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Young People: Digital Resilience

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps, if any, they are taking to support the delivery of digital resilience programmes, such as Be Strong Online, in schools and elsewhere, to help young people to explore the digital world safely and to cope if they experience abuse online.

My Lords, schools decide themselves which anti-bullying programmes to use. To help, we fund a number of organisations that provide support on preventing bullying, including the Diana Awards Anti-Bullying Ambassadors programme. Our internet safety strategy, published last month, sets out that we will consider the teaching of digital resilience in schools through the development of relationships education and PSHE. We are also consulting on the role that peer-to-peer learning can play in the delivering of innovative educational programmes.

My Lords, the Be Strong Online initiative is a scheme whereby young people are trained as online ambassadors to help youngsters to cope with online abuse, through school lessons. The staff in schools are encouraged by what is happening. The scheme is asking for tangible and widespread support from the Government; online abuse and bullying are very serious issues.

My Lords, I am not familiar with that programme, but if the noble Lord wants to write to me, I will look at it. This year, we are funding four programmes: the Diana Awards; Internet Matters; the Anti-Bullying Alliance; and the Anne Frank Trust.

My Lords, did the Minister see the disturbing report at the weekend that there are now four suicides every week involving young people and children—a 14-year high? Has the Minister had a chance to look at the British Medical Journal study that found that suicide websites are more likely to be encouraging suicide, even glamorising it, than offering prevention or support? Will he look at the provisions of the Suicide Act 1961, which make it unlawful to incite, aid or abet suicide, and consider prosecuting those internet servers that continue to host suicide sites?

My Lords, we have just published an internet safety strategy Green Paper. Initially, we are asking, on a voluntary basis, for a code of practice, as required by the Digital Economy Act. We will certainly look at the points the noble Lord has raised.

My Lords, if I am not mistaken, this is the Minister’s first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I think we should welcome him and congratulate him on his appointment. Understandably, there is a great deal of focus on online issues —online bullying is a significant problem. However, offline bullying is also a significant problem. From personal experience, schools struggle to deal with that, partly because it is very hard for them to find the resources—over and above everything else they are required to do in the way of safeguarding—and to pay proper, detailed attention to both the sources and the effects of bullying in playgrounds, for example. Can the Minister say what more the Government can do to strengthen schools’ ability to deal with this problem?

The Government want to help schools to deliver high-quality relationships education, ensuring that pupils are taught about healthy and respectful relationships. Of course, bullying is very much part of that, and it goes beyond online bullying. Schools are very aware of the problems and, having seen it at first hand, I agree with the noble Baroness.

Between September 2016 and March 2019, the Government Equalities Office is providing £3 million for six projects that will support schools in England in preventing and responding to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.

My Lords, that is an important part of education and PSHE. Can the Minister tell us when the consultation on PSHE will be concluded? Does he not agree that PSHE should be taught in all schools: maintained schools, academies and free schools?

Recent changes to regulations have allowed the Secretary of State to require the teaching of PSHE in academies.

I welcome the Minister in our first meeting at the Dispatch Box. I salute his sense of adventure in joining the Government in what may be politely described as interesting times. Surveys have revealed that parents are now more concerned about their children sexting than drinking alcohol and smoking, so the Government’s internet safety strategy Green Paper is certainly welcome. However, they need to spell out exactly who will pay the social media levy, how much they will pay and what it will be spent on. I realise these are questions for the future. The question of transparency for social media companies is also an issue. I want to ask the new Minister a question, but I will be happy if he wants to respond to me in writing. In May 2015, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, was appointed Internet Safety and Security Minister—a post she held until June this year. If the Government are really serious about online safety, why has the noble Baroness not been replaced?

I will have to respond to the noble Lord in writing, but to give some reassurance, the Digital Economy Act 2017 introduced requirements for online pornography provided on a commercial basis to be inaccessible to under-18s. The Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, which we have just published, will also look at related issues.

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that the problem goes way beyond direct abuse and bullying? Many children feel intimidated and coerced into using social media in the first place. They seem to have many more friends but many fewer relationships. Will he accept that there is a need to look at the research that says that children who manage to give up social media feel liberated and strengthened, emotionally, intellectually and socially, and that we should not restrict ourselves to the narrow point, important as it is, about direct abuse? There is an education programme the Government need to take responsibility for.

My noble friend raises an important point. Parents need to be much more assertive in the way they manage their children’s use of electronic gadgets. In my case, I did not allow my children to use them until they were aged 13. That is something other parents should think about. Some of the studies we are funding this year, such as the Anne Frank Trust, help to develop a debate programme that encourages young children to think about the importance of tackling prejudice, discrimination and bullying.