It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I welcome the Minister to this debate; he has a very strong commitment to safeguarding children.
I want to begin by supporting the excellent recommendations to protect children from online pornography that were contained in last week’s report on the independent parliamentary inquiry into online child protection, led by Claire Perry. Today, I want to focus on one aspect that the online inquiry mentioned was of great concern to parents: the growing phenomenon of sexting.
Sexting involves the sharing of sexually suggestive messages or images electronically, primarily between mobile phones. According to Ofcom, about 50% of eight to 11-year-olds and 88% of 12 to 15-year-olds own a mobile phone. The speed with which children and young people are gaining access to the internet—accelerated with the advent of smartphones, enabling children to access the internet from their mobile phones—is unprecedented.
The problem is growing, according to the children’s charity Beat Bullying, which is very concerned that there is increasing peer pressure to send sexting images; and the age is getting younger. Its research, carried out in 2009, showed that 38% of children aged 11 to 18 had received a sexually explicit or distressing text or e-mail. Those figures are backed up by research from Plymouth university, which found that 40% of 14 to 16-year-olds said their friends engaged in sexting. In addition, a survey by Beat Bullying in 2010 revealed that more than 54% of teachers were aware of pupils creating and sharing sexually suggestive messages and images via mobile phones or the internet. In Manchester, each week two schools are turning to e-safety groups for help about sexting incidents.
I congratulate the Manchester Evening News and its reporter Amy Glendinning on recognising this issue. The newspaper’s excellent series about internet safety has examined the dangers that lurk online and the traps that children fall into, including sexting. The coverage included recommendations and advice from local police and schools. That is another example of public service journalism at its best from the Manchester Evening News and follows its groundbreaking campaign last year about children missing from home, which was of great interest to me as the chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. In many ways, the missing people and sexting issues are linked, and charities such as the Children’s Society feel that sexting should be recognised as part of the sexual grooming process that many vulnerable, runaway or missing children fall victim to.
Our children’s lives, including their experiences at school, are very different from our childhood and experiences of school, but one aspect of childhood remains the same. Throughout the ages, as children have grown up, they have wanted to push boundaries at an age when they are more sexually and socially aware; they want to experiment and tread their own path to independence. That is normal. But what is different today is that, with new technology, the risk that children and young people are exposed to as part of that process has risen dramatically.
Today’s phenomenon of sexting involves children and young people taking pictures of themselves, perhaps to send to established boyfriends or girlfriends, to create romantic interest or for reasons such as attention seeking. There is often no criminal behaviour beyond the creation or sending of images, no apparent malice and no lack of willing participation by young people who are pictured. The problem is that, once the pictures are taken and sent, the sender loses control of them and they could end up anywhere, from being passed all around school to being viewed and passed on by paedophiles. In addition, children’s charities fear that young people are being coerced into providing explicit images online, which are then shared without their consent via phones and social networking sites—a process known as doxing.
According to Sherry Adhami of Beat Bullying, sexting has become an epidemic. She says:
“We are seeing it more and more—we’ve even seen it in primary schools. It is 100 per cent classless and this affects children whether they are in deprived or affluent areas.”
Beat Bullying says that sexting can be used as a form of cyber-bulling, when an individual or a group of people deliberately attempts to hurt, upset, threaten or humiliate someone else. That includes situations when a recipient of images or text is made to feel uncomfortable as a direct result of that content or is asked to do something that makes them feel distressed.
Sexting becomes problematic when it leads to criminal or abusive behaviour, such as sexual abuse, extortion, threats, malicious conduct arising from interpersonal conflicts, or the creation, sending or showing of images without the knowledge or against the will of the person who is pictured, or if it becomes a tool for sexual grooming. Such grooming involves not just adults grooming children, but increasingly children grooming other children.
A Beat Bullying survey of 11 to 18-year-olds found that 45% of text messages were from their peers, but the problem is that young people are very vulnerable to suggestions from their peers. There is a fine line between young people voluntarily sharing images and their feeling under pressure to do so. The recognition that children and young people can be sexually victimised by other young people is reshaping our understanding of the issue.
It is part of the growing-up process for both girls and boys to decide what sexual behaviour they feel comfortable with. However, some young girls are particularly vulnerable to pressure—for example, girls with low self-esteem, those from dysfunctional families or those living in care. Such girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, both by adults and their peers.
Sexual grooming happens when someone is enticed to do something that they do not want to do, and the link between sexual grooming and sexting is becoming increasingly apparent. The Children’s Society has told me that its practitioners around the country are finding that sexting is a growing method of sexually grooming young people. It has said of sexting:
“It becomes a tool of coercion, threat and power, as young people are encouraged to take pictures or videos of themselves, initially often for a financial reward or because they are groomed into thinking the person is their boyfriend. The sexting then becomes a tool of manipulation and the young person is threatened that the images will be shared with their friends and teachers. A key problem is that young people see these texts as harmless fun but they quickly lead to sexualised conversations and grooming.”
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which is very timely. She has hit on an important point. Young people, particularly vulnerable young females, quite often look at sexting as a fairly innocent, normal exchange of either messages or images, and they do not realise the seriousness of what they are doing and how others could use that material. That is what we have to concentrate on today, and I am glad that the hon. Lady is making that point. Does she agree?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am very pleased that there is a growing body of support among parliamentarians about the fact that we must address this important issue.
The Children’s Society has also said of sexting:
“Because it is not face to face interaction, young people will also behave in a different way without realising the risks that they are exposing themselves to, until it is too late.”
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children will publish further research into sexting next month. It gave me an extract from a ChildLine call from a girl aged 16, which demonstrated the risk and potential harm to young people from sexting. She said:
“I have been in contact with a man who is a lot older than me. At first, he was nice, complimented my pictures and we became friends on a social network site. I forgot my phone number was on there and he started texting and calling me, saying explicit things and sending me sexual photos. He wants me to…have sex and I’m scared. I really don’t want to, but what do I do?”
As I have said, today’s young people live in a very different world due to the rapid pace of technological change that we have seen during the last 20 years. It has given them unprecedented access to global communication and information. However, as I have outlined, there are accompanying risks as a result. Those risks range from private photos shared between two young people becoming public property and leading to humiliation, bullying and blackmail to the use of those images for sophisticated online sexual grooming.
I reiterate that I support the recommendations in the online child protection inquiry as a step forward in protecting children, and I welcome the child sexual exploitation action plan that the Minister published last year. Local safeguarding children’s boards need to be aware of sexting as a tool for sexual grooming, so that they develop strategies in their areas to help them to safeguard children.
What more can be done? Of course sending sexual images is a criminal offence. However, I support the guidance of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which says:
“ACPO does not support the prosecution or criminalisation of children for taking indecent images of themselves and sharing them. Being prosecuted through the criminal justice system is likely to be distressing and upsetting for children, especially if they are convicted and punished. The label of ‘sex offender’ that would be applied to a child or young person convicted of such offences is regrettable, unjust and clearly detrimental to their future health and wellbeing.”
I agree that, in most instances and depending on the circumstances, sexting should be dealt with under general safeguarding.
Children and young people need to be supported by their parents, teachers and peers to ensure that they are empowered to manage new technology. Charities such as Family Lives offer valuable advice and help to parents who are concerned about their children’s sexual behaviour. A lot of good work is going on in schools and police forces to raise awareness and to recognise sexting as part of the grooming process. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre provides an excellent education campaign called Thinkuknow and has produced a film about sexting. It is important that education and awareness-raising programmes focus on children who send images or exert pressure on other children to produce images without realising the extent of the damage that they can cause. Charities such as Beat Bullying have a great deal of expertise in that respect.
More needs to be done, however. I want the mobile phone industry to do more to highlight some of the dangers of its products, in the same way as the gambling and alcohol industries provide help for people who encounter problems arising from their products. The gambling industry provides funding for education and the treatment of problem gambling and the drinks industry funds the charity Drinkaware.
The mobile phone industry has a great responsibility, given the profits that it makes and its targeting of young people to buy its products, to set aside money to inform young people of the dangers of sexting. The industry should provide an information and advice leaflet with each new mobile phone, warning of the dangers of sexting. It should also pay for advertising on TV and in the press and for the promotion of helplines, such as the NSPCC’s ChildLine. The leaflet with each new mobile phone should explain how, at the click of a button, an image intended for private use can lead to public humiliation and even fall into the hands of sophisticated sexual predators. I should like retail sales people to be trained to discuss the risks of sexting when selling phones to young people or to adults buying them on their behalf.
The UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which the Minister jointly chairs and on which charities and some mobile phone operators sit, has been involved in debates about online safety for some time, so I am sure that something is being done to make progress. However, I hope the Minister will take my specific ideas about how mobile phone industries can do more and raise them at his next meeting with those industries.
As I have said, what can be seen by young people as the relatively harmless activity of sexting can lead to quite serious consequences for the young person involved. It is important to prevent that, and I feel strongly that by giving more information and increasing awareness among children and young people, we may prevent further harm coming to them, whether from bullying, blackmail or sexual exploitation or grooming. We must do what we can to educate and inform children and young people about the risks of sexting, so that their choices are based on an understanding of the consequences of their actions. The mobile phone companies must take their share of responsibility to help safeguard children and young people.
Mr Caton, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and to congratulate the hon.
Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey)on securing the debate—not just because it is traditional to do so, but because of her continuing work on child safeguarding, whether online or in relation to more conventional forms of abuse of children, if I can call put it like that. She has helped me and the Department with work on child sexual exploitation. The debate is part of raising awareness of the whole subject, and her work has also given rise to a useful article in
The Independent today.
As the hon. Lady knows, there is no silver bullet to deal with the issues. She was right about the unprecedented access to global communications that is now available— stuff that she and I were never used to as children. It is a good thing, but it brings risks. That is why the UK Council for Child Internet Safety and others are working to bring about a big, joined-up approach. Technology will always be one step ahead, and we must make sure that there are as many safeguards as possible, at as many danger points as possible. I am therefore very grateful to the hon. Lady for her part in that work, and her kind comments about what we are trying to achieve. We share the same goals.
The debate is topical, as the press has been full of headlines about child online safety, and I reiterate the welcome to last week’s report headed up by my hon. Friend Claire Perry. I am sure that the debate will help us to keep the issue on the radar, and provide an opportunity to show what progress is being made—and there is progress, even though it may not be as visible as the hon. Member for Stockport and I might want. However, the use of technology to groom children, not least through the internet—and through social networking in particular—has become an increasing cause for concern in recent years. As we are all beginning to recognise, there are close links between the issue of missing children—on which, again, the hon. Lady is something of a House expert—and the grooming of young people for sexual exploitation.
The Government have understood those links, as she said, and recognise that this must be treated as a strong priority. That is reflected in our new missing children and adults strategy, and the Government’s action plan on tackling child sexual exploitation, both of which highlight the vulnerabilities of missing children and young people. It is important that there is a joined-up Government approach. Perhaps I should have pointed out earlier that normally one of my colleagues from the Home Office would have replied to the debate today. They were not able to do that, but I am rather happier that I could do it, because the Home Office and the Department for Education in particular work closely together. We co-chair UKCCIS, as the hon. Lady knows, to make sure that we have a joined-up approach, and the present situation shows how interchangeable the arrangement is.
In addition, the concept of peer-to-peer sexting is now raising its head and can have far-reaching consequences that need to be addressed. The hon. Lady mentioned sexting, doxing and all sorts of other terms that I am somewhat familiar with as the father to three teenage children who regularly have to be surgically removed from their mobile and other IT devices. I see the situation first-hand, and I am sure that the hon. Lady does too. I assure her and all hon. Members that the Government take seriously our responsibility to ensure that the response in all areas of child protection and safeguarding is as effective as possible, and that it will always be a priority for the Government.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is a beacon. CEOP continues to play a crucial role in ensuring that children are safeguarded, and I pay tribute to its head, Peter Davies. Of course, we should encourage young people to use technology, but it is important that they also be made aware of the dangers involved—as should their parents, teachers and others around them. We need to continue to raise awareness of the risks and to educate young people about staying safe online and offline, and about the use of mobile technology—particularly the sharing of images of themselves and others.
Young people increasingly use technology not only to stay in touch but to explore things such as sex and to push the boundaries in what they send and to whom they send it. Early intervention needs to be part of the solution if we are to educate young people, teachers and families about the consequences of their actions and how to keep children and young people safe. It is now so easy to send pictures instantly, via emails and texts, and on Twitter and through other social networking sites, that there are instances of boys or girls sending sexual images of themselves to others without any regard for the consequences. Those behaviours are often implicated in patterns of bullying, as the hon. Lady said, with messages and images being elicited in a coercive context, used as blackmail or circulated beyond the intended recipient. Just because that is technologically easy to do, and the victim may not be standing in front of the person concerned at the time, does not mean it is the right thing to do.
Sexting is becoming increasingly part of the mobile phone-related child protection context, with many children on the receiving end of sexting or sexual bullying. The trend of sharing sexual content by mobile phone can also be extremely abusive, and can have a devastating impact on the children affected. The use of technology has facilitated that exchange, which can make a young person feel very uncomfortable and potentially lead to harassment. Such young people often find out later that the image has been passed on to others and, as a result, they leave themselves open to the risk of becoming the victims of bullying, harassment or, worse still, sexual exploitation. There is a clear link there. The CEOP threat assessment for 2011-12 sets out six high-priority threats to children and young people, and includes a focus on addressing behaviours by which children put themselves at risk.
I have found the hon. Lady’s remarks helpful. There is little to disagree with. Having listened to her I am no less convinced that this issue, like that of missing children and child sexual exploitation in general, is one where greater co-operation and collaboration between all the agencies involved is vital. I am dedicated to promoting that. I recognise her concerns about sexting; we know from a recent Beat Bullying report that more and more children and young people are receiving sexually explicit texts or e-mails and offensive sexual images, and that a high percentage of them know the identity of the aggressors, the majority of whom are their peers.
I agree wholeheartedly with what the hon. Lady said about the criminalisation of children. A child may be committing a criminal offence if they share photographs of the type in question, but they would not be automatically criminalised. The prosecuting authorities would take the circumstances of each case into account, including in particular the nature of the photographs, the age and maturity of the children involved and any evidence of coercion or exploitation. However, if a person is over 16 and is sending a picture of someone who is under the age of 16, they are breaking the law and will be prosecuted on that basis.
Generally, internet service providers take a responsible approach to the content they host, both of their own volition and in co-operation with law enforcement and Government agencies. Where the industry is advised that the content it hosts in the UK contravenes legislation, it will readily remove it. We need to do more to ensure that it is more immediately removed. There is a clear line of communication between the offended party—parents or others—who sees this material and the people with responsibility for controlling and eliminating it.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has, through its education awareness and skills work stream, developed a specific educational resource to tackle this very issue. The hon. Lady mentioned this resource, which is for use in the classroom by teachers and forms part of CEOP’s thinkuknow campaign. This is designed to reduce the harm caused to children through the misuse of technology to sexually abuse or exploit them. The resource includes the video “Exposed”, a 10-minute drama dealing with sexting and cyber-bullying designed for 14 to 18 year olds. Its messages include, “Always think before you send or share. Think about how it will affect others and yourself. Remember that pictures you take and send may become public and permanent and the police may get involved.” Once something is on the internet, it may be there indefinitely. It may come back to haunt the person involved.
The messages continue, “If you need someone to talk to, you can call ChildLine.” I take the hon. Lady’s point about the importance of some of our helplines, especially ChildLine, in which the Government invest a lot of taxpayers’ money. There is also the opportunity for commercial companies to make their contribution, which will be greatly welcomed—whether it is with or without tax relief is another matter. “Thinkuknow and the Safer Internet Centre can also offer tips and advice. If you need to make a report, report directly to ClickCeop.”
The UK Council on Child Internet Safety, which I co-chair, works to improve the awareness and understanding of parents, children and teachers regarding online safety. That includes educating children and young people about the implications of their online behaviour and the “digital footprint” they leave, particularly where information or images of an extremely personal nature are concerned.
Important work was undertaken earlier this year: CEOP led in the creation of UKCCIS advice. That advice is designed for use by those who provide internet services used by children, for example Facebook and Microsoft. The advice has a section on “sharing” information, which explains the impact that sharing an image can have, such as losing control and ownership of it. Organisations such as Facebook and Microsoft, which are engaged with UKCCIS, ensure that the messages they carry on their services are in line with this advice so that whichever service young people use, they receive clear and consistent messages about positive online behaviour and what to do if they need help.
Ofcom’s children’s media literacy tracker data reveal that one third of children aged between 12 and 15 have a smartphone that can access the internet; and 38% of nine to 12-year-olds have a social networking profile. People know that to have a Facebook page, a child must be at least 13, but that cannot be legally enforced. We know—and I know from personal experience—that younger children are tempted to set up a Facebook site and get involved with social media. I also know that in too many cases they do that aided and abetted by parents. It is not just a question of giving the information to parents, but making sure that parents are acting responsibly on behalf of their children. That is why education is such a joined-up exercise. To educate the parents, we need to say, “Would you really want your child having access to this sort of dangerous content or the ability to be the victim of sexting and other such things?” We also need to teach children at school and at other places about the hazards of all of this and ensure that teachers are fully engaged, too.
UKCCIS is aware that children are using the internet at an earlier age and that the internet is increasingly mobile. Children use their mobile phones not only to text but to access the internet and social networks. Mobiles are a particular focus of current UKCCIS work.
Later today, I am chairing a round-table meeting of mobile phone manufacturers, retailers, network operators and software manufacturers to discuss how they can offer better parental controls and choices to parents and give clear online safety information to parents and children. Good practice is happening already. I have here a selection of leaflets that are issued by some of the mobile operators and retailers, and I want to see more of this. I want them to be more child and parent-friendly, and for them to be standard and unavoidably attached to mobile phones before they are switched on. That is not rocket science. We are moving in the right direction, but I want it to move faster and in a more comprehensive manner.
The mobile phone sector is aware of the need to signpost to ChildLine if a child is upset. For example, Carphone Warehouse has a leaflet about safe internet use that is given to parents. It includes reference to sexting and signposts to ChildLine. Everything Everywhere has produced an internet safety leaflet distributed via Orange. “Orange, a guide for parents” warns against sending bullying images. More is also being done to encourage retail environments to highlight internet safety issues: Tesco is looking to train phone shop staff; Dixons carries internet safety messages on receipt wallets; and John Lewis is also engaged in this area.
On the board of UKCCIS are BT, 02, BlackBerry and Samsung. None the less, I agree that there is scope for stepping up our efforts through UKCCIS to encourage mobile phone operators and the retail industry to play a greater part in publicising the dangers of sexting. The hon. Lady mentioned the idea of having adverts, which is a perfectly reasonable way of communicating that message. I will use many of her points to challenge the people at this round-table discussion later today and will happily report back to her later.
I am clear that more can and should be done to address this issue and to educate our children about the risks they face if they get involved in or receive this type of communication. Work continues across Government and national and local agencies to improve and ensure that our response is robust, and that includes more generally on tackling child sexual exploitation. At the local level, agencies who work with children and young people need to be aware of the signs that show that young people are being groomed for sexual exploitation, and to know how to intervene in an appropriate way. Such agencies include the police, children’s services, parents and voluntary groups. The hon. Lady mentioned the local safeguarding children’s boards, and yes, this issue should be on their radar as well as other safeguarding against sexual exploitation issues.
At the national level, I am taking the Government lead on tackling child sexual exploitation. I have led in the development of an action plan to safeguard children and young people caught up in this form of child abuse, and the hon. Lady has been a part of that, for which I am grateful.
I hope I have provided some reassurance that the Government are absolutely committed to protecting children and to tackling the challenges in this area. We are not complacent and recognise that we need to keep under review all aspects of our work to tackle grooming in all its forms. We are all determined to do everything we can to protect children in our communities, while allowing them space and room to develop and enjoy technologies in safe and responsible ways.
I repeat my thanks to the hon. Lady for securing this debate, for further raising the profile of the issue, and for her ongoing helpful and constructive engagement with me and the Government to promote the common goal of ensuring that all our children are safer online.