Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the impact of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on children’s and young people’s online and digital interactions.
My Lords, today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a legally binding international agreement that carefully balances the necessity for children to be the guardians of their own interests alongside our need to act as responsible guardians of them. The 54 articles of the convention cover a complex matrix of scenarios, but when combined they stipulate that,
“the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration … In all actions concerning children”.
In March 1989, also 25 years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the world wide web gave birth to a technological revolution which changed immeasurably almost every aspect of a young person’s life. While the experience of childhood has been revolutionised by technology, the necessity for children to be the guardians of their own interests and our need to be responsible guardians of them remains exactly the same as it was 25 years ago.
Today’s debate does not seek to establish whether web-based technologies are good or bad. My own view is that these technologies bring with them unparalleled opportunity, breathtaking imagination and the tantalising promise of a better world. But any technology that brings about such fundamental change in the way we behave, the way we do business and the way we communicate is bound to present challenges. In the case of the two momentous events of 25 years ago, they present some demanding contradictions. The digital world is one of infinite possibility, but it was not designed with children in mind. I look forward to the contributions of noble Lords from all sides of the House on a wide set of issues. Many of my own comments will concern Article 16 covering a child’s right to privacy. But first I must declare an interest as one of the founders of iRights, a broad coalition of civil society organisations and young people working together to create an agreed framework for promoting and implementing children’s rights online. Among the 100 or more signatories to iRights are UNICEF UK, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and the National Children’s Bureau, all of whom provided briefing for today’s debate.
Article 16 determines that:
“No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation”.
It is estimated that 98% of nine to 16 year-olds in the UK are online, while recent Ofcom research indicates that the vast majority are accessing the net through portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. In a young person’s hands these are powerful tools that hold the possibility of creativity and invention and allow them to access the world’s vast knowledge. But this is not a neutral arrangement. As children shop, play, learn, research and upload, they are giving up their personal information. We are familiar with the attacks on “honour and reputation” and with the risks of overexposure. Multiple surveys suggest that between a quarter and a third of young people online have been upset by what others have posted or shared about them. The 2014 Ofcom report explains that:
“Some intrinsic aspects of the online environment served to facilitate risk-taking”,
as young people experiment with identify formation and use the cover of anonymity to communicate with strangers, view inappropriate content, and be critical or even cruel to one another.
However, research also shows that young people do not fully appreciate how the indelible nature of data contributes to their reputation and the reputations of others. A reputation, once it is established, is extremely difficult to change. But preserving reputation is just one dimension of a digital identity. The gathering of personal information and of the activities of its users has become the primary commercial driver of the web, creating in its wake a real-time record of childhood. Increasingly, the use of GPS technology tracks not only what children have used their phones for, but where they were at the time. Their most intimate details and cursory winks provide data as they go about their daily lives. Data are the building blocks for a system of personal profiling where an algorithm can access the preferences and activities of a child however young with no promise of how or when they might be used—in perpetuity. These data, casually signed away by children who are often without legal capacity or cultural understanding of the consequences, create a digital legacy that is built up beyond the knowledge or sight of parents and guardians, and often beyond the comprehension of the young people themselves. The data gathered may indeed be of a benign nature, but put together, they profile a young person before they are fully formed.
The ideal of privacy allows individuals to define themselves, to reveal or conceal; it is not to hide only that which is wrongdoing, but also perhaps something that is special, precious or simply personal. We know that on occasion our dignity is challenged by the misunderstanding of others or by our actions being judged out of context. A digital identity is very low on context. Childhood is a time of rapid personal development and experimental social interaction. It is a time when change is a requirement, not a fault. What we know from neuroscience is that the brain is plastic and develops according to use and experience, and that the concept of consequence is one of the last things to develop as a child grows to maturity.
The convention lays emphasis on privacy for children and provides for a balance of interference that includes both protections and privileges based on the overarching notion that we must act in,
“the best interests of the child”.
Arguably, data gathering on this scale from minors is not unlawful, but I believe that we have the balance wrong. The subject of this debate is as broad as the convention itself. There are many stakeholders: parents, teachers, those who design and deliver technology, corporations and government. All are putting technology at the centre of their services, and not least the young themselves. Like the internet, the 54 articles of the UNCRC are interconnected, mirroring key aspects of the children’s complex lives and needs, and within them lie so many contradictions.
It is worth noting, however, that, however anxious we feel about some people’s online activity, it is very often of great benefit to them. The mental health charity YoungMinds states clearly that everyone who is concerned about the emotional well-being of young people needs to acknowledge that thousands of them get emotional support from online communities, thereby upholding the principle enshrined in Article 24, which encompasses a child’s right to appropriate physical and mental health information advice and support. This is just one of dozens of charities and third-sector organisations that reach out to the young through digital technology.
Article 13 describes the right to freedom of expression and raises the question of access. I will always argue for according the same rights online that children enjoy in the analogue world, but it is absolutely the case that children need equal access to the web. The findings of a large-scale study by Oxford University’s Department of Education are that teenagers who do not have access to the internet in their home are,
“clearly missing out both educationally and socially”.
With access, however, come challenges. Article 19 determines that a child must be protected from,
“physical and mental violence … including sexual abuse”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Shields, who has guided Her Majesty’s Government and worked successfully with industry, is an expert in this field. I look forward to hearing her maiden speech in this debate.
Forgive me for reiterating this point: this debate is not about whether web and digital technology are good or bad. They are here. It is about how we best deliver children’s rights, inform them of their responsibility and build their resilience when using technology that is fast becoming the organising technology of our society.
In their briefing the four Children’s Commissioners of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland refer to Articles 28 and 29 as a right to “a three dimensional education”. No education can be three-dimensional in the 21st century unless it puts the digital and internet technologies at its heart. The O2 report The Future Digital Skills Needs of the UK Economy states that we are about to experience a skills gap where 745,000 jobs requiring digital skills may go unfilled—jobs that could go to young people, who, we know, suffer disproportionately from unemployment. Yet the decade-long survey by the London School of Economics, EU Kids Online, run by Professor Sonia Livingstone, cites young people as still being at the bottom of the digital ladder of opportunity and states that we must move the young from “information-seeking” to the top-of-the-ladder activities that promote creative and civic engagement.
I welcome the Government’s new computing curriculum in schools and the work of the “maker movement”, which is setting its sights on teaching children and young people to be digital creators. In seeking to provide for the “best interests” of the child as a “primary consideration”, however, we must make sure that we define digital literacy as not only an ability to create and code but also a critical understanding of the pushes and pulls designed into the technology itself and its emerging social norms.
In this regard, we need to redouble efforts to teach the teachers, and not only those who will deliver the new computing programme. Professor Peyton Jones, in his evidence to the Digital Skills Committee, said that IT teachers,
“feel underequipped to deliver that change in a short time”.
He referred to the computing curriculum as an “entirely new subject” because of its very great breadth—which is to be celebrated. It is imperative that not only teachers of the computing curriculum have confidence in their skills but also teachers right across the curriculum, parents and policymakers. The issues emerging from the digital world should be a central component of PSHE, and PSHE should be statutory in all schools, whatever their status.
It is not possible, in the time available, to capture the totality of what a rights-based approach could provide for young people in the digital world. It will take the good will of industry and involve all stakeholders, including Members of our own House. Over the past few days, many colleagues kindly took the time to contact me in order to say how important they thought the subject of this debate. At the same time, they suggested that their own lack of technological knowledge prevented them from speaking in the Chamber today. Many of those noble Lords have the sort of experience that I can only dream of—in law, mental health, education, the EU, offending and medicine. This is not a question of technology. This is a question of how we step into the digital space alongside children and young people to learn and understand its implications for their lives now and in the future. Our role is to apply our wisdom, our values and their rights enshrined in the UNCRC.
I have been able to raise only a few of the issues at stake, and I know other noble Lords will follow me. I would, however, like to ask the Minister if Her Majesty’s Government will commit to a review that would report on how we might implement all relevant articles of the UNCRC in the context of web-based and digital technologies. This would be a review process that in the spirit and letter of the convention has the “best interests” of the child as its “primary consideration”.
Finally, will the Minister consider how best Her Majesty’s Government might support parliamentarians in furthering their own understanding of the digital world, and in doing so put our own House in order? None of us can afford to be absent from the digital debate. I am very grateful to those who have chosen to speak, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of all noble Lords. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is with great trepidation that I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, because she was saying that she knew of many Members of your Lordships’ House who did not feel they were sufficiently qualified to enter into this debate. I am afraid that I am one of those people who has the temerity to take part today, but I am grateful to her because she has introduced the debate expertly and comprehensively, and dealt with almost every aspect of the convention that we are here to talk about.
I am going to be followed by people who know far more about this field than I do—particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, who is going to make her maiden speech this afternoon. As a layman, I want to issue a warning about the damage being done to our children by what are described in the title of this debate as young people’s “online and digital interactions”.
How many times, in how many debates, have we heard someone say, “The welfare of the child is paramount”? We say this constantly, but do we really mean it? If we do mean it and believe it, what, as legislators, are we doing about it? The world is becoming increasingly insensitive to the care and needs of our children. To grow up happily, children need stability as well as love. The very sad reduction in the role of the traditional family in our national life is denying many children the stability they need.
Children are not modernised in the womb. They emerge naked, empty and vulnerable, totally unaware of what their surroundings will be like. If it is a boy, he does not know whether he will be asked to fight with Harold at Hastings, to take sides in the Civil War or maybe go off to Flanders in 1914. Children know nothing until we start to shape them.
For thousands of years, the influences on children’s lives were their parents, family and friends. As they grew up, it would be school friends, teachers and workmates. Suddenly, whether we admit it or not, we have created a parallel universe—a world into which, once they are old enough to press a button or two, children can disappear and we cannot follow or have any idea of what they are doing. It becomes for them a source of entertainment. For some it is a refuge: a place to meet new people, a place to experiment away from supervision. They may talk to people whose real identity they do not know and whose motives may be dubious.
Imagine your child or grandchild perhaps being told by total strangers, children or adults whom neither you nor they have ever met the most intimate details of any and every aspect of life without anyone realising what they are hearing or seeing. There is the very obvious danger of children being persuaded to enter into dangerous relationships—now commonly known as grooming.
I looked at some of the statistics in the report that we are talking about today and I found all of them horrifying. In 2013, 37% of five to seven year-olds used the internet every day. In just one month, December 2013, 44,000 children aged six to 11 visited an adult website. I could go on. Quite frankly, as I said, I find the statistics relating to this debate on the convention utterly horrifying.
When children are young and vulnerable, images and ideas, whether good or bad, leave impressions and help form character traits that last a lifetime and have a huge effect for good or ill on their future happiness. Part of the answer, obviously, is strong, wise parental control, but this by itself cannot work. Many parents will not worry, do not see the size of the problem or simply do not have or make the time to supervise. Even the best parents cannot be on duty every minute—and a minute is perhaps all it takes for serious harm to be done.
As a matter of the greatest urgency, a way must be found to control, edit and supervise what at least our very youngest children can access. As I have said, I am not technically competent enough even to begin to suggest how this might be done, but there must be people who know how we can at least try. Surely those who invented the so-called social media can help us to tame the creature they have created.
One thing is certain: we simply cannot do nothing, for that would be to admit that we have produced a monster that is beyond our control, and the long-term effects on our children will be catastrophic. History will show whether all these new contrivances, whether it be the internet, websites, Google, Facebook, YouTube or even Snapchat, have brought us more good than harm. For the sake of our nation’s children, we must do all we can as quickly as possible to tip the scales the right way. Going online must not be allowed to send our children off course.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this important debate, as it coincides with the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. She persuaded me to speak in her debate and it is an honour to do so. I also look forward with great interest to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Shields and welcome her to the House.
After 25 years of the UN’s Convention on the Rights for the Child, this should be the gold standard by which the United Kingdom measures all its provision for its youngest citizens. As Article 3 states, we are required to act in the best interests of children at all times and think about how our decisions will affect them. As I say repeatedly, childhood lasts a lifetime and children’s early experiences form lasting foundations, so it is our duty to get it right. For nearly 40 years, I have worked for and with children and young people, and my mission in life is to secure the very best for them in society and to make sure that all parts of our society put them first. Children have rights that need to be considered and promoted, and that includes their rights within the new-age, online world.
At this point, I want to acknowledge all the children and young people who have taken their lives because of the influence of online abuse, content and negative experiences—practices such as cyberbullying, sexual abuse, anorexia or suicide sites, all involving boys and girls. These tragic incidents are becoming more and more commonplace in today’s society, bringing pain, suffering and sadness to families across the country. Let us not forget them.
I am the chair of the All-Party Group for Children’s Media and the Arts. Since its formation in 2012, we have been concerned that decisions about the internet and children are not properly thought through, because, too often, the internet is seen by adults as separate from the rest of the child’s life. Public opinion and policymakers seem to lurch from knee-jerk reaction to knee-jerk reaction. Yes, the internet is full of predators, full of bullies, full of silly games, and children must be protected from all this. But the internet is also full of important and valuable things such as information, knowledge, news, fun and friendship.
The UNCRC states that children have just as much right to these things as they do to safety and security, so we need to find a way to teach our children and young people how to navigate their way safely, how to be discerning, and how to evaluate and judge what they see, hear and do. It is encouraging that Ofcom’s research states that some older children are beginning to make judgments about the truthfulness of online content, including search engine results and how accurately people present themselves online. However, we still do not know the long-term psychological effects on young minds and whether they will be harmful—the jury is still out on this.
Yes, all of this is food for thought, and I am glad that we are having this debate today, especially when so much of the popular digital space is occupied and controlled by a small handful of powerful players such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. They have a huge and largely unnoticed influence upon our children, gathering information about their users with each mouse click, and controlling what information their search engines offer back. Such power and influence over young people is not tolerated in traditional media. I ask the Minister: why is this allowed to happen in the cyberworld? Who do these powerful players answer to in this country? This is an important question. Why? Because we are entering a new age: the cyber age. In decades to come we may regret not paying enough attention to the controlling and socially invasive aspect of the internet.
I believe this for several reasons. The main one is because we continue on an almost daily basis to witness revelations of sexual and domestic violence; rape, even gang rape, on girls, some as young as 11; and the sexualisation of young girls in society where violent pornography is only a mouse click away. Where is all this taking us? How are young minds going to cope psychologically, physically and mentally in the future?
This is a pan-global epidemic underpinned by the media and the internet, which supports imagery and attitudes that relentlessly promote the idea that social emancipation and free speech equal the freedom to flaunt the boundaries of decency, self-respect and the sanctity of our bodies and our souls. It is women, especially young women and girls, who are the main casualties of this. No wonder we witness highly sexualised behaviour by children and young people—some as young as six—when they are being influenced so strongly to believe that stardom, success, fame, riches and happiness can all be achieved by using sex as a commodity.
We are living in an era when children and young people lose their innocence far, far too early. They are exposed relentlessly to a sexual culture, where many boys and girls are allowing themselves to be exploited, degraded and manipulated. Young boys are learning to see their female counterparts as sexual objects, who are expected to perform the same way as they see on porn sites, which are so easily accessible today to anyone with a smartphone, a computer or a tablet. We now have degrading behaviour by boys who force girls to perform sexual acts, film the humiliating action and then shame the girls by putting it on the web. The boys often do not feel satisfied by the experiences, as they do not match up to the expectations of their pornographic fantasies. The girls, in turn, self-harm; some even take their own lives. Both parties become victims. It makes me weep.
This has to stop. The NSPCC has highlighted a dramatic increase in girls self-harming and committing suicide because of their sexual exploitation and degradation—and more recently by adults using the internet to slowly, slowly groom children through sexually explicit online communication. Sometimes the aim of these adults is no longer just to meet the child or young person. The sex abuse happens online—with the adult and the child using coded language when the parents are present. These paedophiles are manipulative, ruthless and dangerous.
The internet and technological developments have given children and young people access to economic, social and political opportunities across the world, which is wonderful. However, many parents feel disempowered by an environment that ignores their rights to protect their children online. Access to their children’s data and images is withheld by the companies that have created their children’s online world. There are international laws in place protecting children online. However, parents are beginning to realise that in the UK their online rights do not match their rights offline. Parents need to have the right to be able to intervene on behalf of their child if problems arise online, to know what data are stored about their child and to challenge inaccuracies. Parents should have their consent sought when a child signs up to use an online service and expect minimum safety standards for children’s websites.
On a positive note, the message is slowly getting through. According to a report by Ofcom, not only are many parents expressing concerns about the media online content that their child has access to but nine out of 10 parents mediate their child’s access to the internet in some way. Most parents use a combination approach, including using technical tools, as well as having rules about access and use, regularly talking to the child about specific risks and supervising the child’s online activity. They also feel that ISP content filters are important and use them to block what they believe should be blocked. They feel that it is their right to do so—together with open dialogue with their child.
I believe that this will not only empower the child but, in doing so, educate the child to become more vigilant and aware. Yes, children do have rights, but with these rights come responsibilities: to let their parents know about their online activities as they explore the limitless cyberworld.
Not all children have parents who care or take an interest in their well-being. So, as well as parents, school has an important role to play in teaching our children how to use online technology responsibly and safely, how to put safeguards in place to protect their privacy and how to be cautious about trusting anyone online—because the person they are interacting with might just have ulterior motives, which could end in disaster.
I tell children when I visit schools, “Never feel intimidated by bullies. Never feel a victim. Never exchange information you wouldn’t otherwise share with someone in person or a stranger”. I tell them to learn to love and respect themselves, to have high self-esteem, to feel worthy, even though they may be suffering abuse, and never to feel that it is their fault. I tell them that they must live their lives with integrity and honesty, and above all have the courage to stand up against those who want to harm them or take advantage of them.
I am afraid the time is up. I ask the noble Baroness to conclude as quickly as she can.
Yes, I know—I could go on for ever about this subject. I should never have been asked to speak. I finish by saying that we have opened a Pandora’s box. I know we are in uncharted waters. The global and domestic challenge for us is to join together and lead the fight for children’s rights. If the UK is to fulfil its UNCRC obligation to children by creating, as Article 4 says, an environment where they can grow and reach their potential, we must all do what we can to help them understand this digital world. We must give our children the opportunity, knowledge and tools to grow up happy and contented, just as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child intended us to do. I am so sorry I went over my time.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for tabling this debate today. The House has just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who was passionate in her wish to protect children. This is a very important debate. It is not just about young people. It is something that affects us all. I take today as an opportunity to listen to experts. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, to your Lordships’ Chamber. I very much look forward to her contribution.
I quote from iRights:
“Enabling children and young people to deal with the challenges and engage knowledgeably with the digital world is the best way to ensure the full potential of the internet”.
That is vital. I am a fan of the internet. I was trying to think about how much of my life is spent online. I thought it was significant—mostly because my daughter keeps telling me to put my phone down—but it is much bigger than I thought. It is booking trains, taxis, reading the House of Lords Library briefing pack on this debate, checking Marshalled Lists and Order Papers, let alone the e-mails and social media platforms I use, and keeping in touch with my family.
I love the fact that I can be sitting at my desk in London and watch my daughter do her maths homework 300 miles away until she asks me to help her. In the pre-internet days, if I wanted to book a hotel, I had to take the word of the manager or a travel agent that the hotel was accessible. Now, they can send me a picture and I can choose whether to stay there. The camera on my phone is better than any camera that I have ever owned and, thanks to remote cameras, I can put a little camera on my daughter’s crash helmet as she is canoeing down the river and watch it on my tablet while I am sitting in the warmth of the car.
For me, social media are a way to engage, to ask questions, to challenge; that is not always welcome. One night, when I was in your Lordships’ Chamber for some late-night votes, a few people commented on how I had voted, but when I posted that I had missed my evening meal and asked whether anyone knew of a takeaway that was open at one o’clock in the morning, I was inundated with offers to bring pizza to Peers’ Entrance. Someone even posted that they lived in the same block as me and would make me a sandwich and leave it outside my door. It is amazing how you can dip in and out. You can engage with the pictures I tweet of the food that I eat on trains or what I say in debates. I can use it as a straw poll. In various debates that I have been involved in, people have sent me messages and given me extremely helpful information.
When I thought about this debate, I also thought about safety. Not all of my online interactions have been positive. I was recently interviewed on “Newsnight” about the issue of equal pay for women in sport. I was being pragmatic, not radical; I was not asking for a sudden change, but I cannot repeat in your Lordships’ Chamber some of the unparliamentary language that was used towards me. I think of myself as being fairly resilient, but when people are swearing and—I can say this—I was called a moron several times, it can be really hard to deal with. The offside rule seems to be the only gateway to any knowledge about football; if you know that, you must be okay.
It is not the same as having a conversation, where you can see someone’s body language and where the conversation might become more intense because you can see the person who is displeased. Often, the person at the other end has had time to ponder, stew, react and become very angry. When I explained to someone who was extremely rude to me that it is the same as printing it on a piece of paper, running towards me and thrusting it in my face, they stepped down and apologised, because they had not realised how aggressive they were being. What if I were 12 or 13 years old? Some people think that they are being funny. It is about context. Some people genuinely do not realise that they are being rude. There are people at the extreme end who are simply being horrible, but it is about the context and how people say things.
One disadvantage with social media and e-mail is the immediacy with which people expect a response. I recently received an e-mail at nine o’clock in the morning and then a vitriolic complaint three hours later because I had not replied, but do we punish somebody every time they say something out of context? I have said clumsy things in real life and on the internet that I later regret. There must be a way to manage this. We must come back to this in more detail in your Lordships’ Chamber.
The UN convention was written before the digital era; to be fair, if it had been written two years ago it would probably be out of date now. I look back to when I was working with the London Organising Committee for the 2012 Olympic Games. We were discussing the athletes’ village in 2007, or perhaps 2008. Several people questioned whether we needed wi-fi in the village—whether that was a justifiable expense. If we had not had it, we would have looked rather foolish. I am by no means an expert in the digital world, but we are not talking about laptops any more; we are talking about mobile technology. We do not know where it is going to go in the next year, let alone in the next five years.
I am worried about the number of people who do not have access to the internet. About 2 million disabled people do not have access. For some, it will open doors; others will be left behind. I hope that my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox will explore that in more detail, because I worry as much about those people who are using it as those unable to use it.
I have a 12 year-old. She has a phone. Some children whom she knows are on platforms that they are not meant to be on it because of their age. We talk about internet usage and what we think is appropriate as a family. She is very willing to show me messages that she has been sent. Frankly, I have been shocked by some of the things that I have seen nine, 10 and 11 year-olds write. She has had the confidence to remove herself from that conversation, but that has not been easy for her because she felt that she had a responsibility to be part of a group. That is why section 4 of iRights is so important. Young people need to feel confident to step away from these things. It is a lesson that I should learn. If you read a social media comment at two o’clock in the morning, the best thing to do is to turn your phone off and walk away from it.
Many people do not realise how far it can go. They talk about having friends. My daughter is fed up with me saying, “They are not real friends. They are different friends”. One comment can go around the world immediately. We have only to look at the pictures of Kim Kardashian that went to hundreds of millions of people in a very short time.
Young people use the internet in a very positive way. I think that a lot of young people are more informed about the world now than I was when I was that age. My knowledge of the world depended on which newspaper my parents bought and watching the six and 10 o’clock news. Today, young girls can find information about a whole variety of things. I do a lot of work with women in sport about the desire of young girls to be size zero. With one click, you can find pages of pictures of famous young women who are size zero. Young women of my daughter’s age aspire to be like them. It is very hard for them to choose what is and what is not the right thing to watch. That is why we need education. We need young people to feel able to make choices.
I think iRights is doing an amazing job because it has made me question things that I do, and I think that I am relatively savvy about the internet. Do I read all the terms and conditions of the forms I sign? No, I do not. Should I? Yes. Have I started? Yes, I have. I am very careful about the content that I share. I do not tweet pictures of my family. I turn off the location. I like it that when I open certain internet sites, they suggest books for me to read. That is fantastic, but I am also conscious that I am being directed down a certain path. Sometimes, I am very radical: I click to the second page of the search engine results. Because it is around me, I am aware of those things.
We must consider digital literacy and how we educate our young people. I would love digital literacy, physical literacy, literacy and numeracy to be joined together in our education system in balance.
My noble friend Lady Kidron cited Sonia Livingstone. I read a very interesting article in the Library briefing pack where she said that Governments promote ICT but we do not think about children’s needs. We must think of our children’s needs and all our needs. I think about how my husband uses the internet, how I use the internet and how my daughter uses it. They are all different, but we need to know and understand each other. We also need to do a lot of work about how disabled people can access information, especially as most benefit applications are now online. Without access, we will be leaving lots of people behind.
UNICEF issued a very interesting briefing document—I declare an interest as a sporting ambassador for UNICEF. It made seven recommendations. I shall just highlight the first two. The first is about ensuring equal access to digital media by providing technology and infrastructure. That is really important. In particular, we need to target different groups, such as girls, disabled children and vulnerable groups. The second is about actively engaging children in ongoing dialogue. We need to talk to young people about this so that they are able to make free choices.
I hope that there will be a favourable response from the Minister on this issue. It is something that we will have to come back to because it will affect us all. Finally, I thank my noble friend for her tireless work in this area.
My Lords, it is a great honour to make my maiden speech as a Member of the House. It is an even greater honour to do so on a topic that is this important and so close to my heart.
Before I begin, I want to thank your Lordships for the remarkably warm welcome that I received here after my Introduction. What is particularly touching is the kindness and graciousness that noble Lords have extended to me. Your Lordships have made me feel very much at home here in this great House. Although I am still finding my way around, I want to thank the clerks, the doorkeepers and the staff, who remain most kind to and patient with me. I also want to acknowledge my mentors and noble friends Lady Hanham and Lady Eaton for their wisdom and guidance, and my dear supporters, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and my noble friend Lord Marland, who encouraged me to make my maiden speech today. They know that this topic means a great deal to me, because I have spent my life in the pursuit of developing technology and innovation for good.
Today, I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for creating the iRights initiative, and her passion and determination to protect the rights of young people in this digital world. We are on this quest together. I am grateful to her for making this her personal mission, and I am confident that the work that she is doing will make a great impact on empowering young people and encouraging them to make better and more informed choices.
Over the past 25 years I have had the privilege of building some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Bebo and AOL. I feel fortunate to be asked to participate in the iRights initiative in my capacity as a technology industry veteran and as the Prime Minister’s adviser on the digital economy. My desire is to contribute further to this most important work.
Children today live in an always-on social, digital and connected world. With the click of a button, they build relationships with people across the globe. Everything that they want to do and learn is simply available to them on demand wherever they are. The velocity of change in the world brought about by technology and inspired thinking is unprecedented. We should welcome it with open arms. But as guardians of the next generation, we should also keep our eyes wide open. We should ensure that the companies building digital products and services for our children use the premise of safety first in every aspect of their design and development, so that what they create is safe by design.
The reason that this is so important is that a minority of people will use technology to exploit and harm our children, to bully and harass them, and in some cases, with far direr consequences, abuse them for sexual purposes. The same technology that is allowing our children to turn their dreams into reality can turn their lives into a nightmare. During my tenure in government I have been working closely with the Home Office and the National Crime Agency, and I have seen at first hand the terrible harm that can be caused to children by people who abuse technology for criminal means.
In 2012-13, the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, CEOP, received a staggering 18,887 reports relating to child sexual exploitation. In 2011, the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reviewed an overwhelming 17.3 million images and videos of suspected child pornography, which is nearly 4,000% more than in 2007. It saddens me beyond belief that 19% of the offenders identified had images of children younger than three years old on their devices; 39% of them had images of children under six years old; and 83% of them had images of children aged under 12. As I looked at these data in the summer of 2013 and at the trajectory of things, it was clear to me that we urgently needed a strong, effective strategy to protect our children online, and our Government took bold action.
The Prime Minister called together internet service providers and internet platform companies, and he set a challenge: to enlist their brightest minds in a mission to protect children all over the world from online abuse and exploitation. Last November, the Prime Minister and the President of the United States agreed to set up a joint UK-US task force to counter these horrendous crimes. The task force was established to focus on developing a better model for defending children in an increasingly digital world—a new level of co-operation to stop these horrific crimes.
As a result, working alongside Governments and law enforcement agencies, many of the leading technology companies have made much progress. I am happy to report that they are working side by side with government and NGOs in this pursuit. However, eradicating the crimes that threaten our children online remains a significant challenge. For every measure taken, the perpetrators of these crimes use new tools to change course and evade detection. To win this battle, we have no choice but to be faster, nimbler and more innovative than they are.
Luckily, the internet offers us a window into this offending behaviour—the tiny visible part of an otherwise hidden crime—and presents opportunities to identify the victims and perpetrators. As long as this window remains open, which may not be for ever, it is incumbent on government, law enforcement and industry to work together to do all that can be done to identify these perpetrators and protect their victims, who in all too many cases are unable to speak for or defend themselves.
In April this year, the technology industry came together in a first-ever industry alliance called We Protect. In that forum, technical experts representing 48 of the world’s leading technology companies collaborated to develop breakthrough approaches for protecting children from online abuse and exploitation.
The people who work in our digital industries represent some of the brightest minds in the world. They are the kind of people who, when they set their minds to a challenge, are able to step up and develop solutions to the world’s most difficult problems. The impact of cross-industry collaboration in developing these solutions cannot be overestimated. If we want to make a fundamental difference to the lives of vulnerable children all over the world, this modus operandi must continue.
I am happy to report that our work is paying off. I am proud and delighted to be able to tell noble Lords that next month, at the Prime Minister’s global summit to combat online child sexual exploitation, we will be presenting solutions created as a result of this new model. We will also be showcasing a number of breakthrough innovations that will be implemented by the world’s largest search engines, communication platforms and social networks. Real progress has been made, which means that our children are already safer online and incidents of actual harm to our children have been prevented.
The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that states act in the best interests of the child. Yet technology, without enlightened leadership, respects no rights or boundaries. The most popular internet platforms reach more people every day than there are in any sovereign country. By establishing a new paradigm of co-operation and collaboration with industry, NGOs and experts, we are creating an atmosphere of willingness and we can make real change in the way that we protect our children in the digital world.
Every child has the potential to dream, invent and amaze the world, but they must be able to do so creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly. By working across national borders and using the skills of our brightest in business, I am happy to say that we are starting to give our children the future that they deserve. Thank you.
What a delight to follow the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Shields. To have more women in this Chamber is essential, but to have one with such digital smarts is a dream come true.
The second Chamber of the UK Parliament was not the obvious place for a young woman from Pennsylvania to end up, but she brings a distinctive perspective through her rare experience. The noble Baroness’s CV is like a roll-call of the great and good of the tech sector, from early video in Silicon Valley to Google, Bebo, AOL and Facebook; but for more than that, her commercial smarts, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, has earned her place among the leading voices in our sector. Alongside the work on the issue that she has described today, she has tirelessly championed more recognition and support of entrepreneurs, particularly women, and was instrumental in the Government’s renewed focus on technology, founding Tech City and moving on to advise the Prime Minister on digital policy. Perhaps we should not find it surprising that a few weeks after entering your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, has launched a free digital academy providing skills to help people move on in their careers. Watch out, noble Lords—she may be hoping to use you as test cases. I look forward to working with her very much.
I also add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Kidron, both personally and professionally. She has been a great ally and supporter since my arrival in the House and I have watched with admiration as she has built her iRights campaign. Like this debate, it is timely and important.
In some ways I feel ill equipped to speak. I have no children of my own and have spent my entire working life in the company of grown-ups. During the founding of lastminute.com, the closest I came to dealing with the difficulties of children and the web was one customer who claimed that he had not meant to book a fairly ritzy holiday but that his dog and his two year-old had completed the transaction. I suggested that his child should be sent straight to college as the child was clearly a genius. That happened in 2000. How things have changed. Now it seems more than possible that a two year-old child could complete a transaction on a website. I read just yesterday that a five year-old boy, Ayan Qureshi, has become the world’s youngest qualified Microsoft Certified Professional.
However, no one who works in or around the digital world can ignore the questions and challenges that the internet now raises in relation to young people. It was interesting to read the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child and consider how fast technology is evolving, how hard it is to unpick themes and how difficult it is to future-proof legislation. No one would have predicted social networks when I started my career in technology, and even at the start of this Parliament WhatsApp and Snapchat were fanciful notions, yet they now present some of the knottiest problems.
I will make three points. The first is about digital exclusion. As noble Lords may know, I have been working for the past five years on the lack of basic digital skills in the UK. I declare an interest as founder and chair of Go ON UK, an alliance of eight public and private sector organisations coming together to help people reach their digital potential. There are still 10 million adults in the UK who are unable to communicate, transact, stay safe or search using the web, meaning that information, jobs and significant savings—let alone entertainment and all the things we take for granted—are unavailable to them. This is a huge issue for the country, especially as this group is from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and the older population—two groups that could arguably benefit most from online skills. More than 4 million of that 10 million are parents and I cannot imagine how intimidating and difficult it must be to navigate your child’s online life if you have no understanding of your own.
In addition, the charity Mind the Gap tells us:
“Over 500,000 children in over 400,000 of the poorest homes in the UK cannot go online using a computer at home, disadvantaging them in their education”—
we know that children with access gain on average a two-grade improvement in results—
“Schools expect children to use the Internet at home for homework, research, revision, collaboration and independent study”,
yet 10% of schoolchildren are excluded from doing so. It is vital that we do not let up on championing and creating access and skills for all to ensure that there is not a disadvantaged group of children or a disadvantaged group of parents. Will the Minister please elaborate on how the Government plan to ensure that half a million children—a worryingly large number—are not permanently left behind?
Secondly, I would like to reflect on the changes to the curriculum that this Government have introduced so boldly. It is a fantastic ambition to have mandated that every child of primary school age should learn to code. In an age when the internet underpins all aspects of our daily lives—like water—giving children the confidence to look under the bonnet and start to create and build is essential. With innovations such as Raspberry Pi, the Scratch sites and Codeacademy, there really are few barriers that prevent curious children from becoming the next tech stars of tomorrow. As we have heard already, we need them, with 700,000 tech sectors jobs empty right now and 1 million more predicted by 2020.
Education is being blown apart by technology. Children are as likely to use YouTube as a textbook. They whizz to the web as a default when faced with homework. One of my favourite examples was a wily group of children in Michigan who realised that they could outsource their homework to Singapore overnight. Teachers were baffled as results suddenly and dramatically improved. There is a whole new set of challenges for teachers, who are so central to this debate.
The shift is both exciting and vexing for the rest of us. As my noble friend Lady Kidron articulated so well, concepts of authenticity, context and credibility are more important than ever. The connectedness of the world allows for deep and broad learning but it is not a simple transition. I agree completely that it is key for all educational institutions and the national curriculum to establish a place in children’s lives from an early age for the discussion of what it means to be a good user of digital media, as well as having exposure to coding.
This discussion should not be too preachy, fearful or didactic—better to acknowledge the uncertainties and anxieties that accompany many online experiences and encourage children to share those feelings. Above all, they should learn how to access good-quality information and advice, and we should avoid scaremongering by overuse of words such as “addiction” and “dysfunction”. Ensuring that there is the time to express, share and explore nuances is an important part of any education system that aims to promote digital literacy.
Finally, as we, the older generation, grapple with the rapidly changing nature of our world, it is easy to forget that there is much online to amaze, inspire, help and sometimes even save children’s lives. I met one very young carer recently who told me that without the support of the young carers community on the web, she was not sure that she could cope. I agree with the Harvard professor danah boyd, who argues that we fail young people,
“when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens”.
Her recent book is called It’s Complicated. It sure is, and that is why this debate is vital in this Chamber and in the wider world. But it must be rooted in facts not fiction and, crucially, at the heart of the debate we must not forget to listen to young people themselves.
I end with a quote from a brilliant young woman I met recently, Amy Mather—@minigirlgeek, if noble Lords would like to look her up—who at just 15 is the EU’s young digital leader. In a conversation we had on stage at the recent Open Data Institute summit, she summed it up: “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is, all children deserve the opportunity to make the future”. I agree. I would add only one word—safely.
My Lords, I begin by echoing the congratulations offered to the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on an excellent maiden speech. I join her in applauding the wonderful work in this area of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, to whom I am also grateful for providing the House with an opportunity to take stock of the changes wrought over the past couple of decades by the growth of the internet and evolution of digital technologies—on this auspicious day, 25 years since the establishment of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which coincides, as she pointed out, with the beginning of the development of the internet. What a different world we live in now that the convention has come of age. It behoves us to consider the new cultural landscape in which we find ourselves, in which 81% of 12 to 15 year-olds use the internet every day.
As has been observed, the internet has the capacity for great good and great harm. Too often in our society it is characterised as either an unprecedented good or an unmitigated evil. The fact is, of course, that the internet is morally neutral. It is like water, which we need to live and in which we can drown. We just need to take care about the way in which we use it, particularly the way in which we encourage young people to use it. It behoves us to do our utmost to ensure that it is used for good and not harm by the young in our society.
The UNCRC rightly places a high value on education and says:
“Young people should be encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable”.
With this in mind, it is good that digital and online learning has become an integral part of most children’s education in this country. For teachers, aggregated resources online enable differentiated learning in unprecedented ways. While the inclusion of online learning tools as part of homework is a good thing, the unintended converse is that those without internet access are disadvantaged, as we have been reminded. I applaud the invaluable work of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in addressing this.
Article 29 asserts that children’s education should develop each child’s,
“personality, talents and … abilities to their fullest”.
It says that it should encourage children to respect others’ human rights, and their own, and other cultures so that they might learn to live peaceably with those around them and further afield. The Church of England schools’ commitment to this aim is seen in the breadth of our holistic educational vision. We seek to conceive of education as developing children’s creativity and awareness of the world around them—of course, we are not alone in that. To fit students for a life of active civic engagement, and not just to learn facts, is what education should be about. To this end, church schools and the National Society are developing ways of teaching through digital pedagogy, something which needs a great deal of attention all around.
So much for the good; we are all aware of the dangers of the internet and some of the more horrific dangers have been alluded to during this debate. An Ofcom document, Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, found that 83% of eight to 11 year-olds and 91% of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they are confident about how to stay safe online, while 67% of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they are confident that they can judge whether websites are truthful. As a parent of a 15 year-old and a 10 year-old, I do not think that I am alone in feeling that young people can sometimes be on the overconfident side about their ability to care for themselves. Much more education is needed in this area. It seems telling that the Ofcom report found that, on average, 12 to 15 year-olds have never met in person three in 10 of the friends listed on their main social networking site profile. Children with a social networking site profile that may be visible to people not known to them are more likely to have undertaken some kind of potentially risky behaviour online, such as adding people to their contacts whom they do not know in person or sending photos or personal details to people whom they only know online.
Three of the key risks identified by Her Majesty’s Government and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons in relation to children’s online activity are, unsurprisingly, sexual exploitation, cyberbullying and social network misuse, as well as access to inappropriate content. In my experience, I have learnt the hard way with my own children about the insidious nature of bullying through social network sites—some of it very subtle, as with all sorts of bullying. There are clearly much more dangerous aspects of internet and social media use but the question of cyberbullying is a very important one, to which attention has already been drawn.
We need to do our utmost to equip parents, teachers, social workers and youth leaders to use the internet well themselves, and to model good practice in using it in their work with children. I agree that we should not do it in a preachy fashion and applaud in this regard the work of iRights and the all-party group chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. Very clear guidelines about the use of the internet and social media should be taught and rigorously applied in all schools. I applaud the work of the taskforce about which the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, informed the House. A lot more is beginning to happen but a lot more still needs to happen. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment that, from September of this year, the national curriculum’s computing programmes of study in England will encourage children from five to 16 to learn about safe and appropriate internet use. The Government’s £25 million campaign to raise awareness of the risks associated with the internet and promote Safer Internet Day every February are also much needed steps in the right direction.
Finally, widening access to the internet for young people is also important for the realisation of Article 13 on freedom of expression, Article 15 on freedom of association and Article 17 on access to information and mass media. According to the convention, children have the right to obtain information that is important to their health and well-being. We have a responsibility therefore to encourage mass media—radio, television, newspapers and internet content sources—to provide information that children can understand. Figures show that only 34% of 16 to 24 year-olds had used the internet to obtain information on public authorities or services within the past 12 months, and that only 29% had used the internet to download or submit official forms.
In summary, it seems that just as the internet and digital media are morally neutral—there are good aspects and bad aspects—so there are at present good and bad developments and, as a matter of urgency, we need to build on the good development. The development of online and digital interactions over the 25 years of the lifetime of the UNCRC is to be welcomed. Their potential for good and harm are enormous and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, once again for enabling us to consider such potential and such harm in this debate. I support her in asking the Minister for a review.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating this debate and particularly for drawing attention to the relevance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child for children’s and young people’s online and digital interactions. Although this debate is about securing child well-being in a digital age, it touches on much wider issues, not least in terms of our economy. We have heard it reported this week that the spike in the CPI is mainly due to people splurging pre-Christmas on computer games such as FIFA 15, which the children’s fathers might let them play after they have played it.
My noble friend Lady Shields made a very fine maiden speech and I am going to quote her, as she knows a lot about the subject. She was speaking on Radio 4 yesterday morning and described the UK as,
“the most digital economy in the G20”.
My noble friend also said that we need another 750,000 people with good digital skills by 2017. Children have to be tech-savvy for their own and for the country’s economic competitiveness. But as we have heard today, safeguards are essential because children are breathtakingly vulnerable to the commercialisation and sexualisation of society. Not only are they imbibing values from strangers and learning about relationships from soap storylines and soft porn—or worse—they are also one click away from meeting someone who could poison their childhood or adolescence, sometimes irrevocably.
One of the first actions of this Government to tackle these issues was to initiate the Bailey review, and I thank Reg Bailey and his policy team at the Mothers’ Union for their help in my preparation for this debate. Undoubtedly, Governments have some responsibility to ensure that children and young people are protected from the worst excesses of online culture, particularly if companies and others will not take up their responsibilities, which were clearly identified in Bailey’s report, Letting Children be Children.
My main remarks are concerned with Article 18 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that states shall recognise and support the principle that,
“parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child”,
and that appropriate assistance should be provided for parents. While parents must shoulder responsibility for their children’s online safety, the Government must ensure that the industry is adequately implementing Bailey’s challenges to them, such as to raise parental awareness of marketing and advertising techniques. Parents can also help each other. Care for the Family’s short pamphlet Pester Power provides tips to cover a range of parenting challenges, including those arising from the internet, and those all came from a survey of parents themselves. However, we must stand back and look at the broader context of the UNCRC. Its preamble recalls that, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
“the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community”,
“the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”.
It is on this recognition of the importance of growing up in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding that I want to focus. Noble Lords will be as concerned as I was that the Spectator recently pointed out that a young person is more likely to have a smartphone in their pocket than a father at home. Only 57% of 15 year-olds are still living with their own fathers, while 62% own a smartphone. By the time they sit their GCSEs, almost half of young people have gone through some form of family breakdown.
However, it is even more concerning that by the time children in the poorest households are five, almost half of them are no longer living with both their parents. They are seven times more likely to be in this position than children from the richest households. The former Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, stated that children’s biggest fear was that their parents would split up. Stability is incredibly important to children, so I welcome the Government’s family stability review, carried out as part of their social justice strategy, and urge them to publish its findings. That would give local authorities the evidence base that they need to treat family breakdown as a driver of poverty, which can undermine children’s educational achievement.
What has emerged from this research is the sheer scale of family instability in poorer communities, as I have mentioned. Perhaps less well known is the fact that exposure to digital and online influences is also spread highly unevenly across the income scale, according to research carried out by Nairn et al in 2007. Children in poorer families were far more likely to have a TV and computer in their bedrooms, where parents have far less control. Fewer than half of affluent nine to 13 year-olds in the sample had a television in their bedrooms, and just under one-third had a computer in their rooms. However, 97% of deprived children had TVs and two-thirds had a computer in their rooms. Although smartphones will have changed many older teenagers’ access to screens in the seven years since this research was carried out, it is unlikely that these underlying differences have disappeared in this younger age group of nine to 13 year-olds.
The same study found that children who spend more time on screens are more materialistic, regardless of income, and have a toxic cocktail of poor relationships with their parents and lower self-esteem. The more materialistic children are, the poorer their opinion of their parents and of themselves. When considered alongside Rindfleisch et al’s research showing that children who have experienced their parents’ divorce and separation are more likely to be materialistic, this sounds like a recipe for a deeply unhappy childhood.
While the Government have a role to play in strengthening parents’ ability to guard their children’s well-being online, helping more parents to stay together for the duration serves this purpose indirectly but very importantly. Why do I lay such emphasis on that? Mainly, as we have heard in today’s debate, because it is incredibly hard to monitor your child’s online and digital interactions in an age-appropriate way if you are struggling to raise them on your own. There is simply far less time and energy. Two-parent families also struggle with time famine but at least they can back one another up. Resisting a pleading child who always wants that little bit more unrestricted access to the web sometimes requires Herculean reserves of strength. We have to enable both parents to play their role of primary educator and protector wherever possible, particularly when it comes to teaching children about relationships—largely, again, by example.
This is not just about government and parents. Schools should also ensure that all young people get worthwhile relationship education as standard. The biology of sex is already compulsory, but learning about conflict resolution and how to conduct respectful and non-manipulative relationships is also indispensable to a rounded education.
Finally, those writing storylines for soaps should be exploring the anatomy of commitment and why marriage makes a difference, recognising the drama in the effort that many people make day in and day out to sustain relationships because they value them so much.
In summary, we have to see the importance of the family in the fight to keep children safe. It is a fight that parents are playing out daily amid homework, hormones and developing brains. The Government and others must strengthen their hands.
My Lords, this is a timely and important debate. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Kidron, for securing it and for introducing it in such a penetrating and thoughtful way. I would also like to compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on a fascinating maiden speech. I welcome her to the House.
I speak with an acute awareness of the limits of my own personal exposure to some of the issues raised in the debate so far. Indeed, it has been rather reassuring to know that I am not alone in the House in my lack of personal knowledge of online gaming and the appeal of Minecraft and Xbox Live. I do not use social media platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat. I do not have a Facebook presence. I say this with no pride; I realise that it is a form of generational isolation. Anyone who spends any time with children or teenagers today knows how important social media are to their lives. They are how they communicate with each other. They seem to be the filter through which they experience almost everything.
Of course these technologies can have many powerful and positive benefits, educationally and socially but, as the Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, has said, for young people to be at ease in the virtual environment does not mean they are immune from its ill effects. I have been horrified by the statistics and data that I have seen about those ill effects, many of which have been mentioned in this debate. I have talked to parents of young children and heard how anxious they are. I know of teachers who have shocking stories about what children and young teenagers can be exposed to and the damage that this does.
It is absolutely right that we take this opportunity to look to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to help us view issues around children and young people’s use of the internet in terms of rights. Article 16 of the UNCRC encompasses their right to privacy. Given that so much of young people’s lives is now spent in an online environment, teaching them to stay safe and to both value and protect their privacy and dignity is of vital importance. Similarly, Article 19 talks about the promise of adults to ensure children’s protection from abuse in all its forms.
As I indicated, I am not equipped to wade into technical waters, but I will just dip in a toe to welcome an undertaking by the four big internet service providers—BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media—that by the end of this year they will introduce solutions for home filtering that prompt parents, as account holders, with an unavoidable choice to apply a filter. I know that filters can be bypassed but they are still one important way of protecting children from harmful content. But other ISPs are still dragging their feet so I hope that the Minister can tell us what the Government are doing to encourage other ISPs to commit to ensuring that access to online child abuse images is prevented and deterred, and what steps the Government will take if ISPs do not deliver on this commitment.
The scope of this debate is vast and I am going to focus my remaining remarks today on social networking and one huge area of parental concern—one raised by several other noble Lords—which is cyberbullying. Sadly, there has always been bullying in schools but before social media much of it may have stopped at the school gate. Now it can follow a child home. It can take the form of abusive text messages, sexting or explicit mobile phone messaging, and sending menacing or upsetting messages over social networks, known as “trolling”.
It is a serious concern. More than 1,700 cases were heard in 2012 in English and Welsh courts involving abusive messages, sent online or via text message. The NSPCC says that 4,500 children contacted ChildLine last year regarding online bullying. Of 12 to 15 year-olds, Ofcom reports that almost one in 10 say they have experienced bullying in the past year, and close to half know someone with experience of online or mobile phone bullying, gossip being spread or embarrassing photos being shared. The NSPCC says that one in five think being bullied online is part of life.
I was shocked at that, but that statistic was no surprise to one London secondary school teacher I know of, who says all her students use the website Ask.fm. Users have to register but they can do so anonymously. You can pose any question at all on this site and people will respond. It is good for chatting about homework; it might even be genuinely informative. But then someone will ask, “What do you think about so and so?” The responses can be horrible—comments on that person’s sexual experience, appearance, weight and so on. There is no accountability as the comments are all anonymous.
Teenagers are acutely self-conscious, and of course these sorts of remarks can also be made off-line—in what I like to call real life—but online spaces such as Ask.fm can make matters so much worse. Other youngsters hear about the exchanges, they take screen shots and text those to the victim or their friends. This teacher says that when it happens to girls their confidence is ripped to shreds. Building up their self-esteem, raising their aspirations, encouraging them to think beyond their social media friendships is a huge task.
We get media headlines when this sort of bullying ends, tragically, in suicide, but cyberbullying is not a specific criminal offence in the UK. The relevant laws were introduced many years before Twitter, Facebook and Ask.fm. The Communications Act 2003 was drafted with no mention of the internet. The Online Safety report issued earlier this year by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee called for greater clarity in legislation around child abuse images. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will review current legislation and make cyberbullying a criminal offence so that young people have the protection they need?
While legislation is part of the solution, it is clear that educating children about online safety is key to tackling cyberbullying, so I welcome the extension of e-safety teaching to primary school pupils aged between five and 10 from this September. It will take a combined effort to tackle this terrible problem, so having e-safety on the school curriculum, along with better advice to parents and carers on how to report harmful material, is vital. Websites such as Thinkuknow, the advice offered by Childnet, and the hotline provided by the Safer Internet Centre along with its initiatives such as Safer Internet Day, are all making a difference. So is CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, The teachers I have spoken to have nothing but praise for its work and for its website and online information for schools and parents, but it is a drop in the ocean. I hope the Minister will give the House an assurance that bringing CEOP within the National Crime Agency will indeed enhance its resources. I am thinking of the concerns I have heard over whether, within the NCA, the centre’s education and social care work will continue alongside its criminal justice remit. I would welcome his views.
Schools cannot be left to work on this in isolation. Parents need to be educated about how best to familiarise themselves with the social media that are so central to their children’s lives. Information about how to deal with upsetting information needs to be displayed prominently by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Everyone involved with children’s and young people’s use of the internet, whether parents, schools, organisations or ISPs, shares a responsibility for online safety. But alongside teaching techniques for staying safe, we must also attempt to shape attitudes. The UN convention gives us another opportunity to make that commitment and ensure that, in our ever-changing digital world, we stay a few clicks ahead.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for calling this important and timely debate on the very day of the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I also pay tribute to the charity that she founded, FILMCLUB, which we were discussing recently. It helps children in this country and across other parts of the world to gain a wide experience of film, not just of Steven Spielberg but also Godard and Truffaut, and not just American films but German, French and Asian ones. I am grateful to my own father for taking me to see Russian and French movies and for the joy I have had through my life through seeing such things, which have had so much meaning for me, so I feel that is a huge achievement for my noble friend.
I begin by talking about the positive side of the technology that we are discussing today. Last night I attended the launch of a new Baby Buddy app at the Royal College of Midwives. I have downloaded it myself and I hope some of your Lordships might wish to do so, or maybe suggest to their daughters or granddaughters that they do so. I was speaking to a midwife who helped develop it, and for instance if a mother has difficulty encouraging her baby to breastfeed, there is a video they can download. The midwife explained that by using this video she could very simply—and in a much better way than in the past—show mothers how to help the child to get to the breast. The app also involves using social media, and young mothers spoke about its value in helping them to feel connected, so some of this technology has immense benefits for children and families.
Maybe it is also a good day to remember the work of the late Baroness Thatcher, because she introduced the Children Act 1989, which enshrined in British law the paramountcy of the best interests of the child. This has been foundational. When the noble Lord, Lord Laming, talks about children’s legislation that comes to the House, he says that if only we thoroughly implemented the Children Act 1989 we would need none of this, so the late Baroness needs to be remembered in this discussion.
Finally, turning to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, I think of the institutions which have drawn strength from or been founded on that convention, particularly UNICEF. It works in the developing world to ensure that families who are starving receive nourishment, that children are properly registered and that programmes of immunisation take place. It is currently focusing, particularly in the last year, on hunger in the developing world and the trafficking of children. I also think of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and particularly the work of the first commissioner in his championing of the needs of families who are detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration centre following their failure to seek asylum successfully. We successfully campaigned on that. There is also current work on the sexual exploitation of children, investigating—which is particularly interesting for me—children who go missing from children’s homes and from care. It is therefore right that we have a chance today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I was taken by the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Framlingham, and their concerns about the disappearance of the father from family life. I was troubled recently to read OECD statistics showing that the percentage of children with fathers living away from home, after living in the home, is increasing in this country, and that in about 10 years we would overtake the United States in that regard; Germany will be about stable, France is accelerating a bit. This is an important issue to keep in mind. The research evidence is clear, particularly regarding young men from poorer backgrounds, whose outcomes are far poorer if they do not have contact with their father. There are many circumstances in which it is best that they do not have such contact. It is important to keep in mind that many lone-parent families do extremely well. However, the research shows that fathers’ absence from their sons is a real challenge to the country. That applies also to daughters, and the research shows that they do better if their father takes interest in how they are doing in their school work. I am therefore grateful to the noble Lords, and hope that perhaps we can meet at some point to discuss the use of mentoring for young people. If we cannot help fathers to stay in touch, at least we can ensure that young people have a mentor who can help them to move forward, particularly through adolescence.
I should like to concentrate my remarks on the development of children and the need for adults close to children to feel comfortable with having conversations about this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, hit the nail on the head; many of us feel really uncomfortable discussing this matter—I certainly do because I know so little about it. Adults need to be made to feel comfortable; children need to be able to talk to them about the issues arising from their use of the internet.
I begin with child development. Humanity is unique in the animal world in its total dependence upon its parents from birth. Some animals are ready to walk and most, quickly after birth, can look after themselves and move on. We have a very long period of nurturance. As a perinatal mental health psychiatrist pointed out to me last night, it takes 25 years for the process of neurodevelopment of the brain to come to a halt. There is rapid development of the brain around the period of birth and for the first two or three years, and then again in adolescence the neurological make-up changes greatly. It is therefore important to realise that we need to allow children to have a proper and long childhood. For instance, in Scandinavia, it is normal for children to start school at seven and spend a lot more time with their families—learning, for example, to swim and ride a bicycle. They then go to school at seven and quickly pick up the reading and writing and do very well. Indeed, in Finland, their performance is among the best in the world. There is real pressure on us all to try to speed up our children. I would say: give them time.
Consider children who are in trouble in the criminal courts, which may see a 17 year-old who is huge, six feet and four inches, with big fists and a deep voice, but who emotionally may be like a 12 year-old. Many will have a history of trauma and being in care. Do not look at children just from the outside and think, “This is a grown-up person”. I spoke to a businessman who runs an internet service provider. He said of this debate, “Children know; they can sort this out”. Clearly, many children are going to be technically savvy and can easily outwit us in terms of using the internet. However, that does not mean that they are mature adults.
Recent inquiry reports on the sexual exploitation of girls in Rochdale highlighted the responses of a few policemen in that area. A 13 year-old girl was having sexual intercourse with a number of different men—inappropriate relationships—and the response of those policemen was, “Well, she knows what she is doing. She wants to be doing it”. I may not have that precisely right and it was the response of just a few policemen, but it demonstrates a failure to understand child development and recognise that we as adults have responsibility to recognise the immaturity of children, which changes over time. I therefore very much welcome what the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, is doing in terms of introducing iRights and recognising that we as adults constantly let children freely play around the internet. We need to give them guidance, boundaries and so on.
That brings me to the second aspect on which I should like to focus—the ability of adults to have conversations about this matter, particularly in schools. A while ago, I attended a seminar on child protection and the internet. I was struck by an expert who works with children in schools. He said that it was important to have the sort of protections that I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, will talk about in her report next month. I very much welcome her maiden speech and her expertise in this area. However, he felt that it was at least as important—possibly even more—for children to talk with adults in school about their use of social networks and the difficulties they face. When thinking about the new curriculum and PSHE, we need to equip those teachers in order to have those conversations. More generally, we need to train all school staff and teachers to deal comfortably with difficult issues such as this and others, including difficult sexual matters.
I was struck by a recent article in the Sunday Times talking about the development of Teach First and the launch of a new initiative. Research showed that 60% of Teach First teachers stayed on after five years. That was good news and many are becoming head teachers. However, stories were also told of, for example, a teacher being locked in a cupboard by the children when he went to fetch paper. Another teacher, when his back was turned, was showered with the paper coverings from McDonald’s straws. The teachers have six weeks of training and are wholly unequipped to cope with situations such as this and have to work out their own ways of dealing with them. One teacher said, “I just try to praise them as much as possible and ignore the bad behaviour; and that seems to work”. We really need to think about how to equip our teachers better and I should be grateful if the Minister would ask the noble Lord, Lord Nash, in particular to think about Teach First and academies, and how he can create communities of teachers, because it is important that they do not feel isolated. In Teach First there are many opportunities for alumni to get together and talk about their experiences, particularly challenging pupils, and get advice from other teachers on how to deal with those situations. There should be a sense of connection because we are inviting these Teach First teachers to go to the roughest schools with the most challenged teachers. They are given the least teacher training and we need to think of innovative ways in which to ensure that they get the support they need.
Then there is the approach that we have seen over many years and has been found to be most effective, particularly when working with challenging or challenged children—oh! I see that I have passed my time, so I will write to the Minister.
My Lords, I thank and salute the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her dedication to developing iRights and for this debate. I congratulate also the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, and welcome her to the House. As a former child protection social worker, I look forward to her pursuit of protecting vulnerable children, in particular online, and look forward to seeing the report.
When the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was introduced a quarter of a century ago—this is a good day to remember that, and I congratulate the noble Baroness even more for securing the debate on this day—its authors could not have imagined that parliamentarians would be debating today how to uphold the human rights of children in the digital age. The UNCRC’s authors would have lacked the lexicon to imagine it. My noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson made me feel somewhat nostalgic as she reeled off the current availability of technology. When I came into this House 16 years ago, I used to hold a fantastically large mobile and I went into Black Rod’s office and said, “I have a seven month-old child waiting for me while I am here 17 hours a day and I want to try to be available on the mobile”. I remember to this day the stare down that I had to face in responding; I stood my ground and carried on with my mobile. It took us nearly five or six years after that to ensure that we were allowed to carry on and I am often aghast to see how much technology we all use in this House. I was picking up my various messages from my mum and my son and everyone else and at the same time trying to pretend that I am listening to every word that is being said—seriously, I was listening to everything that was being said. How good we have become at managing all this new technology.
I would like also to pay tribute to the organisations that have marked this day and contributed one way or another to this debate, including the children’s commissioners and UNICEF. I was moved to read of UNICEF’s rights respecting workshop with primary school children to mark the anniversary. When 250 children chose their top rights to uphold, they selected the basics: clean air, clean water, nutritious food, health care and shelter. One cannot help but wonder whether peace, safety and security would also top the list for the children in occupied Palestine, or those under attack in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, or those who survive chemical attacks or attacks by drones or cluster munitions, or even those who are affected by Ebola in villages in Africa. It is a great sadness that these rights are not universal for all our children across the globe today. That makes the convention as relevant now as ever.
Although many important rights of children are more widely enshrined than they once were, the contemporary age has brought new threats to human rights, from the spectre of climate change, conflicts and wars to the more immediate scourge of online abuse. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke eloquently about the internet creating a global marketplace that drives child abuse. It has produced new models for old crimes. I, too, worry that new global and accessible communication tools are being used and may make the despicable act of grooming children ever more a threat.
From cybersecurity to cyberbullying and online child pornography, our laws are too often behind the times and the media in identifying and responding to abuse. The move through the Crime and Courts Bill to make revenge porn—the malicious distribution of private sexual images without consent—a criminal offence was overdue. Police forces in England and Wales have recorded children as young as 11 years old reporting that they have been unwilling subjects of revenge porn. Such victims deserve recourse to the law and civil as well as legal remedies. When I was with a group of Metropolitan Police cadets from Southwark as well as Navy cadets and Girl Guides only a couple of days ago, they told me that not enough is being done to caution young people and counter these online acts. I am glad to hear of the progress reported by the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, and that Governments and regulators are to work together to clamp down on the sites that host this pernicious material.
Notwithstanding the deepening concerns stated by the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, I wish to focus today on the positive contribution that the digital world makes to the lives of children and all who learn to navigate it. The internet and digital technology can be transformative to the lives of people who find social interaction and communication challenging. For people with a physical immobility, an autism spectrum disorder or a hearing impairment, the internet opens the door to conversation and social interaction at the click of a button. A recent survey by the National Autistic Society showed that 41% of adults with autism feel lonely, compared to 11% of the general population. Though it is not a panacea, social media can create networks for people who are isolated.
This also made me reflect today that, as far back as 1980, when faced with a child with autism I went to the local education authority and asked, “Is there some kind of computer that will assist my son to say things and bring him along in his communication skills?” Of course, I was treated as some kind of mad hatter woman. I was told, “Yes, you can have a computer but not for children with disabilities; that is out of the question”. I was laughed at for my outrageous request. Nobody had heard of Stephen Hawking; that was yet to be, but I rest my case. My son, who is nearly 36 years old, has recently discovered the magic of the iPad. It is superb that with his finger he can open up the best plane flying across the globe or whatever it is that his heart desires—although he spends much too much time away from communicating with others.
Access to the online world also has huge potential in classrooms across England. There are now around 100,000 children with an autism spectrum disorder and 1.1 million children for whom English is not their first language. The language and communication challenges that can be associated with ASD and having English as a second language often indirectly affect other children in the classroom. For that reason, the technology being developed by companies such as the social enterprise Ai-Media can transform children’s education. Using tablets to display live written transcripts of what teachers are saying as they are saying it empowers students in lessons. Lessons become easier to follow for those with a hearing impairment, English as an additional language and certain types of autism.
As the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, has pointed out, the rise of adaptive technologies and aids to communication with, and active engagement in, the modern world has positive resonances for children with disabilities. Yet adaptive technologies remain out of the reach of too many children who would benefit from them. The UNCRC is instructive with respect to the rights that children should be afforded in this regard. Article 17 refers to the right of children to have access to information, including through mass and readily available media sources. Article 23 states that children who have any kind of disability have the right to special care and support, as well as the other rights in the convention, so that they can live full and independent lives. Article 24 encompasses the right to receive child-friendly and appropriate physical and mental health services, advice, information, support and guidance. Despite these articles, however, I hardly ever see UN advocacy or action on ensuring equity of access to digital technologies for children. As we celebrate the UNCRC and seek to uphold its values, children still are being denied access to this sort of information and advice when they lack access to devices that provide them.
Unless children have access to the internet at home as well as at school, they will be at an unfair disadvantage when learning. Already there is a digital divide whereby poorer children rely on schools or diminishing library resources to access computers or the internet, so their access is restricted, whereas richer children are better able to carry out research and develop digital skills. Will the Government consider embedding technology access in their work with so-called troubled families and those with special needs? Surely, access to the web would enhance children’s education and improve social mobility, although I heed the caution expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, that access alone will not enhance education or improve people’s livelihoods.
Notwithstanding the resonance of Article 31 guaranteeing the right to leisure, cultural activities, engagement with the arts and the right to play, we can, should and must use the internet and technology to greater advantage to educate children, particularly those with special needs.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lady Kidron on securing this vital debate.
Noble Lords will be aware that I am the sponsor of the Online Safety Bill, which had its First Reading in your Lordships’ House on 11 June and is currently awaiting a date for Second Reading. I hope that the usual channels are listening. I readily admit that on the majority of occasions on which I have spoken about this issue, I have focused on trying to address concerns about online safety, so I welcome the opportunity today at least to begin my comments by focusing on the positives of the internet. After then moving on to the dangers, I would also like to set out some principles that I believe should inform how we debate online safety before finally homing in on some specific challenges relating to the live streaming of R18 material and posing questions to the Minister.
On the positives, the truth is that in many ways the internet greatly benefits the lives of children. As I look at this subject, mindful of the reference to the UN convention, it seems to me that many aspects of the convention are relevant, but I particularly pick out Article 17, with its stress on children’s access to information, in relation to which the internet clearly has an absolutely key role to play.
Research undertaken by the E-Learning Foundation has shown that children who access the internet at home are likely to receive higher marks at school than their counterparts. This is because they are able to take advantage of educational tools available online that enhance their educational experience. Such tools include the International Children’s Digital Library, which gives children free access to literature as well as access to free and fee-based games for younger children. These tools clearly show how the internet can have a positive role in children’s intellectual development.
Social media sites can also play a positive role. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics has shown that social media can have the positive effect of enhancing the communication, social and technical skills of children. The same research also notes that these skills are transferable and can be applied just as well offline as online. This gives children greater ability to communicate positively and interact with the world around them in a way that they may not have been able to before.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics report that 96% of households with children have an internet connection. However, that still means that some children are unable to reach the rich world of the internet. Of the households that are not connected to the internet—I recognise that not all of these have children within them—32% said that they lacked the necessary skills, 12% said that equipment costs were a barrier and 11% said that access costs were a barrier. We should remember that a small minority of children will find themselves disadvantaged without this access.
It is precisely because I passionately believe that children should go online to access all the positive educational and recreational opportunities that it affords that I am equally passionate that they should be able to do so in safety. On the question of safety—the negatives and dangers, if you like—I immediately think of a tragic case I mentioned in a speech just a couple of weeks ago of a 14 year-old boy acting out pornographic content he had seen online on a 10 year-old girl. Judge Robin Onions said the boy,
“used, abused then abandoned his victim”,
after repeatedly watching internet porn on his home computer that,
“treats women as objects and not people”.
Crucially, it was reported that the mother of the boy in question was unaware that he had visited such sites from his bedroom in their Shropshire home.
I also think of the report by the Authority for Television on Demand, For Adults Only?, which demonstrated that children as young as six are accessing hardcore pornography and that at least 44,000 primary schoolchildren accessed an adult website in one month alone. This raises a very important question for all parents: what are your children actually watching online via their home or mobile devices? The mother of the Shropshire boy had no idea he was watching the porn that inspired him to rape a 10 year-old. The fact that the Ofcom Report on Internet Safety Measures, published in July, demonstrates that, since 2013, there has been a 10% decrease in children aged five to 15 going online while a parent is in the room with them is of real concern. Of course, it is not always possible for parents to be present, especially when mobile devices are being used, which is why default filtering is an important policy tool to have in the mix. In reflecting on the UN convention, I again find myself thinking of Article 17 because, as well as emphasising the importance of access to information, it also says that states parties shall:
“Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being”.
In debating the whole question of online safety, when we come to discuss how best to respond to the safety challenges—and respond we must—I get very concerned that the debate is muddled and confused by a tendency for those expounding a particular solution immediately to be attacked as naive by others who come along and expound another solution. What seems to happen is that someone talks about the importance of, for example, default adult content filters, in response to which someone else will stand up and say, “You are very naive. That isn’t the answer. The answer is education”. I believe that this is profoundly unhelpful. I do not believe that there is always “the answer” to public policy challenges. Almost always there is a mix of different policy solutions that together will generate the best possible outcome, at least for the present. My Online Safety Bill very much reflects this approach with its two central pillars of education and default adult content filters provided by internet service providers and mobile phone operators and, on top of this, additional age verification checks actually at the doors of websites specialising in R18-rated and 18-rated video on demand content from within the UK and, crucially, beyond.
I passionately believe in the importance of all these elements. Education can help children to deal with online behavioural challenges and to avoid content they would rather not encounter. Default adult content filters, meanwhile, provide additional protections to help children not stumble across unwanted adult content. They also provide a mechanism to protect children from damaging adult content that they should not see but might want to.
Mindful of the tragic Shropshire case I mentioned earlier, and thinking particularly of the duty to protect children articulated in Article 17 of the UN convention, I turn to the policy on access controls to R18-rated and 18-rated video on demand. The fact that children can easily access R18 material is absolutely shocking and a terrible indictment on our society. When people consider the story of the boy who watched hardcore porn and then went and acted out what he had seen on a 10 year-old girl, the initial instinct is to feel huge concern for the girl and anger with the boy, but I would suggest that, while he must take responsibility for his actions, there is a sense in which he is a victim as well. Why is it that the society he lives in has not seen fit to change the law to protect him? Are we not as legislators also responsible? If my Online Safety Bill had been law, that boy would not have been able to access this material because it would have been behind robust statutory age verification. Mindful of this, I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce access controls.
In their 2013 report, Connectivity, Content and Consumers, the Government said on page 35 that they would legislate to,
“ensure that material that would be rated R18”—
by the BBFC—
“is put behind access controls … and ban outright content on regulated services that is illegal even in licensed sex shops”.
In March 2014, ATVOD’s report, For Adults Only?, urged the Government to implement these recommendations to,
“remove any doubt that material that would be rated R18”
must be behind access controls. Also in March 2014, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee reported on online safety. It welcomed the Government’s intention to legislate for R18 videos as promised in 2013, arguing that there,
“needed to be greater clarity over the legality of providing unrestricted access to hardcore pornography”.
Then, on 20 April, the Sunday Times stated that the Government had said that they would implement this by the end of the year.
In this regard, I have three questions for the Minister. Firstly, can he please provide us with an update on this legislation? I am aware that it may have been laid before Parliament in the form of regulations which I have missed. Secondly, can he explain why the Government’s commitment relates only to R18 material and not 18-rated material? If we have decided that it is not appropriate to sell a child 18-rated material offline and we have the technology to protect children from accessing R18 material offline, why do we not also protect them from 18-rated material? Surely this double standard is completely unacceptable.
Finally, I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the vast majority of live streamed R18 material is live streamed from sites outside the UK. Can he clarify that the legislation will deal with R18 and, I hope, 18-rated video material, live streamed from sites beyond the UK? If it does not, the Shropshire lad to whom I referred earlier is likely not to have been protected by such provision, because statistically it is more likely that he was accessing R18 material live streamed from beyond the UK than from within the UK.
My Lords, the online world is the real world for digital natives. That is exactly what worries so many of us. However, we would be doing our children a huge disservice if we viewed their online interactions in only a negative light. In fact, for many young people, the internet is far more likely to be a place of opportunity. The internet will bring them opportunities that generations before them could only dream of.
Rather than congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, if the House does not mind, I will quote her. At the beginning of her extraordinary film about children and the internet she says:
“About a year ago, I realised that every time I looked at a teenager, they had an electronic device in their hand, a device connected to the internet. I started asking questions. First the simple ones, like why can’t you leave that thing alone? And how can you do homework while checking Facebook at the same time? Quickly, I graduated to the more difficult: do you have any privacy settings? Do you know where your data goes? Do you know the person you’re talking to? Each of my questions was answered with a shrug. I always have and always will believe, that the internet could be the instrument by which we deliver the full promise of human creativity. But perhaps it’s time we asked ourselves: have we outsourced our children to the internet? And if yes, where are they, and who owns them?”.
I urge everyone interested in this debate to watch the noble Baroness’s extraordinary film, “InRealLife”. It teaches us so many things. It also reminds us that policymakers in general and politicians in particular need to recognise that we are at best digital tourists. However, that cannot prevent us legislating on behalf of digital natives—young people who live and breathe the internet. Indeed, it is our responsibility. That is where the problem, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, alluded at the beginning, lies, because we are trying to govern the terrain of digital natives. With a few honourable exceptions in this House—today they are the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron, Lady Shields and Lady Lane-Fox—the rest of us really do not have a clue what we are doing. Let us be honest, in comparison to the digital natives, most of us are digitally housebound agrophobes.
“Agoraphobe” is an interesting word in relation to how too many of us in politics instinctively view the internet. It comes from the Greek “agora” meaning marketplace, which is similar to what a first-century Roman might call a forum or an open space, or what a 21st century teenager might call cyberspace. According to Wikipedia, agoraphobia is,
“an anxiety disorder where the sufferer perceives certain environments”—
let us think of the internet—
“as dangerous or uncomfortable, often due to the environment’s vast openness or crowdedness”.
In another online forum I found an agoraphobe described as,
“someone with a morbid and irrational fear of the outdoors, and in particular, of crowded public spaces.”
There we have it. That is basically us in the House of Lords when we view the internet. We view it in a morbid, irrational manner because we instinctively find it dangerous and uncomfortable. It is dangerous because none of the rules that we were brought up with apply and uncomfortable because we cannot navigate the vast terrain. We do not know how to get around, and it seems hideously overcrowded because the whole wide world is there, otherwise known as www. For the younger generation, everyone is there, yet we, the digital tourists, can barely connect a computer to a printer or upload a blog.
I am not even joking. This is a really bad thing to say and I apologise in advance. If your Lordships go to my website www.oonaking.com—that is unforgivable, I grant you, but let me explain—you will see that my penultimate blog entry is dated July 2014. The next one is from this month, November. There are four months in between. Contrary to public perceptions of politicians, that is not because I was on holiday for four months. It is not because I did not have anything to blog about for a third of a year. It is because, despite being shown on four separate occasions over a three-year period how to upload a blog to my website, I just cannot do it. I don’t get it—it does not stick in my brain, because I was not brought up on computers, or I have not spent enough time learning how to navigate them. Let me put my cards on the table: I hate computers; they never work for me. I know that if I try to upload a blog, it will take four hours out of my life, it will end in failure, I will lose the will to live and I may sob hysterically. So, like many noble Lords, I distrust computers and I cannot effectively navigate the vast terrain of the internet.
Of course, when you are in that position, you would rather think the internet is a place ram-packed with paedophiles and con-merchants, because then our agoraphobia would be a blessing not a curse. Now here is the thing again: the internet is ram-packed with paedophiles and con-merchants, because the internet is the real world through another lens. Think of the real world and go back a few decades to, say, the 1970s. It turns out there were paedophiles everywhere you looked, from “Jim’ll Fix It” to the political establishment to “Top of the Pops”.
Police forces across Britain are today investigating 7,500 child abuse cases, including historical cases at children’s care homes. We all know that humans can be monsters, whether online or offline, and humans can be angels, online or offline—creative, inspiring, empathetic and transcendent. Between those two extremes is everything else. The internet means that children can come into contact with greater numbers of monsters or angels than ever before. The monsters we know about are predatory online paedophiles. The angels are, for example, the online mentors who can literally transform a young person’s life for the good. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned some of the mentoring that takes place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Shields, in her excellent maiden speech, spoke about the need for the creation of digital content to be safe by design. She said that we in authority must be faster, nimbler and more innovative than the minority of perpetrators who use the internet for criminal purposes. The We Protect initiative mentioned by the noble Baroness is also hugely important. She may also have suggested—I will be corrected if I am wrong about this—that we should close loopholes when people try to get around the structures we are building.
Action on what can be done falls into two distinct camps. On the one hand, we need to prevent the worst excesses and online abuse. In the context of today’s debate on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are talking about Article 16 on privacy and Articles 19, 35 and 36 on protection. The second part of what we need to do is to educate children to be critical and self-aware users of the internet—not used and abused by the internet. That is covered by Article 17 on mass media and Article 31 on the right to recreation and cultural activities, and the right to self expression.
On preventing the worst excesses, we need to move beyond the question of whether we should regulate the new wild west of the internet to how to regulate it. Obviously, there has been a huge amount of discussion on this, but we realise that there are things that we can and must do to protect our children. On extending that protection, we heard powerfully from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to whom I pay great tribute for the work that she is doing. We have recently discussed her proposals on adult content filters in the Consumer Rights Bill, and I must say to the Minister that I am genuinely perplexed by the Government’s position. It makes no sense that the Government go out of their way to get protection from the four main ISPs but then leave a loophole in which 10% of houses and the children in them will have no protection from adult content filters. What will the Minister do to get his colleagues to change their view and position before we get to Third Reading? There are the other issues, such as making online bullying an offence, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, outlined, and revenge porn on which the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, spoke powerfully.
On the second part, educating children to be critical and self-aware, we need to push digital literacy right up the political agenda. I think that the iRights agenda is a fantastic place to start, with its five key principles. First, all under-18s should have the right to delete data that they have posted. Secondly, we should have the right to know who holds our data and who profits from these data—we would all like to know that, would we not? Thirdly, under-18s should be able to explore the internet safely. Fourthly, there should be safeguards on compulsive technologies, such as gaming. Fifthly, users should be educated so that they can navigate the terrain. I would say that we need iRights for Members of the House of Lords as well.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, outlined the plight suffered by 10 million adults in the UK who are still barred from the benefits of the internet. I cannot speak highly enough of the work that she does to close the digital divide, which has never been more important.
In conclusion, we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that children’s lives have been revolutionised by technology, and that we must take this opportunity to ensure that we build a rights-based approach to children in the digital world. That is the lesson of this debate. It makes sense for a rights-based approach to stand on the architecture of the UNCRC. I thank the noble Baroness again for securing this debate and ask her forgiveness if I do not blog about it.
My Lords, I am very pleased to wind up for the Government in this debate. In starting, I have to say that I find myself in agreement—it must be rare when the two Front-Bench spokespeople agree—especially with the first part of the speech of the noble Baroness about having three distinct experts in the House of Lords and the rest of us being digital tourists. I found myself in much sympathy with that.
I hope that I will do justice to what has been an excellent debate, and I shall try to pick up the points raised in so far as I have time. I should also say at the outset that I hope this marks the start of a process because the debate can take us only so far, and I hope that we can carry it further and develop some of the themes that have been set out this afternoon.
I thank very much the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for proposing this very important topic. She has spoken passionately, and of course, as the noble Baroness opposite said, she takes a great interest in children’s activity and digital issues. As a film-maker documenting the impact of the internet on children’s lives and through her involvement in iRights to make children and young people better able to use the internet, she has done much to raise awareness of their online activity.
I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on a maiden speech of rare erudition, based on extraordinarily wide experience. She spoke of the velocity of change, and certainly brought it home to me when she said that she was a digital veteran. That does demonstrate the velocity of change if that is the case. The internet is truly amazing. It has opened up massive opportunities. I felt as we listened to the debate that the internet is very much Janus-like; it can be used for good and bad. It is up to us to ensure that in so far as it can be it is used for good rather than bad. The noble Baroness was correct in saying that many of the problems thrown up by the internet have parallels in the analogue world prior to the growth of the internet. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, also demonstrated the pace of change when she talked about an episode with a mobile phone and how things have moved incredibly quickly.
Children’s increased use of social media gives them new opportunities for social interaction and creativity, and to learn and understand more about the world, but as we have heard it also exposes them to risks, such as cyberbullying, grooming and potentially harmful content. Their safety online is therefore everybody’s responsibility. Empowering children to make the most of online opportunities and build their resilience to risks is part of preparing them for adult life. Children are not born fearful of the internet, and adults have a duty to ensure they do not become so, at least in part by teaching them how to protect themselves in an online world.
Many noble Lords, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, have spoken about how the internet has opened up new possibilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, spoke about a range of opportunities that presented, and quoted examples. If she can e-mail the pizza takeaway number I would be most grateful.
Schools have an important role to play, and many noble Lords touched on that. They can equip children and young people for adult life through different aspects of the curriculum, such as personal, social, health and economic education. The new computing curriculum, to which some noble Lords referred favourably, also emphasises computer science and programming at all key stages, and ensures that children become digitally literate and are able to use digital technologies responsibly and safely. In practice, effective use of the internet is picked up throughout the curriculum, helping children access information relevant to all their areas of study. The Government are considering ways to support the effective use of technology in schools through the work of the independent Educational Technology Action Group, which will report jointly to BIS and the Department for Education by January 2015. In the modern world, children increasingly need to develop the ability to sift volumes of data and not just use a book as a single source of information, which may have been the position in the past. They must become discerning users of information and schools should help them in that. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, spoke of the possibilities, not least by tapping into the expertise in Singapore.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, spoke about teacher training. The Department for Education is funding subject knowledge enhancement courses for new teachers of computing which, in practice, will mean all primary teachers. At present this is a voluntary programme. New teachers are also able to access a range of materials and support programmes developed by the sector, and supported and funded by the Department for Education, and £3.6 million will have been spent by the end of this financial year over a two-year period. We should also emphasise the role of Ofsted, whose inspection and annual report in 2011 led to changes in the IT curriculum to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, referred.
As well as all these good aspects, we need to protect children from harm—a subject referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and my noble friends Lady Benjamin, Lord Farmer and Lord Framlingham. Just as there are challenges in the offline world, there are also challenges in the online world. I shall use an analogy here. In the real world, the logic of child development says that falling off a bike is an integral part of learning to ride a bike. That same logic should be applied online as well, because it can lead to children learning from their mistakes. As in the offline world, any policy of total risk avoidance is in danger of being counterproductive.
Looking beyond schools, children can also use and share their digital content in a very positive way, to help develop their digital skills and as an outlet for their creativity. Just one inspiring example of that is the game “Spacepants”, made by a 12 year-old developer, Sam Smith, and named one of the best new games on Apple’s App Store. We want children to see information technology as a tool they can conquer, which gives them access to a range of opportunities.
Amid all these wonderful developments, we must not neglect online safety. As I mentioned earlier, this involves addressing a range of other safeguarding issues. Let me try to deal with those now. As research published recently by Ofcom shows, children are accessing the internet more frequently and on a wider variety of devices than ever before. That pace is likely to continue. With this prevalence comes associated risks, and two in 10 children aged from 12 to 15—18%—say they have seen something online in the past year that was worrying, nasty or offensive.
However, our children are among the world’s best protected. This year’s Net Children Go Mobile: The UK Report—an EU report on the UK—refers to the United Kingdom within Europe as,
“leading in children’s internet safety, adopting both social and technical forms of mediation with vigour”.
Ofcom’s qualitative research shows that children’s theoretical understanding of online risks, as compared with that of those in other countries, is relatively good. One of the reasons for the United Kingdom’s success is our collaborative approach. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety brings together government, industry, law enforcement, academia, charities and parenting groups—and young people, through the membership of the council—who work in partnership to help to keep children and young people safe online. This means we are able to respond quickly and effectively to ever developing challenges.
We believe that the self-regulatory approach is the best for a fast-paced sector such as the internet. Regulation could not keep pace with innovation and technological change. This is not a laissez-faire approach, but a recognition that the best way of approaching the matter is through the industry, and by self-regulation. But that does not mean that we should be complacent, and we need to make sure that parents are given support and technical solutions to protect their children in a way best suited to their individual family composition and circumstances.
That is why, in July last year, the Prime Minister asked the four major internet service providers, covering around 90% of the UK’s broadband market—I will come to the other 10%—to provide parents with the ability to filter content easily. The ISPs—BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin—have responded positively. It would not be true to say that the other 10% are not responding. The fifth and sixth in size are responding positively as we speak, and I think that they are due to come online with protection very shortly. The remainder are smaller ISPs, many business-focused, which perhaps do not face the same challenges that the other providers do. So there is work going on in that direction—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, as well as my noble friend Lady King. The ISPs’ Internet Matters campaign informs parents about parental controls and helps them understand what risks their children might face online.
We are also determined to tackle cyberbullying—a subject raised with great vigour and passion by my noble friend Lady Benjamin. It is a particularly insidious and harmful form of bullying. It is not confined to school hours, but can affect a child 24/7—and, of course, it can be anonymous, with a child not knowing who is bullying them. We have sought to tackle this by giving teachers greater powers through the Education Act 2011 to tackle cyberbullying. Indeed, this is Anti-Bullying Week, and this Monday we made an announcement encouraging parents to talk to their children about their online activities. I should also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, who raised the possibility of specific action in this context, that I believe that in the offline world, which parallels what is happening in the online world, there are already sufficient powers to deal with those issues—such as the powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the criminal justice Act 2013 and the Defamation Act 2013.
We have a responsibility to educate young people to use technology safely, and to strongly discourage them from sharing self-taken indecent photographs, or sexting. This, too is being dealt with, through the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003.
The increase in online child sexual exploitation and sexual grooming, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Framlingham, is a problem of real concern. As is all too clear from recent reports, child sexual exploitation is an appalling crime, which this Government are determined to stamp out. We have strengthened our operational response through the National Crime Agency, with a legal duty on every NCA officer to safeguard and promote child welfare, and more posts dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse now than in 2010, when we came into office. As part of the NCA, the CEOP command, which the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned, ensures that child abuse investigators have access to the agency’s extensive crime-fighting resources and global expertise, which includes officers in over 40 countries around the world. Her Majesty’s Government believe that this incorporation actually strengthens the institution.
Perhaps I may mention topically something that I do not think was raised in the debate; I just wish to get it on the record. There is also a grooming for terrorism dimension to the internet, and at a meeting in Downing Street last week the major ISPs collectively agreed to host a public reporting button for extremist and terrorist material online. It is a growing problem and again shows the fast developing nature of the challenges as well as the opportunities provided by the internet.
We should acknowledge that there are international aspects to internet use which make this area quite unique. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to the international dimension, which throws up jurisdictional issues. There are two unique aspects to the internet that we have to recognise. One is how fast it is developing, to which noble Lords around the House referred in the debate, and there is the international aspect, which makes it quite a challenge to deal with some of the opportunities as well as the challenges thrown up by this area.
I want to say something about the iRights manifesto and the five principles that have been talked about. We have focused more on the protection aspects in the debate, which are rightly important, but there are other issues such as the right to remove material on the internet. The Google judgment in the European Court of Justice in May this year said that there is a right to be forgotten—someone’s past details, and so on. The Government are looking at this and will continue to discuss it with the sector because we agree that it is appropriate. There is also the right to know. All individuals have legal rights under the Data Protection Act, but we have to see how they translate across to the internet. Again, the Government continue to discuss this aspect within a range of issues with the sector. We have also spoken about the educational aspects of the digital side, which are extremely important.
I have omitted to deal with the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in relation to the R18 classification. I am advised that the new law around video-on-demand content comes into force on 1 December. This will mean that, in the future, TV-like video content that would be classified by the BBFC as R18 will be put behind age control barriers. Perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness on the other points she raised because I was slightly blind-sided by them. I am grateful for this debate, but rarely have my powers been so exaggerated by noble Lords asking for things. I am very happy to write to the noble Baroness on the point.
As I said, I am keen that this should move forward positively. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, plays a key role in iRights, while as trustees so too do the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and my noble friend Lady Shields, and I think that we can build on that. Let us not forget that today we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, reminded us. It is an important landmark, and although the document was written before the world wide web was invented, the UNCRC is a living document and subject to modern interpretation. It includes rights to protections and freedom of expression, along with children’s access to the media. Once again, we can see the Janus-like nature of this in that there are threats as well as opportunities. The Government have put on the record their commitment to children’s rights and to giving due consideration to the UNCRC when developing new policy. The department will consider, as part of that, the digital dimension in the checking of UNCRC compliance, to see if it cannot be incorporated as a separate item. That is important; certainly it is symbolically important.
Another aspect that occurred to me as we went through the debate was the importance of the all-party parliamentary group chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, on children, media and the arts, and how it could be used as a focus for the concerns expressed pretty much universally around the Chamber. This has been a very consensual debate in which people can see the challenges as well as the threats and opportunities. I suggest that the all-party group might like to act as a task force and produce a paper for the department.
In conclusion, it is tremendous to see the House of Lords taking the initiative in this area—perhaps counterintuitively based on the age profile and some confessions of little or no knowledge—of looking at the impact of the digital world on children and young people. I should like to offer the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the signatories to iRights a meeting with officials before the Recess to consider the way forward in this area, and to extend an invitation to iRights campaigners to attend the first meeting in the new year of the United Kingdom Council for Child Internet Safety. I think that both of those could be useful ways of moving things forward. This debate can offer only a kick-start, but I hope that it will kick-start what is clearly an important area not only for children and young people, but also for the country, the economy and our society. This is a massively challenging, important and interesting area.
Today’s debate is an important step forward in looking again at the UNCRC so that children’s rights which are guaranteed offline are also applied online. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for this debate, and in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her comments and innovative ideas. She is absolutely right to act as a champion in this area. It did occur to me that past revolutions such as the agrarian revolution, the Industrial Revolution and now the digital revolution have all thrown up their challenges and their opportunities. It is our task to ensure that it is the opportunities that win and that the challenges are met.
I must thank all noble Lords. This really has been by all standards a broad and friendly debate. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for not citing each contribution. I do not have the capacity to improve on what has already been said by others or, indeed, on the way it was articulated. I will just pick up on a few things. We heard the internet described as “water” twice in this debate. The centrality of it in our lives is now beginning to be understood. Everybody who has spoken has shown an overwhelming commitment to education of a non-didactic kind. I think we all agree with what that looks like.
We have heard of the value of the internet: being offered late-night pizza; breast-feeding apps; outsourcing homework; and, possibly more important, preventing isolation through outreach and mentoring. I myself have felt the terror that all must feel when being quoted in this House. Noble Lords have also expressed concern about the safety and upset of children and the inequalities of access. I want to particularly pick up on those noble Lords who mentioned the worrying trend that makes the internet a hostile or difficult place for girls. The internet will never fulfil the ambitions of its inventors if it is not an equal platform for women and young girls.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for her kind words and her mantra of “safe by design”. Her success proves that what may look impossible now is indeed possible in the future. She has proved today what an important and welcome addition she is to this House, however great our number.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said, the technology is neutral, and that leaves the question of rights and responsibilities to all stakeholders —industry, government, parents, teachers and young people—not just on the issues of safety that have been raised but, as the Minister suggested, more broadly, in the way that young people engage with web-based technology.
The Minister could not have been warmer to this agenda, and I thank him and his officials. I am also grateful for many of the things that the Government are striving to do in this area. I welcome his invitation to talk to officials in the department and explore this with noble friends and other Members of the House more fully. He has my support. When he works out how we make the Members of this House feel more confident about digital and web technology, he will have my support and, I am sure, the support of other Members to alert them to the potential opportunities and contradictions of our digital world.
It has been a long debate, and I cannot say much more. I wanted to make a very technical point, that the right to remove is a lot less ambitious than the European judgment on the right to be forgotten. I am very interested to see what the government finding will be on that question of data and the right to remove them. It is a very important piece of what we are trying to establish.
As I said at the beginning, this is a technology of infinite promise and imagination, and no world is ever risk free. By adopting a path that carefully balances the necessity of children to be guardians of their own interests alongside our needs to be guardians of their interests, we allow them to grasp the opportunities that lie ahead. I salute the authors of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its work is not yet done. This is a very important day and a very important document.