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Children: Exposure to Harmful Content

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 11 June 2020

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the research by the British Board of Film Classification on the extent of exposure of children and teens to harmful or upsetting content while in lockdown, published on 4 May.

My Lords, children are going online more due to Covid-19 measures. As the British Board of Film Classification’s report has highlighted, this can put them at greater risk of encountering harmful content. DCMS published new online safety guidance on 23 April which includes guidance for parents, including on preventing children’s exposure to age-inappropriate content. There is advice on implementing content filters and on talking to your child about staying safe online. Children’s online safety is a priority for this Government, and new online harms legislation will be ready in this Session.

My Lords, the research carried out for the BBFC has revealed that, in lockdown, 47% of all children and teens—that is nearly half—have seen content that they wish they had not. Given these appalling figures, and previous figures from the Government themselves about children’s access to pornography, will the Minister now make clear the Government’s commitment to urgently introduce long-delayed and much needed age verification for online pornography? This is a vital child protection measure which parents overwhelmingly support, and which Ministers themselves have described as a critical and urgent issue.

The noble Lord will be aware that in our proposals we take the duty to deliver a much higher level of protection for children and adults extremely seriously. We are following an approach of requiring a duty of care on social media and other online content providers, and we think that this is more robust than any particular set of procedures, although it would obviously include age verification.

My Lords, notwithstanding that there are some very unpleasant and disturbing images on the web, there is also a problem of addressing mature themes between childhood and adolescence. Can we look at the past success of the British Board of Film Classification? Does my noble friend agree that the 12 classification, between PG and 15, was trans- formative to British films and the video industry? The acceptance of the British Board of Film Classification’s recommendations, and the adoption of classifications by video transmitting platforms, would enable the addressing of mature themes sensitively and responsibly, offering reassurance to parents of those early to mid-teens.

I agree with my noble friend that the 12 rating was extremely helpful. The whole system of protection from the British Board of Film Classification was developed over a number of years, with great care. We are actively encouraging video on demand platforms to adopt it, and we were pleased to see that Netflix has done so.

I declare my interests on the register. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the online risks facing children, in addition to age-inappropriate content. There is an emerging picture that includes grooming, child sexual abuse, financial scamming, threats of violence, misinformation and identity theft, at a time when children have no choice but to be online to access every part of their lives, including education and health services. Does the Minister agree that the platforms’ persistent failure to uphold their own age restrictions, which results in 43% of 11 year-olds and millions of much younger children using services while under age, puts children at considerable risk? Does she accept that if the Government had already brought forward their long overdue online harms Bill, the UK would, right now, at this time of crisis, be a much safer place to be a child online?

The noble Baroness is right to point out both the benefits for children of being online, through education, entertainment and communication with their friends, but also the risks. We remain committed to bringing forward the online harms legislation in this Session, and I hope she will be pleased to hear that the laying of the age-appropriate design code, in which she was closely involved, is imminent.

My Lords, the figures in the BBFC survey are shocking but not a surprise. Millions of pounds were spent so that effective age verification could be delivered, and it was ready to be introduced. Then, on 16 October, the Government abruptly abandoned Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, which would have prevented children accessing unsuitable and harmful content. It is all very well talking about the online harms legislation, but it has been delayed and it is still ages away from implementation. Why were the Government so intent on waiting, when age verification was ready to start? Does the Minister agree that the facts clearly demonstrate that the Government have contributed directly to these shocking figures?

I cannot agree with the noble Lord’s last remarks. The Government have worked very hard on the guidance that has been published, the funding we have made available to organisations supporting vulnerable people, and the work we have been doing with the sector. As I have already said, we believe that the way to protect children from accessing harmful online content is through the legislation that we will bring forward later this Session, but a number of other elements are also being brought forward, including our media literacy strategy and the safety by design framework.

My Lords, the BBFC research shows a clear demand for age ratings online and the value that these can bring to parents around child protection, especially as, unbelievably, there is still no age verification in place for harmful material. It is good to hear that the Government are encouraging more video on demand services to follow the example of Netflix and adopt the trusted BBFC ratings, but what discussions have they had with the technology companies since the start of the crisis to ensure that they are allocating resources to tackling harmful activity online?

My department, my colleague the Minister for Digital and Culture, and the Home Office have been actively working with the social media companies. We are concerned that, because of the crisis, there have been resource limitations on the human moderation elements, but we are working closely with them, and welcome the creation of the Online Safety Tech Industry Association.

My Lords, I echo the concern about the Government’s lack of progress in introducing the measures outlined in their online harms White Paper. The BBFC report found that children are increasingly using pornography as an educational tool, which appears to be normalising such access in childhood. That means that, particularly during the lockdown, there is an increased risk of children being exposed to harmful content. I am particularly concerned that the report also shows that irresponsible commercial adult websites have benefited from the Government’s delay on age verification and are offering access to behind-the-paywall content for free, without age verification. This content is likely to be more extreme and violent. Will the Minister condemn this irresponsible behaviour, agree urgently to look again at age verification for pornography online, and commit to bringing forward online harms legislation as a priority?

Bringing forward the legislation remains a priority. We will respond to the consultation this autumn and, as I have said several times, the legislation will be brought forward in this Session. We are also implementing the Audiovisual Media Services Directive this autumn, which will provide higher levels of protection for children around accessing harmful content.