The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-09921, in the name of Gillian Martin, on encouraging cyber-resilience among young people. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament believes that one of the biggest issues for young people in Aberdeenshire and across the country is the pressure to share images of an intimate nature online with their peers; notes the view that an increased awareness of the career consequences, legal implications and bullying and mental health repercussions of such behaviour should be encouraged; acknowledges that recent figures from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service show the number of children reported to prosecutors for sexual offences has risen by 21% in four years and the number of reported cases involving a child committing a sexual offence against another increased by 34% over the same period; understands that so-called sexting is one of the main reasons for this increase in sexual offences among children, and welcomes campaigns, such as the Young Scot programme, Digi, Aye? Programme, which aim to tackle these issues.
I start the debate by saying thanks to an anonymous young woman. After weeks of flattery, cajoling and wearing down of resistance, she sent a photograph of herself semi-nude over Snapchat to a much older boy. Within half an hour or so, the photo was saved on the phones of multitudes of people in the area. She could see it being screen-grabbed and shared and, of course, she panicked.
I thank her because she was brave and did the best thing she could do: she told her mother and together they went to the police to report the incident; then they went to the press to raise awareness among other families. The girl was just 11 years old.
We all know stories about online bullying and shaming. We have seen it; we might have children who have experienced it; or we might have consoled a friend who has been through it. However, in the past few years, it has taken on a new dimension that is becoming normalised.
I have been quoted as saying that the practice of young people asking for nude photographs to be sent to them or sending unsolicited nude photographs of themselves to others is endemic. I do not use that word lightly. I have been talking to many young people about this for more than two years now and I am convinced that it is an issue that could affect the mental wellbeing of many young people and influence how they form healthy relationships.
This is not just a behavioural issue that should be tackled solely in schools—most of the image sharing happens outwith school and the consequences make school difficult for the victims. Guidance teachers I know tell of issues that are resolved by home time escalating online overnight and coming back in through the school doors the next day, increased in intensity and seriousness. Personal and social education—PSE—can and should raise these issues, but it cannot operate in isolation.
I was on the BBC this morning and my interview was trailed with the question, “Should schools do more to make teens cyber-resilient?” However, I think that we should all do more. Looking to schools to take full responsibility is not just unfair; it is unrealistic—it just would not work.
Parents, I believe, are not as aware as they could be about what is happening, and they will be shocked to learn that the practice is thought of as no big deal among many young people. Certainly I was completely in the dark about it, and I have worked with teenagers since mobile phones became everyday items—much less mini computers with apps and cameras. I have spoken to hundreds of parents about this, some of them debating alongside me today, who say, “We don’t know the half of it.” Indeed, it was my friend and colleague Christina McKelvie who first raised the issue of revenge porn in this Parliament, having been made aware of it by her own teenager, and she got legislative action on it in the form of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016.
Sharing nude photos is not just about young people exploring their sexuality; it can be about control. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that it is just boys asking girls to share their bodies with them online. One of the most shocking conversations I had was with a teenager who told me about a girl who was one of the leaders of her friendship group who held nude photographs of her friends in order to control them. If they did not do what she wanted, she could deploy the photographs to shame her so-called friends. The photographs were a bullying tool—talk about “Mean Girls”.
What can parents do? They can perhaps take a lesson from me on how not to react. On hearing about this kind of practice, my first reaction was a fairly primal one. I have a 14-year-old daughter, who will not thank me for mentioning her, and—I am not going to lie—I began to relate to the queens and kings of Grimms’ fairy tales who wanted to build towers to keep their princesses in until they were adults. However, to have an effective impact, parents have to tread a fine line between allowing their growing children a degree of privacy—recognising that they are developing as adults—and being aware of what they could be subjected to online.
As with most things, the best way is to talk and—most important—to give space to listen. It will possibly be the most difficult conversation that parents will have with their kids, but it will mean that they can cancel the delivery of bricks to build the tower.
I do not believe that further legislation is the way forward; we already have sufficient laws. However, from talking to many young people, I am convinced that there is a lack of awareness that by soliciting naked photographs or sending unsolicited photographs of themselves, they are breaking the law. As we know, it is an offence to possess, send, make, take, distribute or show indecent photographs of children. That means that the person taking the photo and the person who receives it is breaking the law. If it gets forwarded on, that recipient is also breaking the law, and we know that these images can end up anywhere. Once an image is off someone’s phone and away, they have no control over where it ends up and it can be online forever.
The impact that the practice could have on a young person’s future is obvious. Our best result would be to empower our young people to refuse to be pushed into sharing images of themselves that they would not be happy to have shared widely in the first place. I would like us to get to a situation in which young people feel empowered enough to call out those who prey on others to share or send unsolicited photographs—not easy for teenagers.
The most effective action will come from young people themselves. I was told repeatedly by a teen I know that young people will not respond to adults standing in front of them telling them how to behave online. That is why I am delighted that students from North East Scotland College’s television production department are in the public gallery today, along with representatives from Young Scot’s digi, aye? campaign. They have been working to produce two films, written by young people for other young people, about sexting and nude-image sharing.
Members and their guests are going to be the first to see the two films—one is called “Cyber Attraction” and the other is called “Overexposure”—at a reception in Parliament tonight. From tomorrow, the films will be on Young Scot’s website, to be viewed and shared by anyone. Teachers and parents can use the films as a way to start that tricky but vital conversation, and I hope that they will be watched and shared by thousands of young people and will spark conversations that empower them. I hope that these realistic, well-produced dramas—I had to say that, because it is my old college—will get us all talking about consent, self-esteem and resilience.
To conclude, I would like to tell a wee story. Ten years ago, when I was a college lecturer, I took 12 students, mostly in their late teens, on an exchange trip to Finland. On our last night, we went to a nightclub. I sat my beer on the bar and went up to dance. I was on the dance floor for less than a minute when one of my male students ran after me with my beer and gave me a right talking to about never leaving my drink unattended. Why? Because his generation had it drummed into them that they must always be vigilant in case their drink was spiked. In fact, they all laughed at me for being so naive.
I would like to think that, with a concerted effort from all of us talking about the dangers of sexting and image sharing, young people will be in a position to protect themselves and their friends from that in the same way as they protect them from spiked drinks. Putting themselves in a vulnerable and dangerous position by sexting will be so 2018 and it will be a change that is led by young people. [
I have a wee note for everyone: I ask those in the gallery please not to clap, catcall or shout, if you do not mind. Perhaps at the end you can show your appreciation to everyone who takes part in the debate.
I ask those who are taking part to be quite strict with their timing, because a lot of people want to speak. I do not want to leave anyone out, but time is limited. Speeches should be absolutely no more than four minutes.
I thank Gillian Martin for securing this important debate and I take the opportunity to thank my young helper, Calum McKay, for putting together his first speech for this debate and for his research on underage gambling online.
As a parent myself, with two children growing up in the midst of the cyber-revolution, the topic is one of serious concern. We have an obligation to educate our children about being online, but who should take responsibility? For social media companies just to shrug their shoulders is not good enough. The fundamental lack of action on developing safeguards lies at the centre of many online problems. We must not and cannot sit on our hands, waiting for action. The companies that are turning a blind eye must realise that their lack of action is akin to allowing the exploitation of our children and young people. As we accelerate relentlessly towards a digital world, the reach of social media influencers becomes more pronounced. Children are driven by peers and the desire to emulate their modern role models towards increasing exposure to online danger.
It is the duty of the influencers to set a precedent, although that also means holding them to account for their actions. In cases such as that of the well-known YouTube star, Logan Paul, who recently posted a video showing graphic imagery around suicide victims to his 16 million followers, our duty as adults is to react and to dispute such actions without dropping to that level ourselves, as we saw when many so-called responsible adults sent a series of death threats to Mr Paul.
Setting examples and ensuring that internet companies do the right thing are important issues. However, perhaps the best way forward is to empower our children in matters concerning their online behaviour. As well as creating legislation, we can bring about change by supporting charities such as the Rotary peace project, which facilitates and supports school children through life-skills-based programmes that are delivered student to student. The goal of the organisation is to empower the next generation to develop their own ideas about the challenges that the 21st century produces, including about how to avoid making poor decisions online and make the right, but often the most difficult, decisions.
It is important to note that the internet has succeeded in giving youth a voice and, therefore, greater influence and responsibility than have been available to any past generation—responsibility that young people did not previously hold in society. Young people have the ability to mould themselves, learn, adapt and stay on top of the evolving online industry, whatever its nature, but they need our support.
Other online dangers include the increasing prevalence and normalisation of gambling fundamentals through online gaming. Its ubiquitous presence has consumed the entire industry, leaving children as young as 11 exposed to the pressure of ideologies such as pay to win, for example through skin betting, which involves players betting with in-game items. The Gambling Commission reports 11 per cent participation among 11 to 16-year-olds, with as many as 20 per cent of boys claiming to have participated. However, like everything, with great power comes great responsibility, and it is evident that many children lack the self-control that is needed to recognise and avoid the exploitative nature of modern online games and the potentially disastrous consequences.
Until now, we have sat back and handed responsibility for safeguarding children to game developers, without society seeking a framework to prevent exploitation and the potential normalising of gambling-like activities. In many cases, online game developers continue to distance themselves from the debate on the basis that those concerns are outwith their responsibility or jurisdiction. Their avoidance of voluntary regulation is tantamount to them denying their moral responsibilities, which arise from the fact that their games might—indirectly or directly—contribute to our worrying underage gambling rates.
In order to safeguard our children, we must look not only to the online industry to make changes through voluntary or legislative action. As politicians and parents, we have a responsibility to empower our young people, allowing them to make the best, the right and the most appropriate choices for themselves in their ever-increasing online activity.
I thank Gillian Martin for bringing this important topic to the chamber and for all the work that she is doing on it.
I am sure that Gillian Martin will not mind me saying that, for people of our generation, who grew up in a world that is very different from the one that our young folk inhabit, the sheer scale of this topic can be quite overwhelming. It affects every constituency in every part of Scotland. It affects young people of both sexes and of all sexual orientations and spans several age groups, from those who are barely teenagers to young adults. It affects people of all classes and all backgrounds, regardless of their other interests and aspirations. Although the immediate impact is on young people, it affects all of us, too, because we all have young people in our lives whom we care about and want the best for.
For current generations of young people, for whom the divide between the real world and the online world is increasingly blurred, I guess that it is only to be expected that aspects of their romantic lives take place in the digital world, too. We are not going to be able to change that. Teenagers have always fallen in love with and wanted to have sex with one another and they will continue to do so. In a healthy and respectful context, fair play to them—it is part of growing up. However, although we cannot and do not want to stop hormones raging and romances blossoming, we can and must raise young people’s awareness of the new dangers and risks that go along with that in a digital age. We will never be able to protect our young people from unrequited love or a broken heart, but we can do our best to protect them from the mental anguish of seeing intimate images of themselves appear in public or ending up with sexual offences charges on their record.
A big part of that is about understanding how teenagers’ brains work and the pressures that they are under. Recent research into the teenage brain has shown that there is heightened risk taking during adolescence; and, at the same time, the influence of peer pressure peaks. That is quite a combination, and thinking about it can help us to understand why our young people sometimes take risks that most of us would find utterly terrifying and would never think of taking.
The example that Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore gives in her TED talk on the subject—which I recommend to anyone who is interested—is of an intelligent 13-year-old girl who knows all about the health risks of smoking but who, if she is out at the weekend and her friends offer her a cigarette, is very likely to smoke it. As neuroscience shows us, for a teenager, the risk of being ostracised from their peer group completely outweighs any of the health risks that they would think about from smoking.
In the context of viewing, sexting and sharing intimate images, it helps to understand the pressures that our young people are dealing with. If they are seen as something that everyone else is doing and if they are presented as a normal part of a relationship and as validating, the pressure on young people must be immense. When, at the same time, the area of the brain that is associated with self-regulation and judgment is still developing, teenagers are prone to taking risks.
It seems to me that our emphasising the career consequences, legal implications, potential for bullying and mental health repercussions is not going to be good enough. It will not do what we want it to do—in fact, I am quite sure of that.
As my time is ending and I do not want to overrun, I will just echo Gillian Martin’s sentiment that we should work with young people themselves and really listen to what they tell us will help to keep them safe, well and happy.
I, too, thank Gillian Martin for bringing the debate to the chamber so that we can discuss the very important issue of cyber-resilience.
The internet has been one of the greatest inventions in our history. It connects the world in many ways and offers many opportunities to all our citizens and their communities. The benefits of being online are far reaching. However, as with all things, there are many disadvantages. Despite the opportunities of the internet, there are risks that can affect almost everyone, but especially young and vulnerable people.
Children and young people today connect with each other in a wide range of ways that were not available to any generation before. Therefore, we need to encourage open conversations with young people about the dangers of the internet and social media. Too many children and young people are being exposed to bullying and pressures online, resulting in quite serious implications for mental health and social stigma. Raising awareness of the career consequences and the legal implications is a positive step that should deter perpetrators from bullying and trolling online.
The damaging and shocking increase in the number of sexual offences committed by young people shows that we need a connected approach among Government, schools, parents, charities, youth organisations and—most important—social network companies in order to tackle the scourge of the sharing of private and intimate details between young people and of so-called sexting. The digi, aye? campaign by Young Scot is a fine example of a programme that warns young people about the dangers of the internet and promotes safety and resilience when dealing with peers online.
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee produced the report “It is not Cool to be Cruel: Prejudice-based bullying and harassment of children and young people” in July last year. During our evidence sessions, we heard from young people and youth organisations that more and more young people, especially girls, are being subjected to sexual harassment online. I encourage everyone in the chamber and everyone who listens to the debate to read that report. I guarantee that you will be shocked to hear about the wide-ranging harassment that young people are facing online, and not just in our schools.
As a society, we need to be far more proactive in encouraging young people to become more cyber-resilient and to have open conversations about cyber-bullying or harassment when they have been subjected to it. We all have a role to play in ensuring that our young people are safe and that they can enjoy the real benefits that the internet can bring. Debates such as the one that we are having tonight are an important step in raising awareness. I close by once again thanking Gillian Martin for bringing the debate to the chamber.
I thank my colleague Gillian Martin for bringing this important debate to the chamber on what is, I understand, safer internet day 2018.
My colleague Ruth Maguire made the point that this is a huge issue. I note the speeches that we have heard so far, which have focused very much on the dangers of image sharing. I intend to focus on some of the broader issues that I suggest are pertinent to cyber-resilience. Before I do that, however, I echo that the key is to empower young people and work with them, which can start at home. Teaching responsible use of the internet should be as much the role of a parent or care giver as, for example, advising a child of the dangers of road traffic, the railways, water or electricity. I recall from my childhood learning those basic skills of how to stay safe in the world. We need to adapt them for the world that we now live in, where the internet is pervasive and will only become more so.
A balanced approach is required when we are bringing up kids, because, just as we cannot wrap them in cotton wool, isolate them from the world and put them in a tower—as much as I am sure that every parent wants to do that—we cannot cut children off from use of the internet, as it is a vital skill for the jobs of the future. It is important that this generation of digitally native people are allowed to develop such skills naturally. For that reason, the balanced approach is correct. The excellent resources that are out there include the UK safer internet centre education pack for parents and carers, Young Scot’s digi, aye? programme and the resources that Police Scotland provides.
I will turn to some of the broader issues. It strikes me that, in many aspects of life now, be it in the workplace or in the family, we often sit with our mobile phones next to us and we check and re-check them. We are constantly looking to see what is happening on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. We live a very distracted life, and it impacts on our relationships with other people and our capacity to sleep. Do we really need our phones at our bedsides?
When I was a kid, growing up, my mother refused to allow me to have a games console until I was 11 years old, although I begged and begged to get one for Christmas. She was convinced that sitting in front of the TV would not be a good idea at all and that I should be out playing. I do not know what she would have thought if, when I was five or six years old, I could have had a hand-held phone with 10 times the power of a PlayStation—as it was then—and access to an abundance of information.
There is a question about how we all—children, young people and adults—relate to the internet and the information that it provides. Cyber-resilience skills are also about, for example, being able to identify fake news, misinformation and scams. Those skills are incredibly important as well. Fundamentally, it all comes down to a skill of critical thinking, and it is incredibly important that that is incorporated when we think about cyber-resilience.
We also need to look to the future. As the excellent briefing from Barnardo’s highlights, there are both opportunities and risks. As we move forward, the internet is going to become more and more a part of our lives, including the internet of things and augmented and virtual reality. In the future, the children of today will be working alongside robots and artificial intelligences in the workplace. Indeed, our bodies may well be cognitively enhanced with machines and computers.
However, when we look at the coming revolution of technology in future decades, it is important to remember that our brains are not changing. We are still subject to the same risks and dangers that we have always been subject to. When we talk about cyber-resilience, it is important that we have that much broader concept as well.
Once again, I thank Gillian Martin for bringing the debate to the chamber.
Gillian Martin’s thought-provoking and, indeed, challenging remarks reminded me of the significance of three things: first, mental health; secondly, relationships; and, thirdly, and maybe above all, the resilience of young people. I know that it seems a long time ago for many of us, but we all went through childhood, and developing the resilience to deal with what was going on in the classroom or in wider social settings was easier because things called mobile phones did not exist. There are no two ways about that. We all had our challenges, but they were nothing compared with the challenges that my kids face in school or post-school life now.
Finlay Carson is right about the power of large corporations that have a major role in how our young people grow up. Are we doing enough about that? I am not sure that we hold those people to the fire in the way that we could. Gillian Martin is right about the need for resilience and the importance of measures that we can take to address that. Part of the challenge is for people of a certain generation to keep up to date with the technology and to understand it. I suspect that much of the work that needs to be carried out is as much about helping parents as it is about—as the many sensible speeches from across the chamber have identified—helping young people in schools, at home and in other environments such as youth clubs. For parents, that is, without a doubt, pretty scary stuff.
I will highlight three initiatives that have taken place in Shetland, because I think that the debate is as much about what can be done as about analysing the problem, which members across the chamber have done sensibly. First, the Shetland child protection committee has done a huge amount of detailed work in the area that we are discussing over the past number of years, and, over the past few months, virtually safe, virtually sound youth conferences have been held in many schools across Shetland. The important point is that it is young people who have designed the courses that are involved. They have talked to each other and have looked at what is available and how best to take that knowledge and those topics into workshops so that their peers can learn. That has been done not by people of my age, people wearing uniforms or people from different agencies, but by young people themselves taking the initiative, which is at the heart of why those youth conferences have been successful.
Secondly, most secondary 1 pupils across the islands have now attended a child exploitation and online protection safety workshop. Again, S6 young people have been trained to deliver those internet safety sessions in schools, and new materials that are supported by some of the initiatives that are taking place across Scotland have been made available to keep that training up to date and specific to real-life situations.
Thirdly, the school parent councils in many areas of Shetland have arranged internet awareness sessions that are aimed not just at children but at parents. The other week, Karen Fraser, the vice-chair of the mobile phone and internet safety committee, which is a sub-committee of the Shetland CPC, said:
“The workshop is about staying safe online and focuses on bullying and effects it has on everyone—the victims, the bullies and the bystanders. It raises awareness about the risks associated with internet use and explores with participants issues that affect them.”
The local library in Lerwick is using an important book entitled “Chicken Clicking”, which is aimed at three and four-year-olds and is a dark and scary story about online troubles. Although the book is written for and aimed at three and four-year-olds, I think that it can be read by young people who are much older than those pre-school children. To me, the use of that book shows how we can find innovative solutions to help young people in these most trying of times.
I pay tribute to Gillian Martin for securing this debate on a very important issue to which, as a mother of young teens, I have given quite a bit of thought.
As has been mentioned already, children today are growing up in an environment that is very different from the one that my generation grew up in. I cannot be the only person in the chamber who is very glad that Facebook did not exist when I was 17. When I tell my children that I did not get a mobile phone until I was in my 20s, they just stare at me and do not to know what to say. I do not think that they can comprehend the idea of a pre-mobile and pre-internet world, where people did not have a home computer or access to the internet in their pocket.
However, our lives are now partly lived online, with all the benefits, challenges and dangers that that brings for both children and adults. It is obviously children, though, who are most at risk from the potential dangers, and it is young teens who are thought to be the most at risk from certain activities. I will focus specifically on one that is known as sexting.
Kate Burls is an education team co-ordinator with child exploitation and online protection command, or CEOP, which is a command of the national crime agency. She said that their work with young people has found that sexting increasingly feels like the norm for behaviour in that peer group. I am not sure whether teenagers would recognise the term “sexting”, as they would probably call it something like “nude selfies” or “dodgy pics”.
I also have that impression of the normality of the practice. I had a bit of time when I visited a local high school recently and spoke to a group of S5 girls. I asked them what they thought about the subject and whether it was happening. They said that it was and proceeded to give loads of examples, such as, “Last week, it happened to so-and-so”—it was very normal. The varied examples included one called snaking, in which a boy—it is usually a boy—befriends a girl and puts pressure on her to produce pictures, which he then distributes to his friends and even posts online. Teenagers can all give examples of when that has happened, so it is probably more prevalent than we realise and is probably going on all around us. The pictures can be around the school within half an hour, with horrible and quite devastating consequences for the teenagers concerned. Girls are reporting more instances of being put under pressure to send those pictures, which is heaped on them using insults that I remember as quite familiar: if they do not send the pictures, they are frigid, but if they send them, they are easy. There is no way for girls to win in that scenario—as usual.
Because it seems normal and it seems like everybody is doing it, it can be hard to resist the pressure and easy not to think about the consequences. As a parent, I have spoken to my teens about the practice in an attempt to show that they can talk to me about such things, and to give them space and time to think about the situation before they might be faced with it. We need to educate children about the risks and to offer them support if and when they might need it.
When I got pregnant, a friend who has been a teacher for 20 years advised me, “Never get your children a smartphone until they are at least in their 20s.” That was based on things that she has seen on mobile phones. I am not sure that that is the solution that we are looking for, but I understand the sentiment that was behind the advice. Teens talking to teens is clearly the way forward, and the videos and short films that were mentioned by Gillian Martin and are being promoted by Young Scot are part of the solution.
That is an excellent decision. Are we all sitting comfortably? I refer members to my entry in the members’ register of interests; I am a member of the west of Scotland National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children board. I add my thanks to Gillian Martin for securing time in this chamber once again to raise awareness of the dangers that being online can pose, especially for younger communities, which she continues to champion in the chamber.
Without doubt, the internet and the ease of online access have had many benefits in learning, education and communication, and we should not gloss over that fact. As a tool used properly, it can open up the universe and transport us to places limited only by our imaginations. Recently, as part of a school project, I and my youngest stood on the deck of the Titanic and we visited the ship in its watery grave. We have come face to face with titanoboa, a prehistoric snake that is estimated to have been up to 50 feet long and to weigh more than a tonne. As an educational tool, the internet’s potential is almost limitless. However, we are all too aware of the dangers that can lurk online for the vulnerable and the unaware. From online bullying to much more sinister issues, it is clear that we are struggling to stay ahead of the curve.
I will help Ash Denham out and say that I remember getting my first mobile phone when I was 32 years old. I had just retired from athletics; my employer handed me the phone and I thought that I had made it. It was akin to carrying a brick around with me. At the time, my eldest daughter was young and I had no need to think about her cybersecurity.
Roll on a few years, and my middle daughter had started to get to grips with the internet, but there was no need to worry about social media.
I now have a nine-year-old, who has one of my old smartphones attached to her mother’s contract. That costs buttons, and she now has access to the internet, social media and her friends whenever she has her phone. That is great for me, because I can FaceTime her at breakfast time and in the evening, but there is always the lurking threat of online abuse.
I have grandchildren aged five and six who can do things with an iPad that baffle me. They will watch something on the iPad and, all of a sudden, with a swish of a finger, I will have lost control of my television as their viewing preferences appear on the screen. Perhaps that is part of the issue. Technology is moving faster than some of us are learning. We are not keeping up; rather, we are falling behind and therefore struggling to understand as online safety issues develop.
To that end, I commend the be share aware NSPCC programme, which offers advice on how to keep our children safe online. As the NSPCC has pointed out, we are fine talking to our children about
“crossing the road, bullying and speaking to strangers”,
but we are less likely to discuss
“staying safe in the digital world” and social networks, apps and games that our children are using. As I have mentioned, perhaps that has something to do with our understanding of the digital world.
While I am on that subject, I want to mention a slight bugbear of mine. Computer games come with an age recommendation for a reason. I see too many youngsters playing computer games for people aged 18 plus. We all need to be a bit more aware.
Online bullying is a pretty new problem, but most of us in the Parliament are all too aware of it. If we make a comment, post a speech or—God forbid—make a mistake in the chamber, it is like jackals round a wounded wildebeest, but we accept that as a hazard of our job. I wonder whether we really should do that and whether we are normalising that kind of behaviour. As supposed adults, we will deal with that in the main, although I suspect that few will go unaffected in some way by that kind of ritual attack. However, if our children experienced that, the effects could be much more profound and longer lasting. That is abusive behaviour.
Childline has reported a 12 per cent rise in cyberbullying counselling sessions. I once again commend the NSPCC for its work in helping primary schools to recognise abuse in all its guises. As I have said before in the chamber, many children who are being abused do not recognise that they are being abused, especially online.
I reinforce the point, which other members have made, that our children’s safety online is all our responsibility. We need to be aware of what they are accessing and what their online activity is and, as the front-line internet police, we sometimes need to be unpopular and say no to certain apps, games and social media. It can be as simple as having an on-going conversation and talking to our children. Would that not be a breakthrough?
I thank Gillian Martin for bringing this important debate to the chamber and for all the work that she has done on the subject.
As we have heard in speeches from across the chamber, young people growing up today are under much more pressure than my generation was. My childhood was spent playing, going to school, watching television or swimming. In my teens, I spent endless hours on the phone to my best friend—much to the frustration of my mum and dad, as she only lived next door. There were, of course, no mobile phones and there was no internet, Facebook, lnstagram or Snapchat, and I have no doubt that life was simpler. Our parents told us not to talk to strangers, and that was the extent of the personal safety messages that we got. For most of us, home was a safe and secure place, and what happened in the playground with friends stayed in the playground.
Now, young people are contactable 24 hours a day and, despite our best efforts, their relationship with cyberspace in their own virtual reality is largely their world. It has been estimated that 69 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds own a smartphone, and that percentage jumps to 90 per cent for 16-year-olds. That much access to photo-sharing and video-sharing technology combined with hormones and curiosity has created the perfect storm for sexual imagery and cyberbullying.
Studies have found that the majority of teenagers think that sexting is normal and harmless. That is shocking and scary. Without intervention and education, teenagers who store and share that content begin to view others as sexual objects. Psychologists have seen that, over time, those thoughts lead to a lack of empathy, an increase in anger and an increase in sexually aggressive crimes. Unfortunately, we are already seeing that. As Gillian Martin mentioned in her motion, in four years the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has seen cases in which a child has committed a sexual crime against another child rise by a troubling 34 per cent.
Our objective is not to shame the young people who send sexual images for their decisions; instead, our goal is to understand the driving motivation behind their behaviour. After all, we must remember that we created the world in which they live.
Social scientists have found that many young people share explicit materials of themselves in the search for social validation from and acceptance by their peers, as Ruth Maguire outlined. However, receiving a negative response can have catastrophic consequences: the national health service has reported that cyberbullying increases the risk of suicide by 30 per cent.
What can we do? First, we must accept that resilience does not mean simply telling children to avoid the behaviour, because that will not work. Although children, parents and teachers need to be aware of the ramifications of their choices, we must remember that resilience is built by how we respond to opposition and difficulty. We have a responsibility to provide young people with resources that teach them healthy ways to manage their sexuality and self-esteem.
There are an increasing number of resources that can help—we have heard about some of them today—including Young Scot’s digi, aye? initiative, the International Justice Mission, which does good work, and the Scottish Government’s cyber-resilience programme.
On internet safety day, I urge social media sites to take more responsibility by tightening up their security rules and practice. They have a moral responsibility to do so.
This is a difficult issue to resolve, but we must resolve it. It is impossible to predict exactly what will help every child in Scotland, but even taking action on behalf of the wellbeing of one child is worth it. The children of Scotland deserve to have wonderful lives, and by making sure that they are cyber-resilient we can help them to stay safe in this world that we adults have created.
I, too, thank Gillian Martin, not just for bringing this undoubtedly important debate to the chamber, but for reassuring me that I am not the only one who would like to construct a tall tower. The only point that I want to clarify is the age at which we can safely lock up our children. Is five too young? That would certainly be my instinct.
In reality, technology is part of the world in which our children grow up. It is not something different; it is not something other. It is part of their everyday existence; it is part of their futures, too. That point was underlined to me when I watched my eldest daughter when she was just two go up to our television screen and try to swipe it. That showed me how she perceived technology and what she understood she could expect from it. It was part of her experience—she saw a screen and she expected to be able to interact with it. It is from that perspective that we need to look at the issue.
In some ways, the debate is summed up by a combination of what Ruth Maguire and Gillian Martin said. Teenagers are still teenagers, and they will do the things that teenagers have always done. What they do online is an extension of the behaviours with which we are all familiar.
The other key point is that if we as adults come thundering in and say, “See this new internet thing—I want you to turn it off and not use it,” we are not getting it. We need to understand that, in treating the internet as something alien and different, we are perhaps perpetuating the problem. This debate is about extending freedom to our children, as opposed to protecting them, although we must seek to do that and to balance those two aspects. We must provide children and young people with the skills and the ambition to explore the world while trying to instil the habits and behaviours that will help them to act safely and keep them safe.
I recently took part in a debate hosted by the Edinburgh Mela that involved young people exploring those issues. I was struck by two things. First, how conversant they are with the broad range of internet-related issues, from cyberbullying to freedom of speech and copyright. The young people talked about those issues seamlessly, underlining not only how sophisticated their views can be, but how they do not see divisions between the things that they do.
The second issue that struck me was listening to an academic, who pointed out that a lot of issues that we deal with on the internet are not new. Issues related to the media and free speech have existed as long as the printing press has been around. The moral panics that we have had about the ability to freely distribute pamphlets are similar to those that we have with the internet. The difference is the scale, pervasiveness and pace of change of the technology and therefore of the trends and behaviour that we have been discussing this evening. We need to understand how we can contextualise the very real concerns that we have always had about how to handle teenagers and make our approach relevant to the internet age.
It is about ensuring that our teenagers have a space in which they can talk openly to adults and to one another about the issues that they face. We must provide teenagers and young people with the skills that they need if they are to navigate the world, while giving them the sense of freedom that they need if they are to engage with the world.
I was interested in the point that Barnardo’s made in its briefing. We must talk about not just the risks of the internet but other issues, such as inclusion. We must not assume that all young people are innately aware of the internet and are engaged in internet activity. Some young people are excluded from social media and the internet. We must consider all those things in the round.
I will stop there, because I see that I am 20 seconds over time—sorry, Presiding Officer.
It is customary to congratulate the member who brings a members’ business debate, but in this case I prefer to thank Gillian Martin, because what worries me most about this debate is that I now realise how little I know about young people’s online experience—and I am an average and reasonably tech-savvy parent in my early 40s.
For example, there is a game called Roblox—I am not sure how to pronounce it—which has more than 30 million users. Players build a kind of Lego virtual world. Apparently, it is one of the most popular games, if not the most popular game, among children aged between five and 10 in the UK. According to the headmaster of a primary school in Coventry, who wrote a warning letter to parents recently, more than half the school’s five to six-year-old pupils and more than 70 per cent of its six to seven-year-old pupils play the online game.
The issue, or one of the issues, is that Roblox has a chat feature, which, according to the app, is
“the best place to Imagine with Friends”.
According to a primary school head in Manchester who also felt compelled to write to parents, there is no way to screen contacts or disable messaging.
The Coventry study showed that most of the children who were surveyed had online friends in Roblox about whom their parents did not know. Many children said that their accounts were maxed out, which meant that they had 200 online friends. The children had received many in-game messages from strangers, and the study reported that a lot of the messages were inappropriate. That echoes the report of a Sunderland mother that her daughter received the message, “Hello cupcake, do you want to meet up?” Her daughter is eight. In all cases, the children reported not telling their parents about inappropriate messages.
If I may pick up on a point that Brian Whittle made, Roblox claims to be a “kid safe” site, which monitors use by under-12s. However, the Manchester headteacher was able to set up an account, register as a three-year-old and then play 18-certificate games, including Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Halo.
I am talking about anecdotal evidence that I have heard; we need more research into the impact on underage children’s health and wellbeing—and on their attainment at school—of playing games that contain inappropriate language and violence.
Finlay Carson talked about online gambling. In a recent report, the Gambling Commission suggested that 370,000 children aged between 11 and 16 participate in gambling-related activities in a single week and that up to 31,000 underage children are classified as “problem” gamblers, with many more children classified as “at risk”.
That is terrifying, but it is perhaps not surprising. Apparently, the game Candy Crush Saga uses game-play loop psychology, whereby a repeating chain of events establishes an addiction-like attraction to the game through the regular release of a neurochemical reward in the brain. That is achieved by ensuring that the game presents the right play:win ratio. As a consequence, people—in this context, I mean children—are susceptible to proposed purchases, so that they can continue the reward cycle and advance at the same rate through the game. I understand that such principles are not regulated and permit the potential exploitation of an age group that might be susceptible to suggestion and manipulation.
I congratulate Gillian Martin on securing the debate and I thank her, because anything that raises awareness among young people and those of us who are not so young, as this debate has done, must be a good thing. I wish the campaigns that she mentioned every success.
I thank my colleague Gillian Martin for bringing this important issue to the chamber on safer internet day.
I will focus my words on a conversation with my nephews, and on two programs that, in addition to the digi, aye? campaign, have been used to help to increase cyber-resilience. I will probably shuffle my papers about a bit.
Members have talked about digital devices, phones, computers and tablets, and about texting, sexting, and posting and sharing negative or harmful words. The digital era is upon us, so we must empower our children to be smart and responsible users of the technology while avoiding risk and harmful online activities.
I had a conversation with my twae young nephews—one is 13 and the other one is 15—about what they think cyber-resilience meant. “Be safe online” they said. “We get telt that in school.” “Okay”, I said. “What does that mean?” “Well, my mum tells us not to accept friends we dinnae ken face to face, and we dinnae ask lassies to send naked pictures—that’s not on.” I said, “What if the lassie sends it to her boyfriend and he promises not to share with his pals?” “Aye, right”, the boys laughed. “She should ken better. Once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.” “Okay”, I said. “What about you lads. Should young people like your mates or people your age post photos of themselves drinking Buckie or smoking cigarettes? Why is that not recommended? What are the risks?” They shrugged their shoulders, so we discussed that, and talked about the possibility of job interviews in the future. I asked, “Are you likely to get a job interview if you have photos on your profile that show you up to nae guid?” The boys had not thought of that, but they said that they would talk about it with their pals when they went back to school, because we had also focused on peer support. If we can get the kids to engage with the kids, that is part of addressing the issue.
I found an online resource called DQ World, which has been developed in Singapore and is a digital intelligence educational initiative and research framework. DQ World engages with kids between eight and 12, which is a lot younger than the 11 to 26 age group that digi, aye? is aimed at. A pilot study of the program, which is focused on online cyber-resilience, showed a positive impact on children’s awareness and development across several areas.
I visited Maxwelltown high school in Dumfries yesterday and learned about an anti-bullying programme in Finland. Gillian Martin also mentioned Finland. The programme is called KiVa—there is no translation for that—and it includes an online focus. It has been shown to work in Finland and is being tested at Maxwelltown high school with support from pupil equity funding. The pupils will measure the outcomes, and will share them so that we can teach our kids about the best ways to engage in activity online.
Gillian Martin’s motion
“notes the view that an increased awareness of the career consequences, legal implications and bullying and mental health repercussions of such behaviour should be encouraged”.
We need to make sure that our kids are equipped to deal with the internet and the online challenges that they will face as they grow up.
I thank Gillian Martin for raising this issue. It is not uncommon for a generation to face issues that parents and teachers of the previous generation might struggle to prepare them for. Growing up with the internet, many young people today are familiar with its uses and possibilities, from social media and job hunting to handling bills, or just finding information. With a few clicks, we can do everything from turning our heating on at home or watching a cat play the piano to connecting with someone on the other side of the world.
Being familiar with the internet does not mean that people have the digital skills that they need. When someone grows up with something being so normalised, it is easy to be unaware of the dangers. When the technology is relatively new and parents or teachers might be unfamiliar with it, a trial-and-error approach, which does not work, is too often the result.
It can be a particularly hard issue for us to debate without sounding hopelessly out of touch to any young person who is listening. I am conscious that I sound like someone who I might have stopped listening to some time ago. We must engage with the challenges of the digital world, but even using phrases such as “the digital world” can make us sound like scared luddites who are hostile to what is an utterly normal part of life for young people.
Although the overwhelming majority of a young person’s online engagement will be entirely positive and something to be encouraged, there are dangers, just as there are in the real world, and it is our responsibility to address them.
Pornographic material is easily accessible, even with a supposed nominal restriction to viewers over the age of 18, which is, in practice, impossible for a service provider or website to verify. Negative consequences do not end if the viewer is over the age of 18. The normalisation and widespread availability of pornography have contributed to misogynistic social norms that objectify women and create entirely unrealistic expectations about sex and relationships. There is plenty of research that shows the negative impact on the wellbeing of young people, particularly of young women.
There are also distinct dangers around sharing sensitive personal information. As smartphone use has become more widespread among young people, sexting has become a major issue, as has been mentioned, but it is one that many parents and teachers are unprepared for and unfamiliar with. As Gillian Martin’s motion highlights, it has led to an increase in children being reported for sexual offences. The sharing of intimate photos without consent has an obvious impact on wellbeing. Scotland has introduced new laws to criminalise sharing such images, which is a welcome legal protection, but a debate needs to be had about the approach that we take to the young people involved and whether reporting them for an offence is always the most appropriate approach. I hope that the minister will touch on that and the positive work that is on-going in that area.
I want to look briefly at the cultural rather than legal issues that come up. The education of children and young people about online safety must address the individual impact of, for example, sharing intimate images. However, it is critical that there is an appreciation of the wider cultural impact that that has on how sex and relationships are viewed, and of how society perceives and values women in particular.
That is why I have pushed so hard over the past year for personal and social education in our schools to be reviewed and overhauled. Given that three in four young people across the United Kingdom did not learn about consent as part of sex and relationship education at school, we have a long way to go before we can say that all our young people are prepared with the life skills that they need. With the relationship between consent and online safety being so clear, we cannot view education on either topic as existing in a silo, nor can we view those issues in isolation from mental health education and a range of other health and wellbeing areas. A holistic and consistent approach to personal and social education is essential.
That approach will happen only when young people are the co-designers of the curriculum. That would resolve the issue of teachers being expected to address issues that are generationally alien to them, and it would foster the kind of buy-in and commitment from young people themselves that we need.
I look forward to the results of the Government’s review of personal and social education, following our committee work. I hope that the minister’s closing remarks will make some reference to it. This is often an awkward issue for politicians to address, but it is too important to avoid, and we are well past the time for getting to grips with it.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to close today’s debate on the crucial agenda of encouraging cyber-resilience among young people. I thank Gillian Martin for bringing this important issue to the chamber and I thank all members present for their valuable contributions.
As Gillian Martin said, we do not know the half of it—as a parent, I am quite glad of that. As Liam Kerr mentioned, there are some dangers that very young children are exposed to, from which we need to protect them. It is perfectly appropriate that our older children have some privacy—some private life—in order to grow and develop. However, we, as adults, need to teach them the skills to operate in what is a perfectly normal world, but a world that many of us did not grow up in and that is very unfamiliar to us. As a number of members mentioned, we do not let our children go swimming without first teaching them how to stay safe in the water, so it is very much our responsibility to give them the skills to navigate that world.
As a representative of the Highlands and Islands, I found it great to hear Tavish Scott mention the children and young people of the Shetland islands. I am always delighted to hear about young people taking the initiative. Young people taking the lead is the solution. They can help to educate us and, in many ways, can do the job of educating themselves better than we can.
Tavish Scott, Rona Mackay and Finlay Carson mentioned holding corporates to account, which is a valid point. I very much agree with that and I am delighted that my colleague, Kevin Stewart, had a recent success with Snapchat taking the location of primary schools off its app, which is useful progress to have made.
Ash Denham said how pleased she was that she spent her young years without Facebook. I, too, am happy that my youth and years of development were spent largely without photos, never mind Facebook. Pictures of the hideous 1970s haircuts that have survived that little-photographed era are not a pleasure to look at, and I am glad that there is not a record of every misdemeanour that I engaged in as a teenager. Emma Harper said that there is a risk of leaving a permanent record of what is relatively normal boundary pushing by teenagers that will not be viewed positively when children reach adulthood.
Mary Fee and other members talked about the need for conversation. We need to talk about the issues, as that is definitely the best way to help folk to stay safe.
Like many members in the chamber, I am a parent and I agree that, as Finlay Carson, Brian Whittle, Daniel Johnson and others mentioned, in many cases it is us adults who need to take the lead in demonstrating good online behaviour. Mine is probably not the only family in which the adults regularly break the rule about not going on our devices at the dinner table. Undoubtedly, I am not alone among members in having suffered online abuse in the world of politics. The people who hurl that online abuse at me are, largely, not children; they are adults. Therefore, we adults need to take some responsibility and up our behaviour, too.
I loved the little touch of neuroscience that Ruth Maguire threw into her speech, which I think was especially to help me to feel comfortable in my first time responding to a debate as a minister. She is quite right that the teenage brain is designed for heightened risk taking and is very susceptible to peer pressure. Teenagers have an excuse, but we adults do not.
It is particularly timely for us to be discussing the issue today, as it is safer internet day, the theme of which this year is create, connect and share respect: a better internet starts with you. The theme encourages us to continue to explore better ways in which we can support children and young people to use technology responsibly, respectfully, critically and creatively.
What happens to us as children shapes who we are and has a huge impact on us throughout our lives, especially if those childhood experiences are adverse ones involving exploitation or abuse. We have a responsibility to do all that we can to ensure that we protect our children and young people from harm, wherever that harm occurs. We also have a responsibility to equip our children and young people to be informed and prepared to make the most of digital technologies, with full knowledge and understanding of the consequences of their actions online. Decisions about what our children and young people share online, and with whom, have really serious ramifications for their future.
In 2016, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice commissioned research to analyse recorded crime statistics, which showed that “other sexual offences” had become the largest category of sexual offences. Forty per cent of recorded sexual crime is made up of “other sexual crimes”, which is the largest individual category, just ahead of the category for sexual assault.
The research report “Recorded Crime in Scotland: Other Sexual Crimes, 2013-14 and 2016-17”, which was published in September last year, highlighted that half of the offences that fall within the “other sexual crimes” category are “communicating indecently” and “causing to view sexual activity or images”. They are often committed online and most likely relate to the sharing of intimate images. Those online crimes are much more likely to have younger victims, who are mainly female, and younger perpetrators, who are mainly male.
As a result, we have established the expert group on preventing sexual offending involving children and young people to identify further steps to prevent sexual offending by young people. The group will bring together expertise from across justice, education and health to consider how we prevent and respond to sexual crime committed by young people, not least by considering how to protect our young people by educating them about their rights and responsibilities under the criminal law.
In September last year, we made commitments in the programme for government to address the modern challenges of enabling children and young people to enjoy all of the unparalleled opportunities for which increased technologies provide and to do so safely. We committed to continue building on the good progress that we have made towards implementing key measures in the “National Action Plan on Internet Safety for Children and Young People”.
I thank members for their thoughtful reflections throughout the debate. My ministerial colleagues and I are absolutely determined that Scotland’s children and young people be afforded protection from harm wherever that harm is caused. We are taking action across Government to continue to raise awareness among children and young people of how to stay safe online and of the consequences of their actions.
We are also taking action to provide support to professionals, parents and carers and to drive forward progress in understanding how to prevent offending behaviour. What better year to drive that progress forward than in 2018, the year of young people?
I will finish with wise words that were given to me this morning by a young girl at Holyrood school, when I asked the kids what they wanted me to say in the debate. She said, “I realised that all of my best memories were not online, so I take a day off each week.” We could all take her advice.
Meeting closed at 18:41.