases without even realising exactly what is happening. The case of a 14-year-old girl who was groomed online by an older man and subsequently had sex with him may sound typical, but the facts of the case make for surprising reading. The perpetrator was no less than a medical professional who worked with children and young people, while the girl herself is described as a high achiever at school with supportive parents, a close extended family and a good network of friends.
Then there is the devastating case of Mary, a 15-year-old who was raped by her boyfriend twice. On the second occasion, the rape was watched by the perpetrator’s friends and sexually explicit photos were taken and subsequently passed around Mary’s school. As a result, she has disengaged from education entirely, has been diagnosed as clinically depressed, has a total lack of self-confidence and motivation, and spends her days on social media, messaging unknown males and sending explicit images of herself on request. It seems that Mary is comfortable only in her online persona and cannot engage with the offline world. I am sure that everyone in the chamber will feel tremendous empathy towards Mary and anyone else in a similar situation.
The teenage years are formative, and whatever experiences we undergo during those years shape us for the rest of our lives. It is very difficult to transcend the effects of an experience as overwhelmingly upsetting as that which Mary endured.
A major part of protecting young people online is the need to build up a layer of trust with parents. Teenagers want to feel independent and parents want to respect their freedom, but there are pitfalls when it comes to knowing where to draw the line. The “Digital Dangers” report describes several cases in which parents intervened. Some did so in the nick of time to stop abuse, and others did so when the abuse had already started. The report gives some of the reasons why young people did not tell anybody about the abuse that they had suffered before it was discovered. Those include:
“the highly sexualised nature of the communications sent by the young people, both written and pictorial; feelings of complicity; lying about their age; being in love and having emotional dependency on their online” so-called partner, as well as
“fear of peer group and family responses to” their actions. In some cases to which the report refers, the young person remained supportive of their abuser even after discovery, which highlights how comprehensively and insidiously someone can be groomed, particularly when they believe that they are in love and they are afraid of the response from family and friends.
From the evidence in the “Digital Dangers” report, it is clear that keeping children safe online is a highly complex issue with a range of factors to be taken into account. Much of that is reflected in the Scottish Government’s recently published national action plan, which builds on the actions that were set out in the 2010 document “Scotland’s child internet safety action plan” and in the 2011-12 “Scottish Action Plan on Child Internet Safety and Responsible Use”. The commitments were structured under three general aims: giving everybody the skills, knowledge and understanding to help children and young people to stay safe online; inspiring safe and responsible use and behaviour; and creating a safer online environment.
In the creation of the recent national plan, the views of a wide range of stakeholders were taken into account, including—crucially—the thoughts of young people as gathered by Young Scot, YouthLink Scotland and the 5Rights youth commissioners. That feedback has proved invaluable in enabling us to find out how Scotland’s children and young people see the internet. The point was made that the internet provides many opportunities, but that is tempered by a feeling that the online and offline worlds are not distinct and that it can be difficult to log off or otherwise disengage from social media.
A key issue that came up in the consultation of young people, and which was considered in the national plan, is the possibility of requiring social media providers to make it easier for people to report and block material. For all the background support and information that we can provide, there needs to be a clear and straightforward method to allow end users to report unsuitable material directly to providers so that appropriate action can be taken. I am pleased to see that the national plan confirms that the Scottish Government has successfully made links with the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Google to discuss internet safety for the young people who use their various platforms and how safety can be better promoted on those media.
To date, the Scottish Government has taken a range of steps to help to promote internet safety. For example, it provided £100,000 of funding to the 5Rights coalition, which
“believes that children and young people must be empowered to access the digital world creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly.”
We can support those rights as we move forward by taking a number of the measures that are outlined in the national plan. The Government will work with Parent Zone International on the planning and delivery of an internet safety summit for professionals who work with parents. It will promote and update the 360-degree safe tool, which is a programme that
“enables schools and organisations to self-evaluate against a detailed set of e-safety criteria.”
“work with the Marie Collins Foundation to pilot the CLICK: Path to Protection training module in Scotland, which is targeted at all professionals charged with safeguarding children who have been sexually abused and exploited online.”
In addition, it will work with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to deliver a summit next month on sexual offending and young people. Those are just a few examples that have been outlined in the Government’s national action plan.
When all the evidence is examined, there can be no doubt that protecting young people on the internet is a complex issue, with many factors to be taken into account. The internet has become a near-essential facet of modern life, especially for those of a younger generation. As with many things that become significant at a pace that outstrips legislation, Governments can find themselves playing catch up. However, although internet safety is not an issue on which we can stand still, I believe that the right steps are being taken to ensure that Scotland’s young people can browse the web and use social media safely and without fear of exploitation.
Ensuring that our children and young people are safe online is incredibly important. I say that as a parent with three daughters and a son who seem to live permanently on their internet devices. However, I must say that they act very responsibly—it certainly seems that way, thank goodness.
As more and more young people spend their time online and as the internet continues to play an increasing role in our society, ensuring that young people are safe online is becoming a larger part of looking after the overall welfare of young people. Access to the internet in the 21st century offers young people incredible opportunities that my generation were unfortunate to miss out on. Children today can benefit from access to unlimited educational resources, the ability to communicate with friends and family members across the globe, and the chance to organise social events among friends. We can see that, across the board, youngsters are taking full advantage of their access to the internet: one in five eight to 11-year-olds and seven in 10 12 to 15-year-olds now have a social media profile.
On the whole, activity on the internet by youngsters is conducted in a positive and safe manner. Unfortunately, however, the online environment is not always a welcoming one. That is highlighted by the fact that one in four children has experienced something that was upsetting on a social networking site or has come across racist or hate messaging online, and the fact that one in three has been a victim of cyberbullying. Those figures are based only on what children admit to having seen online, and there are undoubtedly many children who will be unwilling to speak openly about their experiences, even to their parents.
The area of online activity by our young people is a big issue and I, for one, am glad that we are debating it in the chamber today. The NSPCC has noted that there was an increase of 13 per cent between 2014-15 and 2015-16 in the number of counselling sessions in which cyberbullying was mentioned. That is a huge rise and one that we have to take very seriously. I firmly believe that education will play a big part in helping young people to deal with the issues that they will face online. That is why I am glad that the “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People” includes measures to help boost education on the issue. Pre-empting the issues and helping young people to build their own resilience, as the plan suggests, is a good idea.
In particular, the promotion of the 360-degree safe self-review tool is an excellent way to help to ensure that our children are safer online. The tool allows schools’ and organisations’ online systems to be rated on a scale of 5 to 1 on various aspects of internet safety. That will help schools, especially, to home in on areas that need to be improved in order to allow their pupils to continue to enjoy safe access to the internet. Further, if young people know how to identify the issues and understand how to address them, they will be able to keep themselves secure and safe online, and to continue to reap the benefits of having access to the internet.
The work of Parent Zone International is also worth mentioning at this point. It is an organisation that offers digital parenting training courses that aim to educate parents and others on how to make sure that children use the internet in a responsible and safe manner. Educating parents as well as children is hugely important so that they can set a positive example for their children to follow. I certainly welcome that, because I was not a parent who had training on the issue. Although my children are now slightly older than the targeted group, I would have appreciated the online teaching resources for adults, and I know that they would have helped me to teach my children how to use the internet safely. I understand that there are many adults in the same boat as me, who might not have grown up with regular access to the internet and who, even today, need a bit of extra support on using it safely.
It is great that Parent Zone International is offering that service, and I am glad to see that the Scottish Government is going to hold a parent internet safety summit alongside Parent Zone International, which will hopefully be a stepping stone towards helping all parents look after their children online.
We welcome the Scottish Government’s national action plan, and we strongly encourage the Government to continue to work closely with charities, schools and parents. However, we note that the key to success in this area lies not in publishing the plan but in ensuring that it is actioned and that it works for every child in Scotland.
People who have teenagers walk a fine line between giving them freedom and trust to find their own path and keeping a watchful eye to protect them, as many members have mentioned. I am a mum to a 14-year-old, who does not like me mentioning her in my speeches, so you ain’t seen me, right? [
.] My speech today comes from a personal place—that of a mum who is struggling to know how safe my child is online and what I can do to protect her.
I commend the Government for taking action with the measures that the minister has outlined today.
Last month, in my constituency, a very brave young girl went public about her experiences online. She went to the press, with the assistance of her mother, because she wanted what had happened to her to act as a warning to other young people. She was coerced by an older boy into taking naked photographs of herself and sending them to him via Snapchat. The images were then circulated widely by the boy and his friends. On realising what had happened, the girl went to her mother for help. What the mother found on her daughter’s phone were messages of an inappropriate nature from quite a few older boys, and there was constant badgering for nude images. Very quickly, those boys had the police at their doors, and investigations are taking place. The girl is only 11 years old.
What happened to that girl prompted me to have a discussion on the subject with my daughter and her friends who were round at my house that night. They told me that “nudes for nudes” was something that a lot of people at their school did—not them, of course—and it turns out that the exchange was not just about an adolescent thrill between teens flirting with one another online, but that it could lead to bullying, as those with images would threaten others who had sent them. Girls would threaten other girls, they told me. They spoke of one girl in their school who had a collection of images of her so-called friends that could be deployed at will should she ever feel the need to humiliate them online.
That very frank, illuminating and—to be honest—terrifying conversation prompted me to get together with my constituency’s newly elected members of the Scottish Youth Parliament to work together on a project. We are planning a closed forum after exam time to allow young people from all the schools in our area to highlight the issues that they face online. As a result of the forum, we are going to put together an action plan on how we can raise awareness of online bullying, which is rife, and how we can help young people, teachers and parents—me included—to know how to tackle the problems.
Children need to be made aware that what they might do impulsively for fun can have serious repercussions. Once that photo leaves their phone and is sent to someone else, they have no control over where it goes or how many people see it. Additionally, we have to make people who solicit these images aware that they could face criminal charges. Those people are not just the bogeyman or the monster. They are not just the older man or the child sex predator. They are young adolescent males who really think that they are doing no harm. I am not making any excuses for them but, as a parent of a 19-year-old boy, I would be absolutely horrified if he was in a position where the police were at my door for something that he thought was innocent or just a joke.
The schoolchildren who encouraged that 11-year-old girl to pose for those photographs must surely now be regretting their actions. Just yesterday, a man was convicted in Aberdeen sheriff court for sending a nude image of himself to a young girl via Snapchat. Not only do young adults put themselves at risk when they send such images, but they could face criminal charges for both sending and receiving images of an underage child.
I asked my two members of the Scottish Youth Parliament to contribute to my speech, and I am going to end with their words. Josh MacRae MSYP, who goes to Inverurie academy, said:
“Many young people are unaware of the consequences of posting an inappropriate photo of themselves or a peer and how quickly an embarrassing photo or video can spread online.”
The contribution from Evie Robertson MSYP, who goes to Oldmeldrum academy, nails the issue. She says:
“Nowadays young people often feel pressured to say or do things, and often broadcast them on social media. Often seemingly harmless at first, however it can then escalate to very hurtful comments, and this often has a very damaging effect on the victim, and their mental health. There is also the looming pressure to send indecent images to other people via social media. There is often very little that can be done to prevent the spread of images once they are sent, but if we can educate younger children before they reach their teenage years then we may have a chance to reduce incidents of images being sent in the first place.”
Before I sit down, I am afraid that I am going to frighten the life out of everyone with one statistic. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US has said that, by its estimation, at any given moment there are 750,000 child predators online. Images can end up on their screens. Evie is right: educating children before they reach their teenage years is vital to protect them. As with many things, education is the key.
Today we are debating the “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People”. The document mentions lots of good local, Scottish, UK and international projects that are doing work in this field. It is a very complex picture, and, to be honest, I was not always convinced that the work is co-ordinated. That is not to question the dedication and commitment of the people and organisations that are working on the issue or the positive contributions that they are making in relation to children and young people, but there is a lack of a strategic framework or strategic intent. The minister says in the foreword that the action plan is “an important step”, but I would appreciate a clearer analysis and a stronger statement of intent from the Government.
The report says that, in 2019, a progress report will be published, which
“may set out further actions that will reflect the rapid evolution of online technologies and our need to ensure we respond appropriately.”
I am concerned that that timeline will not keep pace with the challenges that we are facing.
I will focus on a few aspects of what is a wide-ranging document. For all the positive aspects that the internet brings to our lives, it is too often used as a destructive tool. The internet can facilitate and support child abuse and exploitation, through grooming, the sharing of images and videos, and abusers’ use of the internet to contact and create networks with other abusers. The internet gives greater potential for all that activity to happen. Although the action plan focuses on Scotland, we know that such child exploitation is often focused on some of the poorest countries in the world—countries that sit outside the reach of our legislation.
Alongside that vile industry—clearly, that is what it is—is a more complex picture of our society, where certain things are normalised among young people and young adults and there is an intersection between what is legal and what is criminal. We have a society where it is common for celebrities to record sex tapes and for sexuality and self-worth to be interpreted and judged visually, where intimate images are leaked—it is acceptable and expected that they are taken—and where pornography is much more widely available and the regulation of the internet is pretty ineffective in restricting access to it by children and young people.
The risks that the majority of children in Scotland face on the internet relate to bullying and the ability to access inappropriate materials. We must ensure that there are comprehensive services to support the children who are most at risk: those who are victims of child exploitation and abuse. We must always be vigilant.
In this country, the young people who are sexually exploited by adults are largely teenage girls, although Gillian Martin gave the example of an 11-year-old girl, so we should be aware that pre-pubescent girls are at risk. Those girls are sometimes exploited by criminal gangs or organised groups, so they need the intelligence and prioritisation of our police force, and they need the intervention of the criminal justice system. They need authorities to recognise their vulnerability and they need all of us not to turn a blind eye to that behaviour.
The experience of young people—say, those aged 13 to 17—is quite different from ours. Their social platforms are a significant part of their lives. The document tells us that young people who responded to the consultation felt that the online and offline worlds are not distinct and they do not differentiate between the two. Seventy-eight per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds have a mobile phone, and 65 per cent of them have a smart phone. Such phones must fundamentally change human interactions and relationships from those that any of us experienced as teenagers. Maybe the action plan needs to distinguish between what “protected online” means for children and what it means for young people. If one accepts the primacy of the image, sexting just becomes part of the culture. That is a complex issue when it comes to dealing with young people and their relationships.
We have legislated to address some of those issues. The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 criminalised non-consensual sharing of intimate images, while the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005 and the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 focused on preventing the sexual exploitation of children and young people.
As the action plan recognises, we face a complex set of circumstances. It describes an example of online exploitation as
“the sending and sharing of indecent images, including self-produced images” and states that
“once the child or young person begins to participate in such activities they leave themselves open to being blackmailed into further participation. This coerciveness might not always be obvious to the child and young person as the grooming is so powerful they can come to believe it is acceptable behaviour”.
Within that small set of circumstances is the scenario where an image is self-produced but is lifted from its intended space and then promoted through child sexual exploitation websites. Then there is the scenario where an image is willingly sent to another young person who then decides to share it with their friends. Gillian Martin accurately described the reality for some young people, the severity of bullying that takes place and the criminality of some behaviour that has been normalised by youth culture.
We need to have a more sophisticated understanding of young people, the pressures that they face and the extent to which the internet has changed their relationships. I was aware of the research that the University of Edinburgh is carrying out into self-produced sexual images of adolescents. It is an important piece of work on how we respond to the issue. Interesting research is being done in Canada, where academics have consistently monitored young people’s behaviour over a number of years to study their changing attitudes towards relationships and sexuality.
I am pleased that a summit on sexual offending and young people will be held later this year—that will be important. Young people below and above the age of consent are getting themselves into serious criminal trouble because they either do not understand the law or are ignoring it. There are situations where alcohol is involved, filming takes place and social media and the internet are widely used. Actions that seem acceptable to the perpetrator, and often to their peers, are in fact unlawful. The summit will be an opportunity to raise the profile of those challenges.
How do we make sure that young people understand that the legal framework is relevant to their lives and their experience? Are young people not so much accepting but more tolerant of the hypersexualisation of young women and hypermasculinity in young men? Is their understanding of relationships a cause for concern or just a sign of the times?
We must be clear about the legal framework and firm when the law is broken, but any action plan for internet safety must operate in our society. The way that young people use, manage and live with the internet is a symptom of our society, so we need to take a societal approach to changing attitudes, empowering young people in their relationships and limiting exploitation in relationships in order to equip young people with the understanding that they need in the modern world.
In one sense, the internet and I have grown up together. It all started with emails, painstakingly typed out and then sent to the sound of the dial-up’s muffled shriek. Then in my mid-teens, we would all go home from school and resume our school chat on MSN Messenger or the first online social media sites such as Bebo. Since then, through my later teens and into my 20s, there has been a never-ending stream of enterprising means for communicating and sharing our lives more freely than we could ever have in the physical world, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. All that has grown hand in hand with mobile devices, which means that they are easier to access anywhere—except in the not spots of the Highlands.
The internet is now thoroughly embedded in children’s daily lives. It has transformed play and education and, as the minister said, it has overtaken children’s television viewing. Children are going online at younger ages, largely at home and then at school. I still find it remarkable to watch toddlers navigating an iPad for only the second time with greater speed and skill than their parents who have been using it for years.
To a greater extent than the physical world, the virtual world brings out the best and the worst in people. There is greater potential to raise money for charities, raise awareness of global injustice and raise the educational attainment of people everywhere—literally everywhere. However, the ease of access to the internet, the speed of its development and its unregulated nature mean that there is less restraint in its use. I want therefore to touch on three very different risks and challenges: the accessibility of explicit content; the abuse of children, particularly in other countries, to meet demand in Scotland; and, finally—and something that is quite different—the normalising of perfect lives on social media.
The internet facilitates and enables pure evil to flourish in the darkest corners. At the heart of the most sinister, ominous evil online are real people—perpetrators and victims. Tavish Scott mentioned the important role of research in the use and regulation of the internet. Research by the independent comparison service uSwitch.com a few years ago, in 2014, showed that 3 million UK families had discovered their children viewing violent and explicit material on the internet, with the youngest age quoted being two years old. Perhaps most worryingly, uSwitch’s research found that three quarters of parents could not name any of the parental control tools that can be applied to internet-enabled devices, and that four in 10 said that they had none installed. Therefore, the Scottish Government’s commitments in the national action plan, first, to engage with parents and carers to empower them to support their children’s online activity and, secondly, to deliver an internet safety summit in Scotland are important.
Children who view inappropriate material on the internet are victims, but that is even more the case for those who are trafficked to be sexually abused online. Cybersex trafficking is the live-streamed sexual abuse of children, viewed over the internet. It is growing at an alarming rate, fuelled by the behaviour of people in Scotland and around the world. Some of us went to an eye-opening event that was hosted by Jenny Marra with the International Justice Mission. My colleague Gillian Martin has lodged a motion that I urge all members to sign condemning cybersex trafficking. The IJM has rescued some of the trafficked victims, and 54 per cent of the victims who are rescued in IJM cases are between one and 12 years old. Victims can be exploited in any location where there is a computer and an internet connection, or even just a mobile phone. As the IJM states, slavery and freedom are in the power of our phones, and the #notonmyscreen conversation needs all our voices.
In the time remaining, I will bring the issue home and talk about something that is quite easily overlooked when we talk about the damaging effects of the internet. It is important that we are aware that it is not just the obviously unacceptable and explicit content that is of concern, but the way in which social media can distort normality. Social media allows us all to present the best of ourselves—the best filter for the best photograph; the best description of the best moments; or the best new outfit for the best body image. There are great risks around cultivating personas and perfect lives on social media, which can lead to anxieties around body image and self-esteem—that goes for men and women as well as boys and girls. Such anxieties allow the pro-self-harm and pro-anorexia sites, as well as cyberbullying, to thrive, because reality never matches the soft glow of Nashville or Sierra—just two of the many insta-filters. Parents and teachers have a challenging job to remind our young people again and again that their value is not found in the number of likes for their Instagram picture or the number of friends they have on Facebook—this is perhaps a good reminder for politicians, too—but in their inherent dignity and worth, with their unique characteristics and talents. As a number of speakers today have done, the national action plan is right to highlight that only collaboration—with parents at its heart—between schools, families and Government policy can meet the challenges. Nobody can do it alone.
I feel even older now than I did before Kate Forbes spoke. When I left school, one computer had just arrived and only people like geeky mathematicians got to use it. I certainly have not caught up with the internet; it is way ahead of me.
This is a deeply serious subject. Like others, I welcome the debate this afternoon. I am an IWF champion, like my colleague Annie Wells. All of us receive briefings from the third sector and companies regularly, and perhaps the most harrowing one that I received was from the IWF about the impact that child pornography has on so many vulnerable lives—less in Scotland, fortunately, but across our world.
The internet has turned our world upside down and revolutionised communication. It is now the preferred medium for most young people. My two five-year-old girls can switch on my iPhone and find a YouTube programme quicker than I can stop them. At the moment, we are left with “Fireman Sam” or “Teletubbies”, but as they grow older, that concerns me as a parent.
Cyberbullying goes on. All forms of bullying are wrong, as we debated a couple of weeks ago in the chamber, but cyberbullying goes with a person into their bedroom and their house, on a Saturday and a Sunday. Sadly, my niece, who was living not in Scotland but in Norway, was badly bullied on Facebook. As a young teenage girl, she had nowhere to hide and could not leave it behind at school. There is a responsibility on educationists and on parents, uncles and aunts to be aware of what is going on and not simply to say, “Well, it has always happened”; today, it has become a lot worse, and the breakdown of the basic privacy of one’s bedroom can never help anyone.
Along with my party, I welcome the launch of the “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People”. We agree with and want to see the protection that we hope it will give. I am pleased that the minister and the Scottish Government have not only sought the views of experts, parents and teachers, but have gone out of their way to find out what young people think. After all, they are the ones who know far more about technology than anyone in the chamber, excluding Kate Forbes perhaps.
We need to develop a plan that is appropriate, that works and that has the support of the majority of our country. The Thinkuknow website targets children in different age bands and empowers young people and gives them information. Perhaps as importantly, it gives information to adults as well.
We all welcome the number of action points identified in the action plan. I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to work with digital media providers and industry to ensure that parents, carers and families, as well as children and young people, have access to appropriate information and support. There is still more that the digital industry can do to lead the way. They are moving in the right direction, but perhaps we need carrots and sticks as we go on this journey together. Awareness is perhaps key to that. It is not just the few but the majority who need to know about this topic.
I welcome my colleague Annie Wells’s amendment. I ask the minister to reflect on whether we need to review the plan within a shorter timescale. I accept that, in some ways, 2019 does not feel too far away—after all, it is only two years from now. However, in IT terms two years is probably too long to wait. As Iain Gray said, we do not want to get bogged down by ticking boxes and filling out forms, but there needs to be a review sooner than the plan allows for, so that we can see what progress we are making.
As I have said, I welcome the plan—it is the right step forward—and I am very happy to be able to support not only the Government motion, but the two amendments this evening.
That is generous, and I will try not to abuse your trust. Two presiding officers have made that offer to me, so it would be impolite not to make use of it. [Laughter.]
When we go online, we are confronted with a series of risks. It is worth saying that I worked on my first online system in the 1960s, I sent my first email in 1980 and I first did my online banking using a public network in 1983. I have a long online history; others, similarly, will have a long online history, although mine might have begun even before some of the previous speakers were born. [
My great Uncle Socrates has said many wise things and we will continue to draw from the well of knowledge of the Greek—and Roman—philosophers. [
Let us return to matters more local and, in particular, the internet. Many of us will know nothing of the risks in going online; and, even if all the risks were explained to us, we might not understand what they are. New risks are being created—deliberately or accidentally—every single day.
One thing that I believe—I will return to this topic in more detail later—is that we should detect better those who are creating risks, so that we can hunt them down with the force of the law. For children, who are the focus of today’s debate, there are special risks. Being presented with material beyond their age carries with it the potential of psychological damage that could endure throughout their lives.
Children’s brains are plastic. The future operation of a child’s brain is more affected by present and past experience and knowledge than is an adult’s brain. Children have not yet acquired an adult set of critical faculties that enable the filtering out and discarding of inappropriate material. Comparatively, their brains lack the power to discriminate.
To oversimplify, probably, a complex piece of science, I should explain that until about puberty, many of our memories seem to be literal. We remember pictures and sounds—that is eidetic memory. As we become adults, our memory moves to an interpretive memory and we remember the meaning of our experience in preference to simply retaining a picture in our brain. That is much more convenient, because it enables us to create an index from which to retrieve information.
Just as we protect youngsters from physical danger, we need to protect them from psychological danger. What, therefore, are the particular dangers? As in the physical world, we want our young to avoid unsavoury characters who might exploit, abuse or otherwise harm them as individuals; we want them to avoid engagement with potentially corrupting material; and we want to protect their personal assets, however modest they may be.
As adults we—mostly—have the wherewithal to monitor and to guide, to a fair degree, a youngster’s contact with the world and the people in it. We understand the physical world pretty well. The focus of the plans that we are discussing today is on helping our children to access the internet safely. Doing so is both necessary and helpful, but the online story is highly complex and rapidly evolving.
There are about 4 billion people online and many more identities than that; multiple identities abound on the internet. The same will be true for most of us here, but anyone who chooses to interact with me on Twitter, where my handle is @zsstevens—I will repeat that in case members want to hear it again: @zsstevens—will see a little tick in a blue circle next to my name, which means that Twitter has verified that I am who I have said I am. That is quite important because, as far as Twitter is concerned, the ability to rely on that symbol removes a source of ambiguity of identity, which is what enables much—though not all—of the risk in the online world.
All responsible media providers need to make available similar identity-proved facilities. A certification system is already available for websites, the best of which are accessed via hypertext transfer protocol 1080, under which an S goes at the end of the “http” abbreviation and a lock appears that makes it clear that the website is certified. We now need robust and unbypassable software—perhaps required by law and perhaps enforced via ISPs at an appropriate point in the future—that can restrict communication only to verified online entities, in particular those that purport to be real people.
Let me give the chamber some international examples. Some 10 years ago, Estonia suffered the most extreme cyber attack from Russian-based hackers. The history of that is more than I have time to explain, but today the e-resident and other initiatives that this small Baltic state has put in place are transforming it into a world leader in creating a safe online world for citizens in their business lives. At €100 a pop, it remains too expensive for mass deployment to all—what I am holding up at the moment is a paper copy of an Estonian e-resident card; I have not spent €100 on one—but in the post-Brexit world, many UK citizens are looking at becoming Estonian e-residents, because of the advantages that it gives. Jamie Greene did not refer to this directly, but the system gives people the ability to electronically sign anything that is put on the internet, protecting the integrity of both the communication that is sent and those who receive it.
The Wired website describes Estonia as
“the most advanced digital society in the world”,
and other small nations that are our near neighbours—Macedonia, Serbia, Albania and Croatia—are carrying out legislative work in this area and are looking at electronic systems. They have something that appears to be a disadvantage but which, in this circumstance, is an advantage—namely, comparatively undeveloped infrastructures—and are leapfrogging present technologies into different futures.
We can look to India for another approach. In 2009, the Indian Government launched a massive project called Aadhaar to provide to everyone a digital identity based on an individual’s fingerprints and retina scans. As of 2016, the programme had issued 12-digit identification numbers to 1.1 billion people. It is believed to be the largest and most successful information technology project in the world and has created the foundations for a digital economy. Although it is voluntary, almost everyone from the totally illiterate to the billionaire banker wants to be part of it. Indeed, those involved in the system are currently running a competition for youngsters to produce 30-second videos that will support other youngsters in getting engaged with the internet and the Aadhaar system in an appropriate way.
By possessing unambiguous proof of identity and appropriate technology, Indian citizens can effect cashless transfer of value without banks, without central record and without worries. They can, for example, open bank accounts without the hassle that we have to go through, because they have an assured identity that they can use. Aadhaar is the kind of initiative that creates the potential for a safer online environment for adults and children alike.
The technology is already here so, although it just ain’t being implemented in this way, what could it make possible? For a start, every image, every text block, every blog—indeed, everything on the internet—could be marked incorruptibly and verifiably so that we would know which individual produced it. If we required that to be done, that would create for law enforcement the possibility of hunting down wrongdoers. We could require internet service providers, through which all internet traffic flows, to always check that they pass through to their subscribers only things that have been digitally signed. Of course, there are some difficulties with that. We would need anonymous hotlines as checks and balances on our system. Could that be dealt with? I will come back to that in a moment.
Software, verified identity and law can complement the plans in our Government’s paper. There is no time to waste. We could be world leaders, although others have got out of the starting blocks fairly easily. I am very happy to support the Government’s plan as it is.
Let me talk a little bit about how to deal with hotlines and whistleblowing.
I am nearly there, Presiding Officer.
One of the ways in which we could deal with the proper use of anonymity is, of course, to license a restricted number of services that can receive unsigned material. They would then have responsibility for looking at that material and republishing it with their signature, having verified that it is appropriate to do so. Therefore, even in a world in which we require everyone to have an identity, there are ways to protect the rights of those who properly need to be anonymous.
In my speech, I have simply tried to say that there are some things that we could do in the long term. I could certainly speak for hours on the subject, but the Presiding Officer’s generosity is much appreciated. Members should be aware that there are many simplifications in what I have said. If they really want a seminar, I shall be in the bar at 5 o’clock.
I fear that I will not be anywhere near as interesting as Stewart Stevenson—so no pressure.
The publication of the “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People” will play a crucial role in ensuring that our children and young people can be protected when they are online. Scottish Labour is committed to developing a comprehensive strategy to increase online safety in partnership with charities, internet service providers, parents and other stakeholders, so the Government’s publication of the national action plan is very welcome.
As we have heard, the internet is now part of the daily fabric of life for the vast majority of people, and children who are born in today’s world will never know life without it. As we have already heard from many other members, a range of new opportunities and risks that must be navigated come with that, of course. On the positive side—there are many positives—the potential that is opened up by smartphones and the internet for our young people is boundless. They have so much accessible information at their fingertips—more than any previous generation has had—and the benefit that that brings in the potential for increasing their knowledge and education is almost immeasurable. I see those benefits for my daughter and her friends. I might go home tonight and set my 11-year-old the task of fact checking Stewart Stevenson’s speech. Perhaps she can come back with his family tree. That would be most interesting.
That unfettered access to information and to the rest of the virtual world needs, of course, to be balanced against the responsibility that all adults have to ensure that our children can be protected. As Barnardo’s Scotland outlined in its briefing for the debate, and as other members, including Iain Gray, have mentioned, the concern around children’s safety online is often characterised as relating to stranger danger: the fear that an adult stranger will use messaging apps or social media to groom a young person for sexually exploitative purposes. The immediate analogy that always seems to come to mind is that a parent would never let their young child go out on their own unsupervised to a place where they would be surrounded by adult strangers and would be in a potentially dangerous situation. However, with access to smartphones and the internet, even where there are parental controls on access, the outside world and its potential dangers are suddenly much more accessible to young people in the very places in which they should be most safe—at home and in school.
I can think of many examples of children in my constituency who I know have set up accounts on platforms such as Snapchat or Instagram that their parents have no knowledge of and to which they have not given consent. Ensuring that parents, professionals and young people themselves have the ability to recognise and respond to the potential issues around online behaviour is crucial, which is why the actions that are contained in the latest plan are very welcome.
As others previously have, I welcome the amendment in Tavish Scott’s name. Teachers must be properly trained, supported and equipped to deal with issues around the online behaviour of young people. Listening to today’s speeches, I have heard several members talk about the impact on young people’s mental health and I am reminded of Scottish Labour’s proposal for school-based counselling—a plan that is supported by Barnardo’s Scotland. We all want early intervention to ensure that young people get the support that they need, ideally within the school setting.
Young people’s lives are inextricably intertwined with ever-changing technology. Parents, teachers or any other adults who are involved in the care of children cannot properly help or support young people to face the challenges in their lives, if we do not also understand the methods that they use to communicate with each other.
Whether they do so through apps such as Snapchat or Instagram, the way in which young people communicate is key to many of the issues that can be potentially damaging to them. The sharing of nasty or abusive messages, or the creation and sharing of exploitative or embarrassing images over social networking sites and smartphones between young people, can pose just as much of a risk to our children as stranger danger. The fact that young people have access to such ways of communicating at such a young age, when they are still developing and maturing, makes the case for age-appropriate relationship education all the more pressing.
I pay tribute to Gillian Martin—she is not in her seat, but I hope that she is still listening—because she gave an excellent and insightful speech. I commend the steps to tackle the issue that she is taking in partnership with the members of the Scottish Youth Parliament who represent her area. I have an 11-year-old daughter—she is the same age as the constituent to whom Gillian Martin referred. Although we are not naive about the things that go on, when we hear a very real example it sends a shiver down the spine: it is horrible.
We all have a responsibility to make sure that young people understand the consequences of sharing sexually exploitative images of themselves or their peers. We have heard why there needs to be greater understanding, through the curriculum, of young people’s rights, about consent and about what makes a healthy relationship.
Given that young people are more and more likely to turn to the internet for information on sex and relationship matters, it is imperative that the education system keep pace with that. A rounded education is only possible if it is set in the context of understanding the pressures and expectations that the internet brings, as well as understanding how our young people perceive the world through that prism.
I know that the Scottish Government has committed to a review of personal and social education in the 10-year mental health strategy. It is crucial that the review reflects the concerns that have been raised in the debate and that there is cognisance of that in the action plan. It would certainly be a welcome move to have the curriculum updated to reflect the fast-paced changes in technology in recent years, so that our teachers have the support that they need to deal with such issues. Perhaps that is something that the minister can elaborate on in summing up.
The publication of the national action plan is a welcome step forward in the attempt to improve the safety of our young people when they are online. I look forward to seeing its progress over the coming months.
I refer members to a voluntary statement on my ownership of internet domains in the register of interests.
The challenges in keeping young people safe online stem from the fact that the pace of change in technology has been so fast—in particular, over the past 10 years. When I was young, we had no internet, no mobile phones and—dare I say it?—we used to write letters to each other.
It is fair to say that, as well as all the benefits that technology brings, it brings many dangers, and we have spoken about those at great length. Just this week, I welcomed to the Parliament’s education service a group of primary 7 students—11 and 12-year-olds—from Glengarnock primary in North Ayrshire. Knowing that I had this debate coming up, I asked how many of them owned a smartphone, and every single one of them had one. When I told them that I was going to speak in a debate on what the Government is doing to try to improve online safety for children, and that they should know that not everyone on the internet is who they say they are, I was quite surprised by the response. Lots of them nodded in agreement, but some looked confused and bewildered. Therein lies the problem, and I support the action plan for that very reason. There are still many young people out there who have access to the internet, smartphones and tablets and who are possibly using apps that their parents do not know exist—never mind that they are downloaded on to their children’s devices—but who are not familiar with the concept that not everyone is who they say they are.
The word “collaboration” has been used many times today, and it is absolutely key. I welcome the Government’s commitment to work with the UK Government on the age verification provisions in the Digital Economy Act 2017, which recently went through Westminster. That is a positive step. Collective responsibility falls on all Governments to ensure that the internet is a safe environment—or is, at least, as safe as it can be. I also welcome the minister’s commitment to engage on legislation or other measures in respect of the right to remove data. My personal view is that much more can be done on that problem, formally or informally.
The action plan talks a lot about working with various organisations and people. Of the 23 action points in it, 18 start with the line:
“The Scottish Government will work with”.
That is laudable and I commend the Government for it, but I would like to see more detail on what “will work with” means in those cases. It is a good document, but it is not long enough. I hope that, in the minister’s closing speech, he will expand on some ways in which the Government “will work with” specific organisations, because the devil is very much in the detail.
We should consider additional legislation. If the action plan does not suffice or if, in a few years, we as a Parliament think that we have not made improvements, we could consider legislation. I am very open minded on that.
The internet is home to many innovations. I want to draw members’ attention to one—dating apps on smartphones. They have become quite the norm, but they often fail on age verification. It is easy to bypass the safeguards on some—some simply ask for a date of birth, which to me is not a safeguard—and some have no safeguards at all. It is all too easy to hide behind the anonymity of an internet profile. Unfortunately, there have been a handful of tragic cases where things have gone horribly wrong. When I lived in London, the gay community was rocked by the needless deaths of four young men who met their tragic fate at the hands of someone whom they met on a dating app. That really brought home to me and my friends the seriousness of the issue.
We have to be realistic and accept that young people use the internet in the same way as adults do. It is right that much of the focus is on child exploitation and the fact that adults produce disgusting indecent images, but we should also have a conversation about the fact that many such images are created by teenagers and shared with other teenagers. In the context of the Parliament, we use words such as “evil” and “wrong”, but in the context of the online world, perhaps the creators of that online content do not associate what they are doing with words such as “evil” or “wrong”. I mention that for the specific reason that we have to think about that in considering our approach to education. As I think Iain Gray and Gillian Martin mentioned, we should not go into that with a sense of fear and shame about the subject matter—in general, there are too many taboos when we talk about sex—or a lack of understanding of why young people create such images.
I should briefly mention the fact that some people are targeted by sharing of images. I have heard of tragic cases of young people committing suicide as a result of bullying and threats that were directed towards them. Many of them got to the stage at which they did not know who to turn to. There is so much shame and stigma associated with telling someone that there is a problem. They did not want to tell someone that they had taken that type of photo in the first place; therefore, they found it difficult to seek help.
We talk about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as social media, but the worlds of Snapchat, Tumblr and Vine, and even online gaming communities, are the real environments that many 21st century teenagers inhabit. Those are where many of the dangers lie. That said, one in five eight-year-olds has a Facebook account. We all know that that is completely in breach of the site’s rules, but many parents allow it, so we must educate parents as well. However, is prohibition or persuasion better? It is the age-old conundrum.
There is no magic bullet in legislating to regulate online content, but it is worth noting that a report from the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee criticised internet giants for not doing enough, and said that they were “completely irresponsible and indefensible”. Some of those companies, to their credit, have responded to that criticism by announcing investment in new staff to monitor online activity. One large social media site announced 3,000 more people on top of the 4,500 that it already had—that makes 7,500 people working for one company just to monitor activity online. That sounds great, but that same site has 1.9 billion users.
That is also the site on which someone recently broadcast a murder live on their smartphone. It sounds like something out of a horror movie, but it is happening. It is happening on the same sites on which we post pictures of kittens and our lunch. That is the reality of how technology has changed.
I will conclude by saying that the online world is hard to police, because it is ever changing. With many more of our children online, the action plan is a really good start and I welcome it. However, its implementation must be monitored closely. We cannot just pay lip service to the subject; we should be more frank about the discussion and we should do everything that we can as parliamentarians to support the Government on it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. Keeping children safe online is an important issue that should concern each and every one of us; we all have a role to play. There is no doubt that the world of children and young people today is pretty radically different from the world in which most of us in the chamber grew up. I share Iain Gray’s reflection that we are perhaps overprotective outdoors in the real world and not protective enough online.
So much of young people’s time is spent online, on multiple devices and forums, and for multiple reasons, often simultaneously—whether that involves chatting to friends or family, doing homework, finding out what is going on or just playing games and watching videos for fun—that the online world and the offline world are one thing to our young people. There are many positive, or even just benign, aspects to the spread of the internet. However, as we have heard this afternoon, along with all the opportunities there are risks and dangers to young people. I will focus on a couple of those: bullying and the negative impact of the internet on young people’s understanding of healthy relationships.
As has been powerfully set out, cyberbullying allows bullying to take on a whole new dimension. As many children and young people are constantly attached to their phones, they are never free from being attacked or persecuted. There is no safe space, even in their own homes and their own rooms.
In addition to explicit bullying that takes place online, the dominance of the online sphere creates new measurements of popularity and self-worth that are based on who has the most likes, the most followers and the most friends, and who is in what group chat. For children and young people whose posts do not get liked, while others do, that can lead to feelings of low self-worth. Other speakers have also touched on the unrealistic images that young people see.
I will move on to healthy and respectful relationships. The Education and Skills Committee, on which I sit, has recently considered personal and social education, with sex and relationships education as a core issue in that. As part of its investigation work, the committee noted the increasing sexualisation of young people through their exposure to sexual images and information from the media and popular culture—and that is before we even get to the easy availability of internet pornography.
It should be of huge concern to everyone that the internet, including pornography, is such a significant source of information about sex for many of our young people. In evidence to the committee, the NSPCC quoted worrying research that showed that, by the age of 14, more than 90 per cent of young people had seen pornography, and about half of boys thought that it was an accurate representation of sex. It also reported that girls were articulating that they were worried that boys’ impressions of and attitudes to women were negatively impacted by their exposure to pornography.
The dangers that that represents when it comes to issues such as consent, contraception and the basic respect and treatment of others can hardly be overstated. As we are all aware, portrayals of women in the media and in pornography reinforce negative gender role stereotypes, and they seriously risk our young people developing unhealthy and negative expectations of sexual relationships. On the one hand, the issue can be approached in a straightforward manner by working closely with social media providers, mobile operators and internet providers to try to prevent access to harmful content for young people. On the other hand, overturning dangerous false perceptions of sex and relationships that are based on pornography is much more difficult.
Good and fit-for-purpose personal and social education clearly has a role to play in combating the messages that are received online and ideally in preventing young people from feeling that they need to go online to further their knowledge. I trust that the forthcoming report from the Education and Skills Committee will contribute to that effort.
It is the responsibility of all of us—of society and not just of schools—to speak to our children and young people about such issues and ensure that they have positive and accurate information to counter things that they might stumble across online. As well as talking to them—such conversations are sometimes difficult—we have to be good at listening, and we will sometimes hear things that we do not want to hear. My colleague Gillian Martin’s speech illustrated that starkly.
Entrenching an understanding of consent is crucial in all this. In general, there is a need to ensure that young people and children are aware of what healthy and respectful relationships look like.
Police Scotland has been doing great work across the country to keep young people safe online. Throughout North Ayrshire, officers are working with schools and other partners, including the North Ayrshire child protection committee, to promote responsible use of the internet and to keep children safe. Earlier this week in my constituency, PC Young spoke to the 1st Kilwinning guides about staying safe online.
We all know many other organisations that are working hard to protect our young people, including the girl guides, respectme, Barnardo’s, the NSPCC and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland. Those organisations all have helpful information for parents on the topic. I welcome the Scottish Government’s “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People” and in particular the emphasis that it places on working in partnership with other organisations to ensure online safety.
I look forward to continuing to do what I can in my roles as an MSP, mum, auntie, family member and friend to protect our young people and children online.
Safe in the knowledge that there is no one in the media gallery and that nobody in the media offices will be watching on their tellies, I say how well everyone has spoken in the debate. Ruth Maguire just did so—she made an excellent and thoughtful contribution, with many strong points.
Everything is stretching these days. I will touch on those themes in the six or seven minutes that I now do not have.
The first of the three points goes to Iain Gray’s philosophical—as always—introduction to his remarks, regarding relationships and sex education in schools. What Iain Gray was rightly driving at—and what the Education and Skills Committee, which a number of us, including Gillian Martin, are on, has been looking into—was how best to ensure, and how we are ensuring, that citizenship and the challenges of being a teenager or young person in 21st century Scotland are being addressed through the support structures that we have in place.
In a sense, that is at the heart of the debate—it concerns the balance between privacy and the need for knowledge about what is going on. What is the appropriate way to teach, encourage and help relationship and sex education in schools, and who should do it? Perhaps my one plea to the minister relates to that. I entirely endorse the view of many colleagues across the chamber that this is a good action plan that does the right thing and rightly draws out many of the issues that need to be addressed. However, the key to any action plan, as I well remember from the past, is who implements it.
Given the importance of Iain Gray’s philosophical point, I suggest that PSE in schools should involve a balance of teachers and of trained, able youth workers, as well as parents, whom many members have mentioned. I am a parent and we have to accept as parents, never mind anything else in life, the challenges of ensuring online safety because of how we all use mobile phones, tablets and the rest—and, more to the point, because of how young people use them.
People have made sensible remarks about the dangers of sexting and of bullying and about the mental health scars and psychological pressures that exist for young people. I simply want to note how accurate those remarks are. Gillian Martin made a powerful contribution. I thought of a highly comparable example from my part of the world while she described the story that she related. Such experiences are—arguably—some of the more arduous ones that we deal with as elected representatives.
What do we say to a mum and dad who come to see us at a constituency surgery and who have been through such a situation, other than telling them to have a discussion with local police, the youth work team and others to seek the best way forward? School is what we always end up going back to, which is why I have made the point—I apologise to Mark McDonald for labouring it intensely—about teacher training for the next generation of bright and able men and women we expect to look after our children.
The second theme has been about criminal activity. Many colleagues have drawn attention to the Internet Watch Foundation, which works to minimise child sexual abuse content online, and to the range of important work that many organisations—not least of which is Police Scotland—carry out.
One of the action points that the Government is absolutely right to stress is the point that Mark McDonald made about the digital economy legislation. He will have to refresh the memory of members in the chamber. I believe that the bill became an act in the wash-up before Westminster finished for the election—I was about to say that it collapsed for the election, but that might be a little unfair.
The particularly important point that was made by the minister, as well as other members, is about ensuring that the industry in the round sees the protection of children as one of its core responsibilities. I thought about that when Stewart Stevenson gave us somewhat of a tour de force on Europe, although it was the point that he made about India that prompted my thought. He said that in India, 1.1 billion people—he will correct me if I have got the number wrong—are enshrined in a programme that gives them a digital identity. That goes to the heart of Iain Gray’s point, which is about where the balance is between individual rights and privacy on the one hand and, on the other hand, the state having a role in an individual’s future because it has the ability to assess where they are.
I say for clarity—I think that I said this in my speech—that the Indian system is voluntary at this stage. Signing up is not mandated, but its success has been that almost everybody seems to have signed up.
I entirely accept that point.
The third aspect of the debate, which concerns any Government’s responsibility in this area, is about what the vast growth in digital and in online use means for reading and writing, which are the core responsibilities of our education system. There is not much evidence on that, but I found work by one academic that I will share with members. Pasi Sahlberg from Finland has looked into whether information technology and online content are damaging literacy. That is interesting because, if we leave aside the political debate about literacy, everyone is putting a huge amount of pressure on the need to improve literacy.
On his website, Sahlberg states:
“According to some national statistics, most teenagers in Finland spend more than four hours a day on the Internet”.
He highlights that
“the number of heavy Internet and other media users ... is increasing” in that country
“as it is doing in the U.S., Canada and beyond.”
He also says:
“emerging research on how the Internet affects the brain—and thereby learning—suggests three principal consequences: shallower information processing, increased distractibility, and altered self-control mechanisms. If this is true, then there is reason to believe that increasing use of digital technologies for communication, interaction and entertainment will make concentration on complex conceptual issues, like those in mathematics and science, more difficult.”
I do not know whether that is true, but it is the kind of judgment that researchers need to look at closely.
Annie Wells used the phrase “sea of opportunities” to describe the internet. I thought that she was talking about the common fisheries policy; we could mix a lot of metaphors here. The internet is also a sea of danger and, if there is a specific danger to anything, it may be to literacy. I ask the Government to bear that in mind and to be aware that, if ever there was a need to commission research, it is on exactly that issue.
Thank you, Presiding Officer—any comparisons with Tavish Scott are, of course, welcome.
This is an important debate on a very important issue that any of us who are parents will recognise as a huge concern, and which is a concern for the whole of society.
At the risk of using what is perhaps unparliamentary language, I want to say that it can really suck being a teenager. You have concerns about whether or not you are friends with the right people, whether you are being invited to the right things and what people are saying behind your back—it is almost as bad as being a parliamentarian.
The reality is that we all know about the pressures of being a teenager, as we have all lived them. Those of us of a certain age are thankful that we did not go through that stage while the internet was around, and that we did not have the additional pressures of technology to amplify the effects. I call on all members in the chamber to condemn Kate Forbes for reminding us all how much more recent those memories are for her than for the rest of us, and I thank Stewart Stevenson for moving the context back in the other direction.
Internet safety is a serious issue, whether we are looking at the broader impact on adolescent mental health, which Tavish Scott discussed very well, or more serious cases such as that of 14-year-old Breck Bednar, who was using an online gaming platform and was introduced to another, slightly older boy who subsequently groomed and then murdered him; that is the most serious end of the spectrum.
Other members have done an excellent job of discussing various issues and concerns, and I thank Gillian Martin for doing an excellent job of highlighting some of the contemporary issues that young people face at school around sexting and the use of social media.
Our task is to look at the role of technology and at how we can adapt it. The minister has been absolutely right to acknowledge the pervasive nature of technology and the fact that, in the eyes of many people who use it, it is not separate from real life.
Of course, technology has advantages and possibilities. The opportunity for people to learn and acquire knowledge is huge, and we cannot ignore that. There is a need to embrace the concept of digital citizenship. I thank the Scottish Government for bringing to the chamber its useful action plan.
As Iain Gray said, the subject area can be difficult to understand, and it can therefore be difficult for us to know what we can do and to reach everyone who needs to be reached. The plan enshrines the need for us to ensure that children have an understanding of the opportunities and risks. It seeks to equip parents and carers; takes a holistic, wider-society view; seeks to support children who have suffered and—most importantly—to deter perpetrators. Those are the right areas to look at, and the plan is a very important start.
Internet safety is a serious area, but it is fast moving, and it is right that members on all sides of the chamber have pointed to areas in which the framework can be improved and enhanced. The rest of my comments will be made in that tone and tenor.
I join other members in pointing out that the Government could go further in specifying who should be taking the actions and what they should be. Jamie Greene spoke well on that. My research on the topic took me to a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, “The Protection of Children Online”, which made a number of important points about the way in which policy should be made and implemented. The report highlighted the importance of policy co-ordination, consistency and coherence, and of evidence being at the heart of the matter in terms of both measuring and evaluation. The issue is fast moving, and unless measuring and evaluation are at the heart of the policy approach, it will never keep pace with what is happening.
With that in mind, I believe that the Government’s national action plan is a good start because it has much of that policy coherence and consistency that the OECD pointed out is important. Point 12 in the national action plan, however, is about exploring whether there could be more co-ordination. I suggest that there must be more co-ordination. In addition, more evaluation must be embedded in the action plan and we would like to see the Government go further in that regard. Annie Wells’s amendment indicates the important point that there would need to be measurement to establish what progress is made under the action plan.
Claire Baker referred to the need for a wider, more encompassing strategy. The OECD report produced a taxonomy that is a useful framework for understanding the broad range of risks and other aspects that we need to protect our children from and equip them for dealing with. This debate has focused on cyberbullying and online grooming, but the OECD framework looks also at consumer-related risks and information privacy and security risks. Consumer-related risks are things such as children’s access to gambling and their ability to buy alcohol. Those might seem mundane, but they are nonetheless significant risks that we need to ensure that the action plan encompasses. Similarly, regarding information privacy and security risks, we must ensure that we are preparing our young people to be responsible and well-equipped digital citizens, rather than focusing wholly on protecting them against the bigger and more obvious risks that we see and have heard about in the debate.
Tavish Scott’s amendment raises very important points indeed. As many other members have pointed out in the chamber this afternoon, the Education and Skills Committee has been looking at teacher training. The evidence given in the committee’s meeting yesterday raised a lot of alarming concerns, not least those around the difference between the expectations for teacher training and the reality of what is being delivered. It is about the focus, time and attention that is being given in teacher training to important issues such as literacy and numeracy. With regard to this debate, however, perhaps the most alarming evidence from yesterday’s committee meeting was given by a teacher who said that their teacher training had no information and communications technology content whatsoever. I asked the teacher to clarify whether she meant ICT specifically in the context of cyberbullying, but she said that they had had no ICT training at all, which is deeply alarming.
I welcome the minister’s commitment to look at how student teachers are prepared for their roles, but I think that we have to look very carefully at teacher training in the round. It is of huge concern that as important a topic as ICT is not being covered at all in teacher training, because technology is pervasive. Teacher training needs to approach technology as a means of delivering teaching, a medium for learning and expression and as a subject in itself. Above all else, it is vital that teachers have the time to focus on protecting children and training them to be responsible digital citizens. I hope that the minister takes that point away and that it is looked at with great care and sensitivity.
What is most important is that we have a coherent plan that enables everyone to work together, with collective responsibility. The Government’s action plan is an excellent start. I have made a number of criticisms, but they have been made with a genuinely positive intent. Again, I thank the minister and I welcome the amendments, which we support.
First, I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, in which I declare that I am a director of, and shareholder in, two online communication and collaboration platforms but do not receive any remuneration for those posts. I am also a board member for the west of Scotland NSPCC.
It has been a consensual debate with a variety of thoughtful speeches. Kate Forbes told us of her journey through technology. I compared it with mine, and I can let her know that she has made a happy man feel very old. I also very much enjoyed Stewart Stevenson’s speech, which he delivered, in his own informed and inimitable way, in words and erotic movements, some of which I actually understood.
To me, the debate highlights the dilemma that we have as parents in allowing our youngsters access to the internet. That was brought starkly to light in Gillian Martin’s testimony and by Colin Beattie and Jeremy Balfour.
I thank Tavish Scott for bringing up Stewart Stevenson’s Great Uncle Socrates. In a speech of the high quality that I expect from him, he highlighted the learning capacity that we have in new technology. The internet can be a wonderful learning tool. For example, at the weekend, as many parents do, I was reading a bedtime book to my youngest. It was about diving for treasure in the south seas, and it started to talk about a sunfish and a moonfish. My daughter asked me rather sceptically whether those are real things and, 30 seconds later, via an iPad, we were in the south seas as we watched videos of sunfish and moonfish. What an incredible way of bringing words to life. If I had tried to describe those rather strange-looking creatures, she would immediately have thought, “Dad’s at it again.” There we go—the internet is a tool to prove that dad is not at it. However, we should be warned because, of course, the converse is also true. Our children are better online than we are and they can just as easily show us up when we try to pull the wool over their eyes.
What is really interesting to me about mobile technology and the internet is that it is now encouraging outdoor learning and activity. Members will know that I talk about that a lot. With gamification and outdoor activities, kids are now taking their mobile technology outdoors. What a fantastic way to learn.
However, as Iain Gray highlighted, it is a struggle to quantify the risk of our children being online in our homes and outside. As a parent, I get nervous when the iPad becomes a tool for communicating between friends or even with unknown people, perhaps even in interactive online gaming. We think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and YouTube as some of the main communication platforms, but there are many other easily downloadable platforms and apps that allow unfettered video, picture and text communication. That is the dilemma that we have discussed today. As Mark McDonald asked, how can we ensure that our children get access to this wonderful educational tool while we protect them from the worst in online behaviours?
I faced the issue when we were building a sports social media and internet protocol television platform several years ago. How do we allow subscribers to freely share training videos, pictures and conversations and to live stream events while ensuring that the platform is not used in an abusive manner? There are off-the-shelf software solutions that are quite sophisticated—they can identify skin tone to such a level that they know whether a person is wearing a pair of shorts or not and they can decide remotely whether the image is appropriate for upload. There are also some simple software solutions that can prevent bad language and any derivatives of bad language from being used and uploaded.
However, the truth of the matter is that, for any fledgling or small company, the expense can be prohibitive. That is not such an issue for those platforms where a stringent gateway to access is the paramount selling point, such as legal, medical and accountancy portals. They can afford to make access to their platforms a more demanding process, because high levels of security are their users’ primary concern. Platforms and apps need to strike the right balance between safety protocols and simplicity of access and use. The more safety and security protocols are put in place, the more likely it is that there will be an impact on the ease of use.
Some of the major mainstream social media players are undoubtedly reluctant to enhance safety and security for fear of driving their users off to their competitors, as I think Stewart Stevenson highlighted. That inevitably leads to a reliance on a level of self-policing on platforms whereby users are expected to report behaviour that is not in keeping with their rules and regulations. There are hugely differing levels of protocols and success. We have reports of abusive content being reported but not being removed for a considerable time, as Jamie Greene alluded to in an intervention. Unfortunately, that does little to protect the most vulnerable.
To protect this user profile, the education of parents and carers is still going to be the most effective strategy, as Tavish Scott said. We need to ensure that, when children and young people have access to and are using mobile and other internet devices, parents and carers are aware of the dangers and understand how to enable parental locks and safety features, as Monica Lennon said. To that end there are some excellent awareness-raising initiatives currently operating, which need more publicity and which people need more encouragement to adopt.
I think that Ruth Maguire and Monica Lennon spoke about children knowing what a healthy relationship looks like. The NSPCC is currently running a programme in our primary schools on recognition of abuse. The reality is that often children who are being abused do not realise that they are being abused. As a member of the NSPCC board, I was rather concerned about that and reluctant to think about how to teach primary school children about sexual abuse in sex education, so I went and sat at the back of one of the classes to listen to what the programme does. How it takes place is fantastic; I came out of the class quite buoyed. My own eight-year-old daughter, who is soon to be nine, went through that programme. She did not know that I did not know that she was going through it, and on the way home in the car, she asked, “Do you know what sexual abuse is, dad?” As father to three daughters, I have to say that it was quite enlightening to hear my eight-year-old already starting to talk quite openly about that. Those are the kinds of things that we need to highlight and advance.
It is incumbent on this Parliament to make our voice and views known to bodies such as the UK Council for Child Internet Safety technical working group, specifically with regard to technical and regulatory standards, and classification and rating of content. We also have a role to play in encouraging the continual driving of innovation in the area of protective tools and services because, frankly, I feel that we are always playing catch-up.
When considering and developing online safety and security for the most vulnerable, especially around social media and communication tools, we must all be aware of the dangers of cyberbullying, accessing inappropriate content, having online identities hacked and stolen and much more sinister behaviour towards child internet users. It is therefore an on-going fight to ensure that technology around child online safety and security is given the attention that it needs and keeps pace with the development of software platform technology, which is why this debate is so important. It helps to keep the topic at the forefront of our minds and reminds us to keep the pressure on the online developers and the bodies that regulate content, standards and protocols for access, so that child safety and security is paramount. Support for the Government’s national action plan on internet safety for children and young people will help to maintain that vigilance in our drive to ensure that being online is a positive experience for our children.
Let us keep talking, and let us keep taking and demanding appropriate action. I am happy to have spoken in the debate.
I note that you got the compliments in before I speak, Presiding Officer.
I hope that Tavish Scott has paid attention—as I know he does—to the fact that, yet again, I have brought to the chamber a debate that will unite us in commonality of purpose. I am sure that he will be keeping note of that. I apologise that, in this debate, I was not able to facilitate his getting away for the early flight to Sumburgh, as I have done previously.
In his closing remarks, Tavish Scott mentioned Pasi Sahlberg, one of the International Council of Education Advisers to the Scottish Government; Mr Scott will have heard the Deputy First Minister citing the body of evidence to which he referred. We recognise that there is a lack of evidence out there, but what evidence there is points to a need to ensure that internet use is balanced in education and in the home environment. I am sure that other studies are being commissioned. The Government will pay close attention to them.
Brian Whittle spoke about self-policing and keeping pace with change—an issue that came up a lot in the debate. It is becoming easier to create apps if one has the skills to do so, which means that companies do not require a significant back-room operation to launch a networking app. The challenge for companies is that they run the risk of not being able to support large uptake of the app. We have to ensure that individuals or organisations that launch apps see protecting children and young people as part of their core responsibility as a business.
The debate has been constructive and consensual. I want to address a number of points in the time that remains.
Annie Wells asked me to consider looking at the timescales in the action plan. I am afraid that I have to advise members that one of the timescales in the plan has already slipped. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service summit, to which action 22 refers, will no longer take place in June 2017 but will be delayed until September 2017. We had to change the date as a result of the snap general election, so I am more than happy to blame the Tories for that target being missed. Members will acknowledge that we want to ensure that the appropriate individuals are involved in the summit. Overall, I am happy to reflect on where we can pin defined timescales to actions, because some of the work will be iterative and on-going.
Annie Wells also talked about developing guidance for professionals and parents. The guidance on digital citizenship will include information on respectful behaviours, rights and responsibilities, resilience and where to go for support. It will also consider issues around self-produced sexual images or sexting.
If members will forgive me, I will highlight two contributions in particular. The first is my friend and colleague Gillian Martin’s speech, which was an essential and powerful crystallisation of the issues that young people face. She highlighted those issues through the prism of a case in her constituency and highlighted the positive work that she is doing locally with incoming members of the Scottish Youth Parliament to listen to young people’s voices and consider what actions can be taken on the back of that. I would be interested in hearing more about the work that is being done and I will be more than happy to meet Gillian Martin and her MSYPs in the aftermath of the event that she mentioned to find out what they learned and how we as a Government can work alongside them on the issues that they have identified.
I also highlight Kate Forbes’s contribution. That is not because it made everybody in the chamber, including me, feel really old, but because she made the important point that social media projects a false image of the perfection of individuals’ lives and affects the image that young people have of themselves. Many people who are friends with me on Facebook would be forgiven for thinking that my house is very tidy, because of the way that I strategically position any photographs that are taken in the building. I was interested in the notion of filtering photos: my wife says that there is no Instagram filter that can improve my image. I have chosen to take that in a positive sense.
A number of other points bear repeating. Many members raised the issue of young people’s resilience and said that we must ensure that they are made aware of the risks that they face. I take on board points that were made on that. I will accept the Liberal Democrat amendment, because I agree that we need to look at how young people receive that information through education. We must not only educate young people about the risks that exist online, but ensure that they understand better the nature of consent, which Iain Gray mentioned. They need to understand what is appropriate and the kind of information and images that they should be sharing, whether with somebody they have never met or with somebody they know well. Gillian Martin made that point clearly when she spoke about the individual she was told about who holds images of her friends that she can then potentially use to bully or blackmail them. That sort of thing is a worrying development and shows that we need to ensure that young people are aware of what it is appropriate to share, even within what they assume is their circle of friends.
Stewart Stevenson highlighted a number of interesting international examples. They might have stretched beyond the issue of the safety of children and young people, but they touch on wider issues of internet safety and internet resilience. He also spoke about the need not only to protect children from physical harm but to be cognisant of the psychological harm to which they can be exposed. That is something that the issue of internet safety should be very focused on.
Monica Lennon followed up that speech by saying that she is going to set her daughter the task of researching Stewart Stevenson’s family tree. Those of us who have been in Parliament long enough to have heard a number of Stewart Stevenson’s speeches would suggest that it is probably more of a forest than a tree, so I wish her daughter luck.
Monica Lennon also highlighted the fact that we need to ensure that young people are cognisant of risk and are resilient enough to deal with it. Those of us who have spoken in the debate from the perspective of parents recognise that we have a role to play in making sure that we are as up to speed as possible on how the internet affects our children’s lives and how our children interact on the internet.
There are a number of apps that provide what we might term child-friendly versions of more regular social media applications. The organisations that created those filters are to be commended. However, we recently saw, through a BBC report, that not all those apps are entirely safe from being infiltrated by inappropriate content. Therefore, even in those supposed safe spaces online, we have to be aware that many children and young people face potential risks, and we need to understand how we can tackle that risk and prevent harm in that regard.
Jamie Greene started his speech by telling us about his ownership of a number of internet domains. That piqued my natural curiosity, so I checked online and it turns out that he owns a number of “.london” internet domains, which suggests that Mr Greene is waiting for a future enterprising mayor to announce that he is going to launch “.london” in the same way as we have launched “.scot”. At that point in time, Jamie Greene will be launched into the stratosphere as an internet multimillionaire. When that day comes, as it no doubt shall, I want him to remember that I spotted that during this debate.
On a more serious note, Mr Greene asked me to expand on the action that we will take and who we will work with on that action. In relation to parents, carers and families, we will be working with parents and carers organisations to bring together the different summits that we want to attract parents to because, as was pointed out by Iain Gray, we want to ensure that as many parents and carers as possible take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about their children’s internet use and how they can support it.
We will also remain engaged with the UK Government as it develops a new internet safety strategy that is looking at tackling the online dangers that face children and young people, and we will consider implementation of the age verification provisions in the Digital Economy Act 2017. Tavish Scott was right to point out that that legislation has become an act in the extremely recent past, which speaks to the pace of change and the progress that has been made beyond the point that we were at when the plan was launched in April.
We will also be piloting the Click: path to protection training module in Scotland with the Marie Collins Foundation, which is targeted at professionals who are charged with safeguarding children who have been sexually abused and exploited online. We will be engaging with the University of Edinburgh and the Stop it now! Scotland programme as they undertake research into deterrents to viewing online indecent images of children. Police Scotland is developing a standard operating procedure for online abuse, which will develop and enhance the existing indecent images of children standard operating procedure.
Those are examples of the range of actions that we are taking and some of the different partners that we will be working with to take those actions forward.
On that specific point, the Stop it now! Scotland project, which I believe has Government backing or investment, is somewhat controversial. Perpetrators go to the service and all the information that is shared with it is passed to the authorities, whereas Germany has trialled other services that are completely confidential. Does the minister have a view on which is the best model?
I do not have specific views on the best model, but we want to cut down on the opportunities for online abuse and, where that abuse takes place, we want to prevent it as quickly as we can.
I finish by highlighting a point that Ruth Maguire made. She praised the work of Police Scotland with its choices for life peer-mentoring programme. I had the opportunity to see first hand that work at Hampden Park and to speak to young people who were taking part. We have to recognise that children are at risk not simply from adults online; they are sometimes at risk from their peer groups—Gillian Martin pointed that out, as did a number of other members. Iain Gray raised points about getting children to better understand how to respect one another and respect specific boundaries, and peer-to-peer education will help young people to understand how to protect themselves against such behaviours, and prevent some young people from undertaking those behaviours in the first place.