I beg to move,
That this House recognises the serious problem of cyber-bullying and the appalling consequences for an increasing number of children and young people who are its victims; and calls on the Government to take action to help eradicate this form of intimidation and harassment, including the consideration of legislation to make cyber-bullying an offence.
I rise to speak on the motion in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I do so in the reassuring knowledge that it is more than likely, I trust, that in the general thrust of a debate on cyber-bullying, party political differences will, for the most part, be set to one side. I say that not out of any sense of presumption, but it is borne of my experiences as a Member of this House and of the united opposition of all parties to the growing phenomena of cyber-bullying and internet trolling.
Let us remind ourselves that cyber-bullying is the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending intimidating or threatening messages. Most hon. Members in the Chamber have access to a mobile phone, an iPad and other electronic devices, which we rely on in carrying out our responsibilities as elected representatives. Our phones and mobile devices are all equipped with software that allows even the most novice of users to browse the internet, and if we so wish, to communicate via social media.
I engage with my constituents via social media daily. Today, technology allows me to reach out and express my views to thousands of people at the click of a button. That is a very useful tool, but the fact that a person can reach out to thousands of people by the click of a button is a harrowing one for approximately 65% of teenagers. We will be blinded by facts and figures in this debate, but they must all be aired to hit home what a problem cyber-bullying is and what a lasting effect it has. We hear more and more reports of young people who take their own lives as a result of bullying, and cyber-bullying in particular.
I arranged to meet Dr Arthur Cassidy, who heads up an organisation in my constituency called the Yellow Ribbon. Dr Cassidy is involved in UK-wide research into cyber-bullying and internet trolling. He has carried out comprehensive research on the effects of bullying on young people, including the long-term effects on the development of its victims. Recent reports have found that approximately 65% of teenagers say that they have experienced online bullying or trolling, with the most common form being cruel posts that comment on the way that someone is dressed or on what they look like. Some 48% of those teenagers said that it had made them feel very upset. More than half of that 65% said that it was happening to them at least once a week.
The anonymity permitted by certain forms of online social interaction can give bullies the false impression that they can say anything they wish, no matter how hurtful, with little consequence for themselves or for the person they might have harmed. Children have the right to feel safe and secure, particularly when they are at school. Schoolchildren are still developing and do not always have the wisdom to avoid cyber-bullying or to seek out the best solutions or help in dealing with this issue.
In October, I contacted every post-primary school in my constituency and asked each school to identify two student representatives to sit on a forum to discuss cyber-bullying. The meeting was attended by Dr Arthur Cassidy, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the community safety partnership and some parents. I thank them all for their help. I felt that it was essential to engage with young people and to hear their views on how social media affect them both positively and negatively.
Many of the children emphasised how difficult it can be to find help when they have been bullied and to get adults to listen to them. They said that many adults do not understand social media and that more should be done to educate parents and teachers about cyber-bullying. I was very impressed by the openness of the young people at the forum. I was hesitant when it was brought together, because I did not think that they would open up in such a forum, but they did. On that day, I made a commitment to those young people that I would do whatever I could as their Member of Parliament to urge the Government to take whatever steps were needed to tackle this growing phenomenon.
I am pleased to say that steps have been taken in my constituency to address the problem. A workshop is scheduled to take place tomorrow evening to offer advice to parents who are concerned about keeping up to date with modern technology and who want to know what they can do to keep their children safe online. I commend the children and young people’s strategic partnership for its role in making that happen.
We need to work together to eradicate cyber-bullying. The venom that a cyber-bully produces has been proven to leave long-term effects and to make the lives of their victims miserable. Many victims succumb to anxiety, depression and other stress-related disorders. The anonymity and protection of distance makes it easier to push the boundaries and to provoke and taunt with practically no accountability.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this important subject. I am interested to hear of the progress that he is making with schools in his constituency. Is not part of the problem the lack of confidence among parents of my generation, older generations and even younger generations, who lack the technological savvy to tackle the problem head-on with their children? Schools have a responsibility to educate not just children, but parents so that they know how to educate and look after their children.
Progress is being made on that. Our forum will meet again in the second week of January to hear an update. Hopefully we will see more movement from the Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly on this matter.
The hon. Gentleman is right that in today’s society, talking is almost a thing of the past between parents and their children. They do not interact in the way that they used to. Parents do not understand such things—I am one of them. Because of the generation that I grew up in, I still use just one finger on an iPad, let alone on a full computer. A lot of education is needed.
I assure my hon. Friend that I will never be cyber-bullied because I do not have access to the means by which I could be cyber-bullied, nor do I wish to have it. He has talked about the impact on pupils. Does he also accept that one in 10 teachers has been bullied online—however that is done—which can affect their teaching and make them fear for their families?
My hon. Friend is correct that this problem affects not only children, but young adults and older folk. I mentioned Dr Cassidy. Without going into too much detail, he has to deal with such bullying on the mainland at least once a year in relation to TV personalities who appear on some of the hottest programmes on a Saturday night. He has to deal with that issue with the BBC and UTV. My hon. Friend is correct that teachers are abused in this way as well, and that needs to be dealt with.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence estimates that 80,000 children in the United Kingdom suffer from severe depression. That includes 8,000 children under the age of 10. We as a society need to take responsibility for preventing harmful and antisocial behaviour such as cyber-bullying and for dealing effectively with incidents of virtual violence. We need an integrated approach in which Government, schools, parents, internet service providers and charities work together to keep the most vulnerable people safe.
I was hoping to speak in this debate, but at 2 o’clock I have to attend the Public Bill Committee considering the Water Bill and the Health Committee simultaneously, which will be interesting. I wanted to raise with the hon. Gentleman the responsibility of those who host the websites. A 17-year-old constituent of mine, Kira Lisseter, came to me after comments were posted on a US website, littlegossip.com. We wrote to the Minister, who was very helpful and did all that he could. We also tried to raise the matter with the internet service provider and the hosts, but response came there none. The hon. Gentleman is right that we can do a lot through education and Government action, but we also need the people who host the websites to be far more responsible.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his party on initiating this debate. To follow on from the previous point, I have seen constituents who have had fake Twitter accounts set up in their name, which have been linked to bullying. They do not know what others are saying using that account. Does he agree that a key point is that there needs to be greater verification of people who set up accounts, and that anonymous accounts that cannot be linked or traced should not be allowed?
Absolutely. There needs to be proper accountability and due diligence when Twitter or other accounts are set up, because the problem causes major difficulties for people in general, not just children.
A girl of 13 said:
“It is worse being bullied over the internet because everyone can see and it makes you feel little and small and worthless.”
As I have said, the problem does not just affect children or teenagers. A girl of 21 said:
“They would call me horrendous names, spreading rumours and behind my back tell people to ignore me online. Other times they would add me to a big group conversation online and really dig into me. They also hacked in to my account and I was sent a really aggressive email from a group of girls”.
Another child said:
“I felt that no one understood what I was going through. I didn’t know who was sending me these messages, and I felt powerless to know what to do.”
In August, the Prime Minister spoke out, saying:
“The people that operate these websites have got to step up to the plate and show some responsibility in the way that they run these websites.”
With respect, the Government, too, must step up to the plate and impose strict regulations on internet service providers, social network sites and mobile phone networks, to ensure that we eradicate the problem at the root. As the motion suggests, they should consider introducing legislation to make cyber-bullying an offence.
The Canadian Government are already actively combating cyber-bullying and have recently amended their online crime Act to bring it up to date with modern technology, although I understand that there is still some controversy about the legislation, with young activists and child psychologists voicing concerns that the public may have been misled into thinking that it would deal with cyber-bullying, whereas they see it as only a partial solution. However, it is something to work on and build on. I understand that the Republic of Ireland is also considering legislation to make cyber-bullying a crime.
The Government might recognise the impact of cyber-bullying, but there is no specific UK law that makes cyber-bullying illegal. I understand that it can be considered a criminal offence under legislation such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, but there is no specific law to deal with it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should define clearly the term “cyber-bullying”, which is different from cyber-stalking, trolling or other online offences, so that we can see where the boundaries of that behaviour lie and change people’s behaviour online? Many people hide behind the anonymity of a computer to do things online that they would not do to him, me or anyone else face to face.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to define cyber-bullying, and there needs to be a criminal offence. Those who receive sentences get 17 or 18 weeks, which is nothing, and are then out again and reoffending—it is a badge of honour. Something drastic needs to be done to eradicate the problem.
We must prioritise the development of a strategy to educate both parents and children. There is absolutely no time to waste, because all the studies that have been done have reached a similar conclusion: cyber-bullying is a dramatically growing trend, not just a passing phase. It is seriously damaging young people’s self-esteem and future prospects and having a negative impact on their performance at school and their health. It will continue to grow if we do not act fast. Work needs to be done to make ways of reporting such hate crimes more accessible. Children, young people and the vulnerable need to know that when they require help, support is already in place for them, and adults need to be there not only to offer that support but to be role models of respectable behaviour.
I thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) for tabling this important motion and for his measured and serious speech. It was good to hear about the work that he is doing in his constituency to encourage the education of parents about technology. Although it might be true that adults are not as technologically savvy as their teenage children, the debate shows that adults, particularly him, take a strong interest in children’s welfare, especially given the new and venomous trend of cyber-bullying.
It goes without saying that we must take bullying in general, and cyber-bullying in particular, very seriously. I therefore welcome the opportunity to have this debate so that I can listen to the House’s views and set out some of the initiatives that the Government are taking to combat cyber-bullying.
It is good to see the House debating the subject, and it goes without saying that bullying is high on parents’ lists of concerns about their children when they are at school. We know that the impact of bullying can be devastating for those who are bullied, sometimes with the most tragic of consequences. Cyber-bullying is often an extension of bullying that takes place at school, and the fact that it can follow those being bullied to their home, giving them no respite or refuge, makes it all the more insidious and harmful. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the anonymity and distance provided online provoke an almost unintelligible venom. I am not an apologist for physical bullying, but we almost cannot imagine such venom were the bully and the bullied face to face. That takes cyber-bullying to another level of insidiousness.
As the hon. Gentleman said, our children now have great access to the internet. There is internet access in virtually every household—91%—in which children live, and more teenagers than adults own smartphones as a proportion of their population. Developing children’s skills in this digital age is therefore incredibly important. It is also worth reminding the House of how quickly the phenomenon has come upon us. I fought my first election in 2005, when I became a relatively young and junior Member, without YouTube and Twitter and virtually without Facebook. Facebook came into being in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006. Now those and a plethora of other sites are integral to the lives not just of Members but of the children who use them. Ensuring that children can use those technologies safely is incredibly important and will become increasingly so.
The hon. Gentleman referred, as does the motion, to creating a specific crime of cyber-bullying. I certainly took on board what he said, and the hon. Member for Everton—
Sorry, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram)—I always think of him as the hon. Member for Everton because of his stalwart support for that team—made the point that the Government should define cyber-bullying. It is important to be clear that Governments should not legislate where legislation is unnecessary. We will continue to listen to his case, but as he said, current legislation is in use.
To add to the Acts already mentioned by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, the Communications Act 2003 makes it illegal to send menacing messages, and in 2012 there were 2,000 prosecutions for that offence. The Director of Public Prosecutions has issued guidance on defining cyber-bullying—certainly on trolling—and prosecutors are not afraid to take action when there is a clear case of malicious attacks on the internet.
I think it was right for the DPP and CPS to consult extensively on the issue, and to make a considered decision. The risk of almost limitless potential prosecutions must be balanced against the need for a credible policy and credible prosecutions. I am sure the debate on that will continue, but I think the process was carefully considered and not rushed into. Neither was there any wish to underestimate the impact of some of the cyber-bullying.
As I said, as well as setting out what the Government are doing, I am here to listen to views from all sides of the House. As the hon. Gentleman made clear, I hope this will be a thoughtful debate about something on which Members are united, which is to see this venomous trend—to use his powerful adjective—curtailed in the best way we can. On the criminal element, as I understand, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will include a new offence of causing nuisance and annoyance and there will be the opportunity for someone to get an antisocial behaviour order against people who cause nuisance and annoyance. That can also be used in cases of cyber-bullying.
As well as criminal law, it is important to consider the other issues raised by the hon. Gentleman in his excellent opening remarks, including the whole ecology that exists in terms of we in society uniting to combat this scourge. I hear what he says about cyber-bullying being a growing threat, and I welcome his constructive suggestions—for example, he made a point about doing rather than talking in the work to educate parents in his constituency.
My hon. Friend said that nuisance and annoyance may be covered by new legislation, but we are talking not about that but about downright abuse that can lead some people to commit suicide. Can he tell the House how many people have been prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 or the Communications Act 2003 for offences that this House would recognise as forms of cyber-bullying?
I would hesitate to answer that question in the detail that my hon. Friend requires, at the risk of misleading the House. As I said a few minutes ago, my understanding is that there were 2,000 prosecutions last year. I do not have a breakdown of those figures, but I will write to him if he requires that. The fundamental point, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that under existing legislation prosecutions are taking place for what you or I would recognise as cyber-bullying.
It is important to involve everyone in society in combating this threat. That includes the Government, of course, but also parents, teachers and the industry, which the hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned. As he knows, the previous Government established the UK Council for Child Internet Safety—UKCCIS—which has continued to work with this Government, bringing together three Ministers: myself, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who will wind-up the debate, and the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims. The council brings together industry, academia, charities, parents groups, and law enforcement under three Ministers.
It is often said—again, I would welcome any critique of this—that the UK is a pioneer in internet safety, and my experience of working in the field is that we are highly regarded around the world for the work we do. That does not, I hasten to add, signal any sense of complacency on our part, but it shows that we are proactive about the issue, as were the previous Government.
That long list of organisations the Minister is consulting does not include the social media platforms, although they are pivotal to changing the online culture. What are the Government doing to engage with Facebook, Twitter and Bebo, or whoever it might be, on that issue?
That was my error in omitting to mention that Facebook is on the board of UKCCIS, and we regularly engage with social media. However, I think that we can—and should—do more, and I will come to that in a minute.
As I was saying, the UKCCIS board considers what companies can do to help to address cyber-bullying and to develop robust policies. It has been working with the industry and social media companies to look at the ease with which users can report abuse on their sites, and how those reports are dealt with. The Government have been clear that we expect social media companies to respond quickly and effectively where behaviour contravenes those policies. It is also important to emphasise—I do not know how well this will go down with certain elements in the Chamber—that that work is also happening at European Union level. I think it is worth convening a meeting in the new year with social media companies and interested Members. If any Member in the Chamber wishes to participate, I would be happy to facilitate it.
Does the Minister believe that any legislation brought in by the Government must cover all those who participate in the bullying? That is not just the initial person who put up the bullying or slanderous message, but those who repeat it online and spread it around, as they are equally to blame.
A fundamental principle of law is that what is illegal in the physical world is illegal in the online world. If someone participates in an assault or in bullying in the physical world, they should be equally susceptible to whatever law they would contravene were they to do that in the online world. Someone repeating a libel online is not exempt from being sued because they have simply repeated what somebody else has said. That is the case with bullying and cyber-bullying as well.
I repeat my offer to facilitate a meeting in the new year. The industry must understand that we need to make things as easy as possible for users. There may be common ground here. I think we considered this issue when we were tackling inappropriate content online and protecting our kids, and it goes back to what the hon. Member for Upper Bann was saying about teaching parents in his constituency. Someone might be sitting in their headquarters thinking, “Well, we’ve got robust policies. We’ve got this, we’ve got that,” but it must be clear to all users and across different platforms that whatever social media someone participates in, they should expect certain key principles such as the ability to make a complaint or receive a rapid response. I will facilitate that meeting.
I mentioned education, and the whole drive against cyber-bullying must be considered as part of a broader drive to tackle all forms of bullying. The Government have sent a clear message to schools that bullying in any form is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. For schools there is a mixture of education and legislation, as well as greater freedom and more accountability. For example, as part of the national curriculum, the Government will ensure that children are educated about the dangers of the internet. Although schools are required by law to have a behaviour and bullying policy, they have flexibility in how to implement that policy, while at the same time they are held to account by Ofsted.
During the passage of the Education Act 2011, Ministers emphasised that cyber-bullying was a motivation for changing disciplinary laws to allow members of staff, not just teachers, to search an individual student, even a member of the opposite sex, without anybody else present and to seize property. Do the Government have any evidence on the use of the changed powers in schools? Have any protocols been developed and have any issues arisen from their use?
We are lucky enough to have sitting next to me one of the top Education Ministers, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson). By the time he comes to sum up, he will have an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question. The change in the law was welcomed, but I cannot say, from my eyrie in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, what statistics the Department for Education has at its fingertips on its effectiveness. The Department is proud of reducing 481 pages of bullying advice down to 11 pages. Common sense tells us that bullying advice is now being read by schools. The hon. Gentleman alluded to search powers, but the 2011 Act also introduced the new simplified Ofsted inspection regime. Since January 2012, Ofsted has four core criteria only, one of which includes freedom from bullying. Schools can therefore be held to account for their policies.
From September 2014, pupils in every key stage—all pupils from ages five to 16—will be taught about online safety as part of the new curriculum. We hope that that will empower young people to tackle cyber-bullying through responsible, respectful and secure use of technology, as well as ensure that pupils are taught age-appropriate ways of reporting any concerns they may have about what they see or encounter online. I was also going to mention—
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. Will he confirm that academies and free schools will not have to follow the curriculum guidelines? What will he be doing, with his colleagues in the Department for Education, to ensure that these important procedures will still be taught in all our schools?
All schools will have to have a protection policy in place and they will be subject to Ofsted inspections. My hon. Friend’s intervention gives me an opportunity to say what a fantastic job he did as children’s Minister. One reason why I have such respect for his remarks is because he is one of those former Ministers who has maintained an interest in the policy in which he was so intimately involved, and he continues to make important interventions in our debates.
The Education Act 2011 strengthened schools’ powers—a specific Government intervention in this area—so that teachers can now impose same-day detention, use reasonable force to protect children from harm and have the power to search for and delete images or files that they think are inappropriate. Schools do not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes the rhetoric is such that we almost pass on to schools the responsibility for sorting out all society’s ills. Schools have to work with parents, and parents have to be participants and allies in the work to combat cyber-bullying. Schools need to work with parents to make it clear that no one will tolerate any kind of bullying, and to ensure that parents are aware of the procedures to follow if they believe their child is being bullied. Schools should investigate and act on all reports.
Making parents aware of what they can do to keep children safe online is also important. I am pleased that, as part of our work to protect children from inappropriate content online, the main internet service providers have come together and formed an alliance to carry out a large-scale internet safety awareness campaign for parents. I understand that that will have a budget of approximately £25 million per year for the next three years and will include signposting to further sources of help and advice. I have said to the ISPs on many occasions that while it might be helpful to them in a competitive environment to offer new and up-to-date tools to parents to keep their children safe online, they must also work together as one. They have the experience, they know their customers, they have the highly paid marketing directors and they have the relationships with the advertising agencies and so on to work together as one for the common good to put forward this message. I am pleased we have got this deal with them.
I am so sorry. I misspoke because of what was written in my speech. I now understand that it is £25 million over three years. I thank the hon. Lady for correcting me, and I will double and triple check that.
A range of agencies and organisations have a role in preventing and responding to bullying: local authorities, local safeguarding children boards, law enforcement, schools, parents and the internet industry. Drawing on the breadth of expertise available, the Government are supporting a number of specific initiatives. For example, we are providing four organisations—I think this figure is correct—with more than £4 million in total over two years from spring 2013. [Interruption.] I am assured that that is correct. We are giving £800,000 to the Diana Award to identify and train 10,000 pupils as anti-bullying ambassadors. We are giving £250,000 to Kidscape to work in nine of London’s most economically deprived boroughs to train primary school professionals to deliver preventive and remedial strategies. We are giving £1.5 million to BeatBullying to train 3,500 11 to 17-year-olds over two years as cyber-mentors, and we are giving £1.5 million to the National Children’s Bureau consortium to focus on bullied children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities, to work with 900 schools, parents, carers and school staff to reduce bullying and its impact when it occurs.
I have spoken for some time in this short debate on a subject that is important and wide-ranging. I reiterate how welcome the debate is, and how judicious the opening remarks were from the hon. Member for Upper Bann. Building on the work of the UKCCIS—in its time, a relatively unique organisation, bringing together a range of stakeholders, and it remains the forum to debate many of the key issues—the Government have developed a range of measures, such as important legislation to give teachers powers to intervene in cyber-bullying and a campaign to work with ISPs to ensure that we can educate parents. I urge hon. Members to engage with social media on their procedures and thoughts. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate and to my hon. Friend the Minister when he sums up.
Some time ago, I secured a debate on suicide prevention. I acknowledged then, and I do now, that the internet and social media are prominent features in youth culture nowadays. Young people see the use of technology as a vital part of their social life, and the online environment has created unique opportunities to learn, to connect and to communicate.
Almost 99% of children aged between eight and 17 throughout the United Kingdom have access to the internet, while 90% of children aged five to 16 have computer access. As we accept that social media are a reality in everyday life, we must also accept the growing concern about the use of the internet for cyber-bullying. Although it may be impossible to remove online risk completely, we have a duty to challenge the present unacceptable situation that leaves vulnerable young people and adults open to abuse and self-harm
We as legislators cannot sit on the sidelines until something happens that affects our homes and families, which is when we typically express horror and disbelief at the terrible consequences of a system that we allow to operate. I wish to express my appreciation to the House Library for a very informative debate pack, prepared for today’s debate.
I know that many within our society must carry responsibility—we have heard some of them named already—for the protection of our children. I believe that we must first start in the home, because parental responsibility is so important. Parents cannot shun their responsibility to provide a safe environment for their own children. Quite often, they provide availability to the technology, and then some walk away from any further responsibility. By so doing, many parents inadvertently expose their children to cyber-bullying and inappropriate online behaviour because they do not exercise parental control. Many parents might set up a social network account without any understanding of the need for online safety. Many have little or no knowledge of how they should or could protect their children online. Parents, however, do not stand alone in carrying the burden of responsibility. Society must bear its portion of responsibility. We have heard about the responsibility of teachers, for example, and of this Parliament having responsibilities that we must all shoulder.
The figures for online bullying are staggering. The Independent stated on 2 October 2013:
“More than a million young people are subjected to extreme online bullying every day in Britain”.
The explosion of social networking sites means that, according to the national anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label, seven out of 10 13 to 22-year-olds have been cyber-bullied. This growing problem now affects an estimated 5.43 million young people, with girls and boys equally likely to be targeted. Cyber-bullying is now an everyday problem for today’s children—one that I believe is of epidemic proportions. The suggestion that people should simply boycott websites that fail to tackle the problem is, in my opinion, far too simplistic. We as a society must not accept cyber-bullying as a norm—either for the present or future generations.
Facebook is the most common place for cyber-bullying to occur, with studies informing us that young people are twice as likely to be bullied there than on any other social network. The Daily Telegraph revealed in an article of 18 October 2013 that Facebook has unveiled plans that will allow millions of teenagers to give strangers access to their online profiles. The article states:
“The social media site is changing its rules so that accounts set up by youngsters aged 13 to 17 will no longer have an automatic privacy setting which prevents their status updates, photos and videos being publicly available. Until now teenage Facebook users’ profiles have only been visible to their ‘friends’ or ‘friends of friends.’”
The truth often is that today’s friend may no longer be a friend; in actual fact, today’s friend, especially in social media, can become tomorrow’s enemy. In my opinion, these new regulations will leave hundreds of thousands of our very young people—children—exposed and vulnerable to predators and paedophiles.
Many children have revealed their innermost thoughts to their friends online. In fact, they have revealed thoughts that they would never utter in a face-to-face encounter. They revealed those thoughts because they believed they had a restricted world of their friends on the internet. Now, much of this can be shared in the public domain, but it will not happen without serious consequences. Do these providers have no conscience and feel that they have no responsibility when a young person is haunted by what they perceived was a very private statement now being made public and leading in several cases to young people taking their own lives? John Carr, secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition, accuses Facebook of arrogance, stating:
“You get the impression that power breeds arrogance.”
I believe that this is not a subject for glib comments; it is one of the most serious subjects that could ever be brought before this House. We must therefore help our young people. Liam Hackett, who founded the anti-bullying charity, Ditch the Label, rightly pointed out that, historically, bullying went on in the classroom—a point on which the Minister touched. Today’s bullying, however, does not stop there. Bullying in the classroom was repugnant and must be utterly condemned, but it stopped when the child arrived home. For many children today, though, there is no escape, because the bullying in the classroom follows them right to their own home and, in many cases, even to their own bedroom.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the bullying somehow goes beyond that. I do not know why, but people feel able to say things that are far worse through that sphere than they would say to someone’s face or in front of somebody else. It is a strange thing, but it is clear that people feel able to do that.
Of course, anonymity will allow that to happen. The reality is that, as I said, many young people will say things online that come out of their hearts at that moment, but they believe that this is for their friends. They would not have opened their heart to say such things if they believed they were going to be spread around. Equally, there are those who say things through this medium that they would never say to a person face to face. That highlights the seriousness of this situation.
Surely no one can be immune to the tragedy that often follows. The social media are often the tool of today’s modern bullying at a time when a young person is most vulnerable to the feeling of worthlessness. As the bullying continues on the social media site, even in the young person’s own bedroom, a feeling of loneliness will follow. Then, following on from that loneliness comes a sense of hopelessness, and the social media might then kick on a step further. After it has carried that person to the point of hopelessness, worthlessness and loneliness, it then also provides them with information and techniques that increase the chance of suicide attempts being successful and decrease the chance of these young people receiving help. At that moment of their vulnerability, when they are at the lowest point of their life, they are shown how they could end it all and are told by the person communicating with them why they should end it all because they are worthless—because they are nothing, because they mean nothing to anybody.
I suggest that every Member of this House here today would do well to spend a quiet time reading the notes the Library has provided for us. Many of us as Members of Parliament have heard in our constituency offices the stories of young people caught in the trap of cyber-bullying and who are too scared to say or do anything. Thousands of them are targeted by internet blackmailers—sadistic abusers who operate in online chatrooms that can access the dark recesses of our computers, ready to make their innocent victim a slave.
Dr Elly Farmer, a clinical psychologist, said:
“There is a desire for power and control, and getting a kick out of causing as much pain as possible.”
How sick can a person be, but the sad reality is that there are sick people out there and our young people are vulnerable to them.
Not one of us is immune to the viciousness and cruelty of these vipers. Given that there are abusive messages like those sent to the 14-year-old girl found dead after she received a series of messages telling her to drink bleach, go get cancer and die, surely there is technology that exposes the identity of the evil persons from whom the messages emanate.
The internet providers have failed, and are continuing to fail, our young people. That is why I believe, as the motion suggests, that Government must act to provide legal protection, and when Government do so, the courts must show their responsibility and ensure those who are responsible for cyber-bullying face lengthy prison sentences.
The subject we are dealing with today is a subject that can cost a person’s life. Therefore to do nothing, or do little or only do something, will not satisfy our conscience. That is why I suggest that, having read the document that has been provided for us and having listened to the speeches here today, it would do good for every one of us in the stillness and silence of our own hearts to ask this question: “What more can we do?” The Government must also ask that question: “What more can Government do to protect our children?”
It is a pleasure to follow that very balanced, stark and worrying speech from the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), which was in the same vein as that of his colleague, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who opened the debate. This is a very important subject and I pay tribute to the DUP for having brought it to the House’s attention today. It is a very important and topical subject, and it merits greater coverage and attention than is suggested by the number of Members who are able to be here debating it today
We have had a number of debates on related subjects recently, which is a sign of the seriousness with which this House takes this issue and the threat that this problem presents to many of our constituents day in, day out—the young, the old, the vulnerable and everyone else as well. There has in the past perhaps been a focus on access to harmful material on the internet—violent pornography and violence generally—and its hugely insidious effect on our young people and particularly on vulnerable and impressionable teenagers. Just a few days ago yet another case came up and was reported in the newspapers where a boy of 12 raped his younger sister after watching online pornography, prompting a judge to warn yesterday that
“the internet is not a benign babysitter”.
We have become almost conditioned and immune to horrific cases like that being a fact of everyday modern life, but that does not make it any less important that we should urgently tackle this problem. We must not take it for granted. We must do much more than we are doing now collectively as a country, as a Government, and with all the institutions at our disposal.
I welcome the progress made recently in various parts of Government, in co-operation with businesses and other institutions, on the proliferation of filters, which we are now going to see on accessing pornography and harmful material. However, we have a lot more to do, and they are just one part of what needs to be a whole jigsaw of solutions addressing the effects the internet can have on impressionable people who can be influenced by it.
The bigger question is not so much how people get access to the internet and how we restrict it, but why they want to look at these things and why they are influenced by them. Why does the internet have such a huge influence on impressionable boys in particular, and how has it come to normalise hardcore and often violent behaviour for our kids so they take this stuff for granted—stuff that we are aghast at and would have been absolutely aghast at if we had had access to it in our impressionable teenage years? The internet is a fantastic tool that we cannot, and would not wish to, uninvent; it is one of the great fashioning things of the late 20th and 21st centuries. Why do some people turn to the internet to use it to bully, harass and abuse?
As my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned, in my time as children’s Minister I jointly chaired the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, a really important body that is part of the solution. It has been providing answers and it needs to be at the heart of the solutions we provide. We must have a multi-faceted approach, which is why that body, which brings together academia, business, the internet service providers, the child protection people, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, Government and everybody else, is so important. In my time on the UKCCIS we focused on access to harmful content—violent and adult content—for young people in particular, and I think the focus is still the same. I regret, however that we did not latch on earlier, as we needed to do, to the malign effects that the misuse of social media to abuse and bully is having on our children, some of them under the age of 10, every day of their lives.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point and has hit the nail on the head. We can put all the barriers and protections in place, but in terms of bullying, children have access to Facebook and the other similar sites because that is part of modern life. It is how they meet and arrange parties, and if they are not part of that network, they fear they will be excluded, which presents us with a difficult circle to square.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Like it or not, my teenage daughters go absolutely berserk if their internet connection is down or they lose their mobile or other such device. You cannot leave home without it.
It is ironic that, as we heard earlier, at a time when, technologically, communication has never been easier—we can telephone, text, e-mail, tweet, use Bebo—actually, we do not talk to each other much. Certainly, children do not talk to their parents much, and vice versa. When my wife or I sometimes get a request by e-mail from one of my teenage daughters for supper in her bedroom, I think that we have gone quite far enough. She will not be getting any supper that night, if that sort of nonsense goes on.
Important though it is, rather than just concentrating on access to harmful material, we need to take much more seriously the use of social media for malign purposes by young people against other young people, and, of course, by older people masquerading as young people who are seeking to groom and abuse them sexually. It is extraordinary to note the number of young people who will still communicate with strangers—they know not where they come from or what their intentions are, yet they have conversations with them over the internet and even meet up with them, as if they were best friends.
These sites will expand, and more social media opportunities will of course come the way of our children. Some are supposed to be age-barred, but in practice we know that it is almost impossible to do that. Having spoken to young people, including during my time as chairman of the UKCCIS, I know that what really worries them is a malign posting on social media sites, which undermines their integrity. Such a posting can go viral, and in a matter of minutes a huge audience may be privy to some deeply offensive and abusive, personal, private sexual information that is now out there. In the past, such information would have been in hard copy form—a piece of paper available to just one or two people, so it had limited effect. Now, it is out there for ever, potentially.
Some 38% of teenagers have received sexually explicit texts or e-mails, and according to one survey that figure is going up. Indeed, “sexting” is just one of the more alarming manifestations of social media having become part of our everyday lives. This can turn into bullying when threats to send increasingly explicit photos over social media are used as a form of blackmail. Of course, we have had the recent tragic cases of young people, including a 14-year-old girl, being driven to suicide by the fear of what is out there—by the threat of its being publicised and used against them on social media.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, because potential future employers are increasingly looking at young people’s Facebook history, their career prospects could be ruined and they could be denied such opportunities because of something that has been put on Facebook?
And of course, as Members of Parliament, we know all too well that, for members of the press—not too many are present in the Press Gallery today—such activities are often part of their job description.
The internet affects everybody’s lives. It is un-cool, as we have heard, not to be on the internet or not to have the latest internet-enabled mobile device. Research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has shown that almost 40% of our young people are affected by cyber-bullying. A survey by Nominet, which has done a lot of work in this area, showed that 65% of young people have experienced online bullying, or “trolling”, or know somebody else who has. For ChildLine, which is part of the NSPCC, bullying is the second most important issue, accounting for more than 10% of the counselling sessions arising out of the referrals it receives.
The hon. Gentleman and I have worked on many children’s issues together, and he will remember that the commission on stalking on which we worked found that this terrible use of the internet was destroying people’s lives. Is it not good news that we quickly got the law changed on stalking? People said that it could not be stopped, but we proved that it could be. Now, that same commission is being re-formed to look at cyber-bullying, I hope with the same success.
The hon. Gentleman is right. A recent debate in this place showed what can be done when we put our minds to it and listen to people who have solutions, rather than always listening to those who focus on the problems.
The Department for Education’s own research shows that 30% of secondary school-aged children have been deliberately targeted, threatened or humiliated by abuse on mobile phones or the internet. Cyber-bullying is an even more cowardly form of what we might have known as playground bullying, because it often hides behind anonymity, done by people in the comfort of their own bedroom. However, the psychological effects can be every bit as damaging as physical, face-to-face bullying, and such bullying has the capacity to be spread cancer-like among a much wider body of peers, at the press of a button. It can undermine a young person’s confidence and self-esteem, at a time when they are still finding their own identity. It can lead to depression, truancy, self-harm and even suicide; to a fear of returning to school to face one’s friends, who may be the authors of some of this cyber-bullying; and to a feeling of being permanently unsafe.
Being bullied by electronic means could actually be worse than being bullied in the playground. At least in the playground, people perhaps have their friends around to sustain them. Being bullied privately, perhaps in a quiet place, could really prey on someone’s mind.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and of course in such situations there are no witnesses around. People suffer in silence, and there is not necessarily anybody on hand to report such behaviour to. That is why it is every bit as damaging as, and probably more damaging than, the playground bullying that he and I might have been witnesses to—certainly not part of—in our days of yore in the playground.
Nominet’s “know the net” research suggests that socially and economically disadvantaged children and young people are at greater risk of experiencing cyber-bullying and suffering its adverse effects. It is more likely to affect disabled children, young carers, children with learning disabilities and recipients of free school meals. Cyber-bullies are picking on the most vulnerable children—an even more shameful act. Facebook is the most common place for it, as we have heard. Facebook has made great strides, but there is an awful lot more it can do. Such bullying happens on Twitter, and it happens with Instagram. There are now various new modes of communicating, whereby an image is sent and it self-destructs within 10 seconds, so the evidence is gone. Those are all clever ways that can be used by malign people to bully even more effectively.
What is really worrying is that only 37% of teenagers who experience online bullying report it to a social network, so two thirds do not. Some 36% of those who do not report it said that they choose not to because it is not taken seriously and doing so would be a waste of time. Very few even report it to their parents, yet a third of all parents fear that their child is actually causing bullying on the internet, according to research by the National Children’s Bureau and McAfee. Some 45% of parents have set up Facebook accounts themselves for their own children who are under the age of 13. The recommended minimum age for having a Facebook account is 13, yet some parents are clearly ignoring that. Indeed, Facebook itself has discussed removing that age threshold. However, that is one of the few safeguards that provides guidance to parents on the age at which it is appropriate for their children to be exposed to these very powerful forms of social media. Only one in 10 parents believe that their own children are safe online, yet over a third have never had a conversation with their children about the dangers of the internet, and only one in five bothers to set up controls on their internet devices.
This is an extraordinary situation, a perfect storm. Schools are not doing enough to teach the hazards of the internet effectively. We need better sex and relationship education as armour to deal with some of the sexual abuse on the internet. Parents are afraid of appearing ignorant and do not communicate with their children about the hazards, and the social media companies are still spending too much time on maximising the number of people attracted to their sites, the revenues earned by the sites and the stock market capitalisation as the sites are launched on the American stock market. The Home Affairs Select Committee reported earlier this year that too many of our social media companies remain far too complacent and laid back about the perils of the internet for young and impressionable people.
The other big problem is that abuse of the internet lacks consequences. That was behind my earlier question to the Minister when I asked him how many people were being prosecuted and actually feeling the force of the law. How many people are being shown that what they are doing is not just a bit of harmless fun, a bit of ribbing or a bit of playfully taking the mick out of someone, but that it is dangerous abuse that can ultimately be fatal?
Recent figures on trolls who have stopped abusing people online have shown that many of them admitted looking for the most vulnerable targets and making their lives a misery. They admitted that that behaviour was like a drug, and that they would move on to another vulnerable target. Something more needs to be done about this.
The hon. Gentleman is right. It takes an extraordinary mentality to want to use the fantastic technology of the internet to abuse and, ultimately, to cause harm and even death. This is perhaps similar to those people who invent computer viruses and get a kick out of causing huge inconvenience and misery to large numbers of people.
I have been a bit gloomy so far, but I want to end by mentioning a few of the good things. Good progress has been made. The work of the Prime Minister and the Government internationally with the FBI on promoting filters and using greater powers to remove harmful images from the internet is very welcome. The profile of the problem has certainly been raised, which is also welcome. We now have better guidance on e-safety in schools, although my complaint is that that focuses too much on the mechanics of the technology and not enough on the ethics of what is good and not good and what cannot be trusted on the internet.
The Department for Education has awarded £4 million-worth of grants to BeatBullying, the Diana Award, Kidscape and the National Children’s Bureau, all of which are excellent organisations doing some really good practical stuff, but it is a drop in the ocean when we consider how many hundreds of millions of people are using social media. The Education Act 2011 gives teachers greater powers to search for and delete inappropriate images on electronic devices, which is welcome, as is the fact that Ofsted should now be inspecting behaviour as part of its assessment of schools and looking closely at the effectiveness of internal policies to prevent bullying and cyber-bullying. I also welcome the additional funding to enable the Internet Watch Foundation to use its new powers to take down inappropriate sites.
There is more that we need to do, however. We need to empower parents and pupils. We need to ensure that schools not only educate the kids but invite the parents in so that they can learn what the kids have learnt, so that they know what to look out for when they go back home. This is just like healthy eating: schools are very good at giving kids healthier meals and telling them about healthy eating, only to let them go home and be stuffed full of pies by parents who do not have the right attitude. We also need more in-your-face guidance from the Government, through the Department for Education and the Home Office, about the real dangers of what is going on.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is always possible to recognise a school that has a big question mark hanging over it when its head teacher says, “My responsibility ends at the school gate”? It could never end there in relation to bullying, because the bullies used to hang out on the street outside. Bullying of that kind, and bullying on the internet, must be tackled by head teachers managing their schools properly.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Cyber-bullying might start in the playground, but it can continue in the bedroom of the anonymous person who is carrying out the campaign.
Our social media companies need to do much more. We need far more effective in-your-face reporting mechanisms, proper hot buttons and faster, more effective mediation and adjudication on what is acceptable. Also, there must be consequences, so that the people who post this stuff can have it taken down and have their site confiscated. In some cases, we should not shy away from naming and shaming the perpetrators in school and preventing them from using social media.
As the House has heard, I have my own long-standing troll who continues to post malicious material about my family. For many months, I have been complaining to Google, which hosts his blog. This person has posted pictures of my teenage, under-age daughters on his blog, alongside abusive comments. They have not been removed. When he was spoken to about it, he replaced their faces with horses’ heads, alongside equally abusive comments. After about six months, Google got round to doing something. It sent me this response:
“Hello. Thanks for reaching out to us. We have reviewed your request. At this time, Google has decided not to take action. Blogger hosts third-party content. It is not a creator or mediator of that content. We encourage you to resolve any disputes directly with the individual who posted the content.”
That is not an effective way of dealing with clear and obvious abuse, and I am still on at Google—and it is not just Google—to take this sort of abuse seriously. If it is unable to do that for a Member of Parliament who has a platform here, imagine how many of our children must be suffering in silence because they have no means of drawing attention to this deeply abusive, offensive and completely unnecessary form of cyber-bulling.
We also need better sentencing guidelines. There are some bits of legislation, but we have not yet seen people being hauled before the courts. Frankly, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions must do better in this regard. They complain that this is a grey area and that the thresholds are high, but cyber-bullying is cyber-violence and if that violence were committed in person in playgrounds or in pubs, it would be dealt with properly by the police and the courts. Cyber-bullying should be no different.
I have recently written to all Members of Parliament, with the help of Nominet, asking for cases in which their constituents had been the victims of cyber-bullying so that we can put together some best practice to use when our constituents come to our surgeries when their children and family members have experienced this kind of bullying. We as Members of Parliament also experience cyber-bullying. I have spoken to Mr Speaker about this and he is sympathetic to our receiving guidance on how to help ourselves to guard against trolling and cyber-bullying, which we should not have to accept as we try to do our jobs.
This is a problem that affects all of us: the young, the old and, in particular, the most vulnerable. It is just a technological advance—albeit a particularly insidious one—from playground bullying to cyber-bulling, but it can go as far as to involve threats of terrorism, as certain Members have found out to their cost. There is no magic bullet, but we all have a responsibility better to educate our children.
Schools should have a designated teacher who is responsible for anti-bullying work, and we should have much more effective procedures and mechanisms for reporting incidents of bullying, including cyber-bullying, in schools. Cyber-bullying should be included and referred to in all policies on behaviour, anti-bullying and acceptable use. All teachers should be given training, support and guidance on dealing with bullying, including cyber-bullying. Those are just some of the recommendations in the BeatBullying “Virtual Violence” report. We need clear guidance along those lines from the Department for Education to schools on whether or not they are bound by the curriculum, and not the current postcode lottery and the laissez-faire approach that I fear we have. We need clear guidance from the Home Office to justice institutions.
We also need greater social responsibility from our social media companies. They need to monitor, and we need to monitor, how good they are at reporting this stuff and taking it down, and how quickly they do it. They need to invest in moderators and to signpost better where young people can go to get help. Above all, there needs to be consequences for cyber-bullying and the Government need to take a greater lead. I have sympathy with what Democratic Unionist party Members were saying about making cyber-bullying an offence, because, as I said earlier and I say again, cyber-bullying is cyber-violence. We would criminalise it in any other context and we need now to look seriously at how the law can treat it equally seriously.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I ought to remind the House that we have another debate to follow, and I have received indications that, as with this debate, a large number of hon. Members wish to speak. If Members who are about to speak restrict their remarks to approximately 10 minutes, everyone who wishes to speak will have a chance to do so.
It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful, reflective contribution of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and I commend the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and his party for tabling this motion on the very important topic of cyber-bullying. As the Minister said, there is no doubt that cyber-bullying is perpetrated with a large degree of anonymity and distance, which makes it particularly insidious and frightening for children. In many instances it has led to truancy from school, self-harm, suicide and many other issues. We all know that cyber-bullying can be done in many situations, and people who commit it say things on the internet, Twitter and Facebook that they would not say to someone face to face. When someone reads such a comment about themselves on the internet, Facebook or Twitter, it can be particularly intimidating. In fact, people have even been purged as a result, so it is important to reflect on that.
Cyber-bullying and legislation throw up various definitional issues. Cyber-bullying is defined as:
“when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person”.
However, legislative difficulties arise in defining the difference between cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking, and in defining each of those concepts. That brings us into the arena of cyber-defamation law. Cyber-bullying has proved difficult to legislate on because of freedom of speech issues. Absurdly, many people argue that such legislation violates the bully’s freedom of speech. I find it unacceptable that a bully should feel that he is being prevented from saying something. However, this all comes back to the fact that such bullying is anonymous and from a distance, and that it can cause people to take certain actions, in a mistaken belief, to try to protect themselves. The hon. Member for Upper Bann is right to say that serious consideration has to be given to the legislative consequences of cyber-bullying, because at the moment, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, cyber-bullying has had little consequences. In Northern Ireland, a review of sentencing is taking place and reference must be made to cyber-bullying in that. We must also have the primary legislation here and in the devolved institutions to deal with this issue.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I absolutely agree that more urgent, robust and assertive action needs to be taken to deal with this issue. I believe that there is not one family of a Member in this House who have not been bullied, either face to face or by cyber-bullying, which is much more insidious.
The statistics are interesting. Ofcom found this year that some 43% of five to 15-year-olds have a social networking profile. Ofcom has also found that 81% of teenagers own a smartphone, with 60% of teenagers claiming that they are highly addicted to smartphone usage. This year, it also found that children and young people are now spending 17 hours a week online, although I would judge that the real figure is much higher. To see that, one has only to witness the use of this technology by children, be it on the school bus, in school or in a family or other environment.
This debate is all about what we do to deal with the problem and what political action is required. Like my colleagues in the DUP, I believe that the British Government and the devolved institutions have to give serious consideration to legislative consequences and to legislation itself. Until the Government here and the devolved institutions take it seriously, people who are dedicated to this form of bullying will get away with it.
I have no doubt that there needs to be lobbying for sustained nationwide campaigns similar to those for road safety, including TV advertisements, radio broadcasts and adverts, and video. An onus and obligation should be placed on the provision of funding and sponsorship from the big players such as the search engines, including Google, the social media platforms, such as Twitter, and mobile phone companies, such as O2, Orange and Vodafone. An action plan must be put in place to deliver awareness talks to parents, community and church leaders, educators, young people and children about this vice, which is a form of cyber-terrorism.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to the work being done in the Republic of Ireland and how it is approaching legislation. The British and Irish Governments, along with the devolved institutions and the Governments of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, are part of the British-Irish Council. I urge the British-Irish Council to give immediate attention to this issue of cyber-bullying, because the Council would be a good context in which it could be discussed and in which Governments and devolved institutions could consider the matter and take positive legislative action.
The other area I wish to discuss is that relating to Children’s Commissioners. We have one in Northern Ireland, one in the other devolved institutions and one here in Britain. An immediate conference should be held at which they could reflect on this subject, because they have a dedicated responsibility for children, in order to see what can be done. [Interruption.] I am conscious of the time, Madam Deputy Speaker. As of 20 November, Canada introduced legislation covering matters such as distribution, removal, forfeiting the device, reimbursement to victims, court orders and investigative powers. We should be examining that strong Canadian legislation to see where we could take action.
In supporting this motion, I suggest that tackling these issues and the gaps in education and awareness are paramount, as is legislation. Cyber-bullying will continue to have a profound effect on our young people’s lives and on our future society. Parents feel largely helpless in this matter, and the debate today should be a warning to the Government that we all want to see action of a legislative kind to tackle this form of terrorism as it is so insidious in our wider communities today.
Cyber-bullying strikes at victims at any time and in any place—at home, at school, on a bus or out with family or friends. It takes place on a range of different platforms, including text, social networks, video, photo messaging, internet chatrooms, in-game messages, e-mail and more. Nearly half of five to 15-year-olds own a mobile phone, and the use of tablet computers has trebled over the same age group since last year, and almost all have regular internet access at home or at school. The channels through which cyber-bullying is perpetuated are never far away from any child. The experience for the victim is made all the more chilling by the fact that the tormentor can act anonymously and in the mind of the abused can be anyone they know or do not know.
A survey undertaken by Norfolk county council found that nearly a quarter of children in Norfolk primary and secondary schools had experienced cyber-bullying at school. Bullying through text messages was the most common, followed by the use of social media sites. The survey highlighted the wide range of young people’s online presences through which cyber-bullying takes place. Ofcom’s recent report into young people’s use of media emphasises the rapid changes in the use of different technologies by children over periods as short as just one year.
Technology is continually evolving. Online platforms come and go, and young people have a healthy appetite for trying out new technologies and experiences. If guidance and support and legislation are to be effective, they must be relevant in an ever changing landscape and not be too focused on specific technologies or software. We must ensure that young people, parents, teachers and others have the skills and the understanding to protect themselves and others from dangers across a range of platforms.
The dangers and the consequences of persistent cyber-bullying have become horribly clear. In a study published in 2010 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a team of Finnish researchers found that cyber-bullying puts strains on mental health that include problems processing emotions, disruptions in socially appropriate behaviour, and an impaired ability to interact successfully with others. Those findings are supported by professionals working with children who have been bullied in my constituency.
Red Balloon is an excellent organisation providing a supportive learning environment for children who are outside mainstream schooling because they have been subjected to severe levels of bullying. Angela Francis, who is the co-ordinator of the Red Balloon Learner Centre in Norwich, has highlighted her concerns over the impact that ever increasing levels of anxiety relating to cyber-bullying can have on young people’s mental health. The consequences on a child’s well-being can be devastating.
The Norfolk survey highlights that the majority of those who are bullied reported being bullied to a parent or carer, and roughly two fifths reported being bullied to a member of school staff. There are vast swathes of information on cyber-bullying available to parents, carers and teachers from charities, local authorities, social networks, and the 100 organisations that make up the anti-bullying alliance.
Given that cyber-bullying can take place anywhere, children themselves need to be empowered and taught about the dangers from a young age. They need to be able to identify cyber-bullying, know what steps to take when they encounter it and encourage other children to stand against it. Facebook has an anti cyber-bullying toolkit for those aged 13 to 18. It would be even more helpful if all social media sites and chatrooms encouraged young people to take a tutorial on their own anti-bullying policies at the time of setting up an account.
I welcome the new computing curriculum that will see schools putting an increased prominence on the teaching of e-safety from next September. It means that children in key stages 1 and 2 will be taught about using technology safely, including issues such as sexting and cyber-bullying, and I hope that teachers will feel in a strong position to support their pupils as a result. Many schools are already doing great work in this area, encouraged by initiatives such as the PICTFOR Make IT Happy competition. Valley primary school in my constituency entered this year’s competition. Year 6 children created a series of infographics about staying safe online and created a video of their work. Their brilliant entry, which was praised by judges, demonstrated how children can be empowered to deal with unwanted messages and to keep themselves safe from all forms of cyber-abuse.
The best way to deal with any form of bullying is to stop it before it starts. Bullying Stinkz, which is a new anti-bullying campaign set up by my constituents Jacqueline Hitchcock-Wyatt and her daughter Ellie, aims to do just that. They have received celebrity backing, and recently recorded a pop song to highlight the campaign with children of Parkside school in Norwich. Their approach is to reinforce positive messages of diversity, starting at a very young age, and to empower children to speak up before patterns of bullying behaviour become established.
I welcome today’s debate. We need to focus on the comprehensive issues of e-safety for all young people. Good work is being done, and needs to be continually developed, encouraged, prioritised and supported by the Government to ensure that everyone is adequately equipped to deal with the appalling behaviour of cyber-bullying. As this debate has highlighted today, we can and should do more.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Cyber-technology should not be a threat to people; it should be a bonus and one of the good things in life. On cyber Monday, sales worth some £600 million were achieved. Of course, for those with Ulster bank accounts whose cards did not work last night when they went to pay their bill in the restaurant, the petrol station or the shop, the card was not worth the plastic it was made of—but that is a different issue. None the less it highlights the advances that cyber-technology has brought—the good things—and the menaces.
I want to focus on cyber-bullying among children and young people and the impact it can have on their well-being. Although I recognise that cyber-bullying is a problem among adults as well, internet use is increasing all the time among children and young people. It seems that each day the internet is becoming more mobile and more accessible.
Earlier this year, a report by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that 91% of all five to 15-year-olds and 100% of 12 to 15-year-olds used the internet in 2012, which gives us some indication of the importance of it. The internet is one of the most profound inventions in human history, and, of course, it brings huge benefits for children and young people in that they are better informed and better connected to the world around them. That is what it is supposed to be about. But the internet can also be a tool for harm and abuse. As Members from all parts of the House will know—they have spoken about this matter very passionately and knowledgeably—children and young people can often suffer as a result of cyber-bullying, which has significant detrimental effects on them, damaging their sense of worth and wrecking their self-esteem. As an MP from Northern Ireland, I am particularly concerned that cyber-bullying is a significant and growing problem in our schools, as my hon. Friends the Members for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) indicated in their contributions. According to research conducted by the Northern Ireland Department of Education in 2011, 15.5% of year 6 pupils and 17% of year 9 pupils indicated that they had experienced cyber-bullying in the past couple of months. That gives us an idea of the size of the problem.
In January this year, the Nominet Trust published research on the level of cyber-bullying in the UK. Its report “Virtual Violence Two: progress and the challenges in tackling cyberbullying” makes a number of important findings. The report says that
“28 per cent of 11-16 year olds have been deliberately targeted, threatened or humiliated by an individual or group through the use of mobile phones or the internet. For over a quarter of these, this experience was ongoing, meaning that the individual was continuously targeted by the same person or group over a sustained period of time. This suggests that one-in-13 secondary-aged school children have experienced persistent and intentional cyberbullying.”
Given that there are 4.4 million secondary-aged children in the UK, those figures can be projected to suggest that 350,222 children have suffered persistent and insidious bullying inflicted via technology. That shows the numerical vastness of the issue, if hon. Members want to put it into figures. The report goes on to note:
“Purposeful recurring attacks can easily overwhelm a young person being cyberbullied, leaving them feeling anxious, tormented and increasingly marginalised.”
In some cases, cyber-bullying has been found to contribute to children and young people self-harming or even taking their own lives. Other Members have spoken about that. Many of my hon. Friends will have heard of the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old Leicestershire girl, who killed herself after being bullied on a social networking site. Hannah’s case is not an isolated one. Peter Wanless, chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said:
“This is a tragic case where Hannah felt like she had no other option but to end her life. The cruel nature of cyberbullying allows perpetrators to remain anonymous and hide behind their screens.”
He then called for greater measures to be taken against cyber-bullying. He said:
“This is something that must be tackled before it gets out of hand. We must ensure young people have the confidence to speak out against this abuse, so that they don’t feel isolated and without anywhere to turn.”
It is plain and clear that we urgently need to address those issues. One of the key ways we can do that is by seeking to inform and assist parents and guardians whose children might be exposed to such abuse online.
A couple of years ago, I was threatened online and a severe threat was made to my life. One of the reasons I went to the police was not so much to get the abuse stopped for me personally, but to ensure that others, particularly vulnerable people and young people, could see that there is a remedy. Does my hon. Friend agree that if people report the issue and go to the right authorities action can be taken and the perpetrators can be caught and punished?
I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable practical example of what happened to him and for saying how he responded in his fearless way. It shows that if he can do it, everyone else can do it, and that is leadership as it should be.
Children and young people are now able to access the internet almost anywhere in a range of different ways through iPads, mobile phones and other portable devices. It is difficult for parents to monitor their children’s use of the internet, even if they wish to do so, beyond the lowest estimations. It is difficult even for those who are learned in this technology, who still cannot be entirely sure of what their children are doing.
As a parent of four teenage children, I have learned a heck of a lot today and I thank right hon. and hon. Members on the DUP Benches for introducing the debate. I have learned that I do not know enough about cyber-bullying and that as a parent I have to get with it, understand it and discuss it with my teenagers. I suspect that the House will agree with me on that and will forgive me for intervening to share with it something that I have learned.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his admission. We have all admitted that we can learn something every day, and so we can.
A recent Ofcom report shows that 68% of 12 to 15-year-olds in the UK have a profile on a social networking site. Among nine to 12-year-olds, who are too young officially to have their own Facebook account, 36% report having a Facebook profile, with 13% saying that they use it regularly. How aware are parents of their children’s access to social networking sites and what goes on through those sites? That is the question we are all asking.
The internet is changing fast and parents are clearly concerned about the rapid proliferation of harmful online content and what their children might be viewing. Ofcom highlights the fact that 79% of parents of children aged five to 15 who use the internet at home say that they have put in place rules about internet use. They have done it, but is it working? According to a report driven by Dr Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics, 81% of parents feel the need to talk to their children about what they do and view online and more than half stay nearby when their child is on the internet. If only that was possible in every case.
Those last two statistics are encouraging, demonstrating a real desire on the part of many parents to be actively involved in their children’s online experience. In that context we need to empower them to help their children to address issues such as cyber-bullying. This will inform those parents who are interested and concerned and also, we hope, prompt those who are not taking an active interest in the safety of their children online to do so. In that regard, I draw the attention of the House to the excellent Online Safety Bill, which will have its Second Reading in the other place on Friday. The Bill has two key provisions, one of which is designed to engage with the challenge of cyber-bullying.
In the first instance, the Bill places a statutory duty on internet service providers and mobile phone operators to exclude all adult content, while providing the user with the option of accessing such material subject to robust age verification to demonstrate that they are 18 or over. The provision is designed to help parents protect their children from stumbling, either accidentally or on purpose, on inappropriate material.
In the second instance, the Bill places a duty on internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide prominent, easily accessible and clear information about online safety to subscribers. It also places a duty on the Secretary of State to educate parents of children under 18 on online safety. That key educational provision has been made primarily to engage with online challenges such as cyber-bullying and sexting.
The Bill is a noble proposal. It could and should move a long way towards achieving what we are trying to do today. I hope that the Government will embrace it and, in so doing, help to protect children from stumbling on inappropriate material and—of greater importance to this debate—to protect them from cyber-bullying.
It is rather intimidating to follow all the wonderful contributions that we have heard. I thank the DUP for choosing this topic. Last time I contributed to an Opposition day debate for which they had chosen the topic, it was on suicide prevention. I am glad that the DUP has chosen yet another important and challenging issue.
During that debate, I talked about my personal experience and a friend of mine who committed suicide when I was at school. The impact of that on my life has never left me. That poor young lad was bullied, but none of us knew about it. He hid it successfully and sadly, the outcome was catastrophic as he took his life. I also mentioned cyber-bullying. In my day, people could go home and get away from it. That is not the case today; there is simply no let up. In the family home, the PC might be sat in the corner of the living room, representing the constant menace of what is going on at school or in the workplace. It might be in the sitting room or the bedroom, a constant reminder of the bully out there in the wider world. As I said at the time, it is almost like having a silent bully in one’s own home.
It gets worse, because, as other hon. Members have said, we now all enjoy having technology we can carry around with us. For victims of bullying, there is no escape whatsoever. Other hon. Members gave examples of that and we just heard about Hannah Smith and her terrible experience. Over the past couple of days I have looked at other such experiences. Shannon Gallagher took her own life less than two months after her 13-year-old sister had killed herself. At the time, there were allegations of cyber-bullying. Apparently, the teenager had referred the bullying to the networking website and hours before her death posted online comments about teenagers who were taunting her. It is a terrible problem that we must address.
I am also very concerned about the suicide websites that now exist. It really is a terrible phenomenon. Just this week we saw the example of a 20-year-old man in Canada who tried to commit suicide online. He set his bedroom on fire, having taken drugs and alcohol. Some of the people who were watching—I do not understand that phenomenon—complained that they could not see what was happening because of the smoke that was filling the room. That is a dreadful example of the way in which cyber-bullying can create terrible problems for many young people.
Stonewall has done work on the impact of bullying on young gay people. Research for it by the university of Cambridge in “The School Report” of 2012, a survey of more than 1,600 lesbian, gay and bisexual young people in Britain’s schools, found that 55% had experienced homophobic bullying in school, 23% had experienced homophobic cyber-bullying, and 10% were bullied by text message. Some of the quotes that appeared on the website were worrying. Sixteen-year-old Harry said:
“Last summer, I was attacked on Facebook through a series of comments and wall posts calling me a ‘fag’.”
Someone else said:
“Sometimes I’d get messages on Facebook from people I didn’t know threatening me and telling me not to come back into school.”
That sort of language is outrageous and we need to deal with it. Yesterday, we all saw the Olympic diver come out publicly, and I looked at the comments that were posted on his Twitter page. I shall not repeat some of the language, because it is pretty horrific. One person said that he was no longer a fan of Tom Daley because of the “choice”, as that person called it, that he had made. Someone else said:
“I am now ashamed of my country…we can’t have a…fag representing us”.
I wonder how many of those people would dare to say those things to the individual’s face. I do not believe that many of them would.
What action can we take? Stonewall has discussed the work that schools could do, and there are a number of steps that they can take to prevent cyber-bullying and to support young people, whether gay or straight, particularly those who might suffer from mental health problems as a result of such bullying. It is important to promote clear policies on tackling bullying of all sorts, and to specify the need to tackle homophobic bullying in the classroom and beyond. Those policies should make clear both what cyber-bullying is and that cyber-bullying of school pupils is against school rules, regardless of where it takes place. That would go a long way towards sorting this out.
We must prosecute abusers. The Communications Act 2003 clearly says that it is illegal to send messages that are grossly offensive, indecent or menacing in character. I welcome the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service brought more than 2,000 prosecutions in 2012, but I want to know the true extent of the problem, because many people do not come forward and report their experiences.
The examples that I have given show the extremes of what might happen to someone who is subjected to cyber-bullying, and being constantly harangued in one’s own home via the computer or via one’s own phone has led some people to take their life, which is awful. The impact can be equally bad for young people’s mental health, and it can result in their confidence being attacked. In some cases, it can mean complete social exclusion, which needs to be addressed.
We need a change in social attitudes. As technology has changed and improved significantly so, I fear, has our tendency to accept the bad aspects that come with it. Too often we accept that harassment or intimidating comments are part of being on Twitter or Facebook, and too often we hear people stating, “Well, it’s what happens.” Why should we accept that? I am not talking about free speech or robust debate—we all accept that, and we all get those messages—as there is a difference between robust debate and intimidating language that makes people fearful. If we do not deal with this, we will dissuade victims from coming forward, stripping them of the confidence that there is help available to deal with it.
I want to refer to—how can I put it?—the local difficulty that I had in the Strangers Bar a few months ago. After that incident I received all sorts of e-mails, some positive and some rather negative, including one that was incredibly threatening. Someone said that they thought I had not been attacked enough, and they looked forward to the day the IRA re-formed and bombed my party. That sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable. The people who work in my office should not be subjected to such comments. They were frightened when opening the post, because that message had set such an awful example. As a responsible employer, I felt that it was right for me to report it to the police, but I was quite surprised by the criticism I received from some members of the public who basically said, “You have to grow up, because that is just what happens on Twitter and Facebook.”
The point I am trying to make is that if we as individuals do not stand up to such comments, how can we expect people who are being victimised in their schools and workplaces to do so? We need to change attitudes so that we can then change the culture. We need to say that it is frankly not on for people to be subjected to that, for the sake of those victims who have made the ultimate sacrifice and taken their lives as a result of bullying. Let us use the laws we have so that we enjoy the benefits and opportunities that technology can provide.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who made a heartfelt speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on initiating this important and timely debate. We need to pay more attention to this problem, so I am grateful to him.
Members have spoken about the exaggerated behaviour seen on the internet, and we need to pay more attention to that. Bullying on the net and on social media is clearly not like bullying in the playground, and for a number of reasons. The Minister might want to do some research into the factors that change people’s behaviour and into how their behaviour changes.
Anonymity is clearly a big problem in this regard. When talking about crime on the net more generally, we have considered whether it might be possible—I believe that it is—to make a clearer connection between a person’s identity on the net and their identity in the real world. Tackling that problem is central to tackling many of the problems we have on the net. The behaviour of young people, in particular, on the net can become exaggerated partly because there is no feedback, so they do not need to face the person they are bullying or to see the consequences. That is clearly part of the problem.
I do not wish to suggest that there is a problem with young people only, because I think that people’s behaviour in general shifts with technology. If I was to say quietly to the Minister in a private place that I was going to tell him something that I did not want him to repeat, I am sure that he would respect that. If I was to write him a personal letter, it might be put in a box in his office and would not be published all over the media. However, if I was to send something by e-mail, it could immediately be broadcast nationally and internationally. We had such an incident in my constituency, when someone took a memory stick containing mental health records out of an office and managed to lose it. That is because people’s attitudes to other people are distanced by the technology, and we need to understand that more. We need to look at the work that has been done by Professor Susan Greenfield on changes that take place in the brain when people use technology, because there is clearly a profound change.
We are looking for a strategy that cuts across different Departments and arenas. There has been a lot of discussion about the role of schools, which clearly is important. I would like the Minister to clarify whether the learning that the Government are putting into the curriculum will be in the IT part or in the personal, social, health and economic education part. The Opposition think that it really needs to be part of PSHE, because this is about responsibility and relationships.
I commend to the Minister work that I saw a couple of months ago in Denmark, where people have made curriculum materials to be used by parents and children, who are already doing so in after-school classes. Virtually every Member has said how important it is to involve families in this, because parents need support and help. Again, we can learn from the experience of other countries.
Another aspect that has emerged is the disappointment that people have experienced when they have complained to the industry or to public sector professionals and the police. Another strand of any intelligence strategy must surely involve proper training for the professionals—the police, the courts and the social workers, as well as school teachers.
The Minister said that 900 schools will be reached through the charitable work that is being supported. I very much hope that this is not going to be, as it sounded, slightly London-centric. Although 900 schools sounds like quite a lot, there are 23,000 schools in this country. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, we do not want a postcode lottery.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) spoke about the responsibilities of parents and pointed out that many parents are irresponsible. Unfortunately, adults—parents—are using the net to abuse their own children. This just shows the depths that people can plumb and the complexity of dealing with these problems.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about the inadequate response—that is the politest thing one could say about it—that he received from Google after he had contacted it. Indeed, when Google directed me to what it thought was its excellent advice about young people meeting in the real world people they had met online, I was quite surprised to see that it was a cartoon advising them that if they did so, it should be in a public place. As a piece of advice to young people, that is worse than pitiful. It is very important to get the industry up to speed on all this, as the Minister said, and to take an international, as well as a national, approach.
Hon. Members have noted that the majority of young people now accept cyber-bullying as part of everyday life, as do their parents. According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, 40% of parents and 44% of teachers said in a survey that they do not know how to deal with cyber-bullying. I hope that the Government are going to tell us that they do know how to deal with it and that they will engage more energetically with our European colleagues.
In August 2013, Hannah Smith killed herself following a series of abusive messages on the social media site, Ask.fm, which is hosted in Latvia and has been linked to four suicides in this country and Ireland since 2010. When this happened in Ireland, the Irish Government got in touch with Ask.fm. Unfortunately, the Government in London did not do so. I went to a meeting with the Latvian ambassador. Given international hosting and the international movement of messages, it is vital that the Government up their game in tackling this with our European colleagues.
As hon. Members have pointed out, the internet has great potential for learning and exploration, but if it is to be safe, it cannot be lawless. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children believes that one in five children is bullied online. Everybody has a responsibility to put an end to this, so I still do not understand why the Prime Minister’s summer announcements about child online safety contained nothing about safeguarding children on social media, or why the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport did not include it in her action list following her conference with the industry. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for offering to arrange a meeting with the industry and I want to take him up on it, because I think we can do more.
I would be grateful if Ministers could look into a couple of legal points. First, is the existing legal framework adequate? Are the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Telecommunications Act 1984 specific enough to deal properly with cyber-bullying? It is clear that the activity is growing, so if there is a loophole, it needs to be filled. A systematic look at the legal provisions is essential.
Secondly, it would be helpful to look at what obligations social media have to respond quickly and substantively to complaints about cyber-bullying. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a lot of intelligent points about this. He said that there need to be consequences for the individual. I think we also need to consider consequences for the industry if it has not set up proper systems on its websites so that people can press panic buttons and the perpetrators can be found and dealt with. It is clear, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that the industry is completely happy to devote a lot of time, energy and money to gaining customers and increasing its profits, but the tempo is much slower when it comes to protecting vulnerable young people. That is simply not acceptable.
For example, Facebook has an age limit of 13, but it wishes to expose those young people to everything that is available to adults on the internet. That is completely irresponsible. The age limit of 13 was set up because it fits with Californian law. It does not fit with English law. This country has no system for telling whether somebody is 12, 13 or 14. Either Facebook must change its model and treat 13-year-olds as minors, or it must raise the age level at which people can access it. It cannot have it both ways. It cannot encourage children and young people into its site and then treat it as an adult space.
I believe that Ministers can do many things in schools, with families and by looking at the legal framework.
May I begin by thanking everyone, from all parties, who has taken part in this debate? In moving the motion, my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) set the right tone and set the debate on the right course by making the point that this is not a party political issue and that there is a large degree of consensus on both sides of the House. He highlighted the very good work he has initiated in his own constituency in setting up a forum to help parents in particular. That was a very good practical example of what we can do.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said that he had learned something as a result of this debate. We have learned how serious the issue is, but we have also picked up some points on how we can tackle it that are worth taking back to our constituencies to share with our partners in schools and elsewhere.
I join the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), in thanking the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for his offer of a meeting between Members and the industry. We are certainly interested in following up on that excellent idea.
The Under-Secretary made the important point that all forms of bullying are unacceptable, which is the case, but in recent years, we have seen the rise of its most insidious form—cyber-bullying. Everybody is clearly running to catch up with the technology and all its effects, with the exponential growth in the use of various platforms and so on. The learning curve is steep for us all, but the more we can work together and collaborate on the issues, the better.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) pointed strongly to the responsibilities of parents in the home and of schools, as well as, like many hon. Members, to the responsibilities of those who run social media sites, many of which have failed to respond adequately.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) rightly said that much of the talk has been about harmful websites and much of the spotlight on pornographic ones, but added that more needs to be done to tackle social media sites and the problems of abuse and bullying. Like the shadow Minister, I think that the response that he received from Google to his complaint about an horrific set of circumstances was inadequate. Such a response is entirely illustrative of the problems that we are up against if we leave the matter wholly to the industry. That is why the motion refers, as several hon. Members have done, to the need to look carefully at what more can be done through legislation to force companies to respond adequately. There should be consequences for the companies if they do not take adequate action to deal with complaints and problems that are not only minor, but can be very serious, including those that have led, as we have heard, to a loss of life.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) talked about legislation and the need for consequences. Like other Northern Ireland Members, she knows about this phenomenon—it is common across the entire country and, indeed, the modern developed world—as well as the particular issues in Northern Ireland arising from the legacy of the 30 or 35 years of the so-called troubles, with a large number of households and families affected by mental health issues. The insidious problem of cyber-bullying comes on top of those kinds of issues, which make the problems in Northern Ireland particularly acute. I join her in what she said.
I also agree with the hon. Lady about the idea of having a strong campaign, including advertising, to up the profile of all this and to encourage parents to get to know more about what their youngsters and young people are up to, and educate them about what steps they can take to help.
I thank the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) for his contribution from the Liberal Democrat Benches. He made a very interesting point, which I had not thought of, about making a tutorial available when people sign up to a new Facebook account, for instance, to teach them how to report and deal with abuse. That is an excellent idea that is worth bringing up in our discussions with the industry. I entirely agree with him that we can and should do more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, as many hon. Members have done, the benefits of the internet, which is a wonderful invention that has brought and continues to bring massive good to so many, particularly in the developing world. The fact that, as he said, the internet can be a tool for harm is the real worry that parents and others now have. In recent days, we have heard all about the dark net, and about how people can access all kinds of services and goods. Quite frankly, it is beyond belief that people can actually do that.
I thank the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for his speech in this debate—as he said, he also took part in one of our previous ones—and for making an important point. He cited a number of horrific cases, the most recent of which was the bullying that has resulted from the coverage about Tom Daley. The incidents involving the hon. Gentleman and his friend illustrate why we need to bring this matter into the open and discuss it more. That is why we brought it forward for debate. The more that we air these issues, highlight them and discuss them, the more people will realise that something needs to be done. We all need to take responsibility, parents in particular.
Time is short, but I want to make a couple of further points, for which I am indebted to Dr Noel Purdy who, along with Dr Conor McGuckin, produced a report in Northern Ireland entitled “Cyber-bullying and the law”. Dr Purdy is the chair of the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum. He has made a number of points, particularly in relation to schools, that bear highlighting in the House this afternoon. He says that
“schools are often at a loss to know where to start dealing with the issue”
“incidents take place in the evenings or at weekends off site”
and because of issues with “staff competence”. He makes the point that in Northern Ireland the guidance that schools receive on how to manage these issues and on their legal responsibilities is “virtually non-existent”. He also makes the point that technology is changing so fast that it is hard for schools, teachers and parents to keep up.
Dr Purdy states that cyber-bullying is a 24/7 activity. That point has been brought out in this debate. With the old kind of bullying in the school playground, one could get away from it and find refuge in one’s family, home and friends. People had support mechanisms. Bullying over the internet is inescapable because everybody now carries a mobile phone.
Dr Purdy’s report cites primary school teachers who say that parents give iPads, tablets and mobile phones to children as young as four or five as Christmas and birthday presents and then leave them to it. As we all know, children pick up things from other children and from older children in particular. We therefore need to be conscious of this extremely worrying phenomenon. Parents urgently need to be educated about the dangers of internet technology. Buying such technology for their children and leaving them to it is the highest form of irresponsibility. However, it is too easily done. I am not lecturing others, because we are all guilty to some extent of not keeping a close enough watch on our children. In today’s society, it is not always possible to have a close family unit in which close attention is given to what young people are up to. That is a massive issue that needs to be addressed.
We want the Government to consider legislation on greater reporting obligations on social media companies and service providers, and on a specific offence of cyber-bullying. In his opening remarks, the Minister helpfully referred to the various pieces of legislation that are in place. He referred to the number of cases that have been brought under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. He also mentioned the Communications Act 2003, the Telecommunications Act 1984 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. However, I think that what has come out of this debate is that there needs to be a stronger definition of the phenomenon of cyber-bullying. I urge the Government to think seriously about that.
I begin by thanking all hon. Members who have spoken in today’s valuable and welcome debate. It is perhaps a sign of the real advances that have been made in Northern Ireland that Democratic Unionist party Members have tabled two important debates on matters that affect the whole UK as well as their own constituents. That is to be hugely welcomed.
I have listened with great interest to the contributions to the debate, none more so than that of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). I commend him, as have others, for his work in his constituency to raise awareness of cyber-bullying, such as the forum that he brought together, at which he committed to raising the profile of the issue. I suspect that he could have done no better than bringing today’s debate to the House. He set a measured and serious tone and raised a number of important points, which I will seek to cover.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) told us about the lack of parental knowledge that is still out there, and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke for many of us when he admitted his own naivety about much of the activity on the internet that exposes young people to potential harm. We should all take that lesson from today’s debate.
Concerns have also been raised in the debate about Facebook’s privacy settings. Following our work on the UKCCIS board, Facebook has made changes to the default setting for users aged 13 to 18, moving the default position from information being open to friends of friends to its being open to friends only. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and others have welcomed that, but we still need to hold Facebook’s feet to the fire, and the fact that it is a member of the UKCCIS board gives us a real opportunity to keep pressing it further to take more action.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann rightly asked what more we could do, and we must constantly ask ourselves that question. The offer that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), made of a meeting with interested Members and social media providers—Twitter, Facebook and the like—was a positive step, and I hope that many hon. Members will take it up as a way forward.
As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made a thought-provoking and well informed speech, and he reminded us of the danger that cyber-bullying brings and the fact that in many ways it is no more than a cowardly form of playground bullying. There is also a danger that it is becoming an everyday fact of modern life, and that too many young people and adults are becoming sanitised to the world in which they communicate. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) also raised that point in his excellent contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham also asked the crucial question why so many people turn to the internet to bully, harass and abuse. I was struck by the contribution of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and her thoughtful analysis of attitudinal changes in people’s behaviour that are connected with their use of different forms of social media, and how they have manifested themselves in such widespread form. It was a powerful point, and we should examine that matter carefully using the research that she pointed to and through the work of the UKCCIS board and across Government more widely. I am happy to discuss that research with her and where she thinks we could channel our energies to use it more effectively, because none of us would in any way, shape or form endorse the changes to social attitudes that we have seen.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the UKCCIS is part of the solution. He called for greater focus on social media as part of the board’s work, and I agree completely. The board currently has a strand of work on social networking, and we will pursue the matter more vigorously as the board moves forward. I commend him for his efforts to pool best practice through the Nominet survey of hon. Members, in which I encourage them to participate if they feel able to do so.
My hon. Friend raised the important matter of vulnerable children in particular being unfairly targeted by people seeking to abuse them via the internet. The £1.5 million that we have given to the National Children’s Bureau will directly help to reduce the bullying encountered by children who have special educational needs or disabilities. As he rightly pointed out, we also need to improve reporting mechanisms so that the two-thirds of children who do not report a worry or concern about an interaction they have experienced over the internet feel able to do so. That is another piece of work the UKCCIS is taking forward, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for many of our other actions.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) mentioned the difficulties in defining cyber-bullying, and the need to raise awareness of the issue through a sustained nationwide campaign. To clarify an earlier exchange about the big four internet service providers coming together in a concerted joined-up campaign over the next three years, the £25 million is for the first year, with subsequent funding for the next two years to follow. That is a significant amount of money to target collectively on the issues that really matter, and cyber-bullying must clearly be taken into account.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) gave a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved in people’s own communities to tackle this issue, and mentioned his constituent Jacqueline Hitchcock-Wyatt who set up the Bullying Stinkz campaign to empower young people to speak up. I commend them for their work. It demonstrates that if we have the will and desire to do so, we can effect change right where it matters.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us of the scale of this insidious form of bullying and the need to improve awareness among parents. We should never underestimate the ability of this issue to spread so quickly and so far, and that is a difficult part of finding a solution to these rapid technological changes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey shared candidly his own personal experiences and the loss of his friend to bullying. He may like to consider the categories included in new family-friendly parental control filters, which include suicide and self-harm, as that is important. We talk a lot about the insidious nature of much of the activity on the internet, but nothing can be more insidious than some of the suicide sites that we see. He reminded us of the terrible experience of Hannah Smith, and I had the opportunity to meet her father David a few months ago to discuss what we can learn from that tragic case.
My hon. Friend also explained to the House about the targeting of gay people, and gave the recent example of Olympic diver Tom Daley, and some of the despicable and twisted posts that have been put on social media sites. Cyber-bullying attacks people’s confidence, and it can go even further and ruin people’s mental health. That goes to the heart of the conversation about social attitudes, and why it is that when people are given anonymity, their whole value base seems to flip. We must do more to understand that.
I have already alluded to the helpful and constructive contribution by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, and she asked about the four key stages in which internet safety will now be taught—previously it was taught only in key stages 3 and 4. Internet safety is in the computing part of the curriculum, but there is of course freedom for schools, within personal, social, health and economic education, to envelop it into other aspects of the curriculum. The hon. Lady mentioned some of the materials from Denmark that help not just children but parents as well—an interesting area to explore, considering we know how much parents feel that they lack knowledge and understanding of many of the issues their children face.
On how we are helping schools, and some of the excellent voluntary organisations that work day in, day out, to support children who are victims of bullying, the 900 schools were in relation to the National Children’s Bureau grant for children with special educational needs. The £1.5 million to beat bullying is to train 3,500 11 to 17-year-olds to be mentors in schools and outside the school gates, and the £800,000 for the Diana Award is to train 10,000 pupils to act as anti-bullying ambassadors. It is not London-centric; we are trying to cover many areas of the country where we know there is expertise on the ground.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), who closed the debate on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, reminded us that bullying in all its forms is simply unacceptable, but that we are still running to catch up with technology. It is in that vein that I will reflect on the contributions that have been made to consider whether there is more we can do to combat this horrific activity that is blighting far too many people’s lives, both young and old.
If we are to be successful in tackling bullying, including cyber-bullying, it is important that we engage with people across society—including government, local authorities, local safeguarding children’s boards, the police, schools, parents and internet providers—so that they can all play their part. They all have a role to play, and by intervening to prevent and respond to bullying, we are more likely to stamp it out.
We talked at length about existing legislation and the prosecutions arising from the Communications Act 2003. I will endeavour to write to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham with specific figures. Like so many other areas where vulnerable people are exposed to horrific crimes, whether female genital mutilation or other crimes, we want to ensure that we do all we can to bring about successful prosecutions. There will be instances where cyber-bullying forms part of a wider pattern of behaviour. Someone may be prosecuted under a different offence, where cyber-bullying forms part of the charge and, we hope, the conviction. It is sometimes hard to determine exactly whether cyber-bullying has played a role in someone’s successful prosecution, but I will endeavour to find as much detail for my hon. Friend as I can. We believe that existing law is able to ensure that where something is illegal offline it is also illegal online. We will, as we always do, keep under review whether the legislation is delivering. As things stand, we are confident that we have in place the right framework to ensure that where people are breaking the law they are called to task.
This has been an excellent debate, one that has demonstrated that we have a shared commitment across the House to tackle cyber-bullying and bullying in all its forms. I thank Democratic Unionist party Members for using their precious time to raise such an important issue. We have more to do. We have a lot of work in train and we will continue to work collectively to ensure that we go further and faster to stamp out this horrendous crime.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House recognises the serious problem of cyber-bullying and the appalling consequences for an increasing number of children and young people who are its victims; and calls on the Government to take action to help eradicate this form of intimidation and harassment, including the consideration of legislation to make cyber-bullying an offence.