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Online Sexual Harassment of Children

Volume 818: debated on Monday 24 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take in response to the report by the Children’s Commissioner Talking to your child about online sexual harassment: A guide for parents, published on 16 December 2021, and in particular the finding that children are “stumbling across” commercial pornography.

My Lords, we warmly welcome this report, and the Children’s Commissioner’s support in protecting children online. The report’s findings underline the need for the measures that we are proposing in the online safety Bill, which will require a wide range of sites to take robust steps to prevent children accessing pornography online. We will include the Children’s Commissioner’s guidance in our online resources for parents and organisations to promote media literacy.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. The Joint Scrutiny Committee and today’s Select Committee report refer to harmful and addictive online porn, and children’s exposure to illegal and extreme content. While parents have a key role, guidance for them is a fairly puny tool with which to police the internet. Given that research is increasingly amassing about pornography’s harms, especially to young people, can the Minister advise why age verification is not on the face of the Bill?

My noble friend is right to point to the harms that pornography can do to people who are viewing it far too early in their lives. The online safety Bill aims to address this, and we are grateful to the Joint Committee and the Select Committee in another place for their views on that legislation. The online safety Bill will not mandate the use of specific technologies to comply with the new duties it contains because it is vital that the Bill remains future-proof and able to change as technology changes to prevent new threats. However, we expect companies to use age-verification technologies to prevent children accessing online pornography.

My Lords, recent findings by the Internet Watch Foundation—I declare an interest as one of its champions—state that the seven to 10 age group is the fastest growing group appearing in self-generated child sexual abuse material. Without the IWF, this material can stay online for many years, causing mental health issues and untold damage in later life. What steps are the Government taking to give age-appropriate online safety advice to this age group, immediately?

The noble Baroness is a tireless campaigner on this important issue and the Internet Watch Foundation does very important work. We are keen to bring the online safety Bill to your Lordships’ House and get it on the statute book for the protections it will bring. In the meantime, we are taking steps, and asking the Children’s Commissioner to conduct this report was part of that. In addition, the new relationship, sex and health education curriculum is clear that, by the end of secondary school, pupils should be taught about the impact that viewing harmful content, such as pornography, can have. We continue to keep that under review.

My Lords, until quite recently a child’s bedroom was a safe haven; now every child’s bedroom has had a door cut in it marked “the internet”. A child of whatever age, at whatever time of day or night, can go through that door and their parents will not know where they have gone, who they are talking to and what they are doing. The effects are quite horrendous, not least when the example is hard pornography. Is it any surprise that mental illness and suicides are increasing in this age group? It is quite plain the reason for it. Can the Minister do all we possibly can as a matter of the greatest urgency to close this horrible door?

My noble friend is right, and of course it is not just on computers but on smartphones that people are able to access the internet. The majority of people, children included, have a beneficial experience online; we are keen to maintain that, while bringing in the safeguards that are important for them, and that is what the online safety Bill seeks to do. In the meantime, we are very grateful to the Children’s Commissioner for her work in helping parents and grandparents have the important conversations with young people who are using the internet.

My Lords, children’s safety online is vital to protect their mental health and protect them from many harms. This is not an issue solely for England; it is a UK-wide issue. In view of that, will the Minister, in association with and alongside the online safety Bill, consider a summit of the nations and regions of the UK, so that positive resolutions that will help eradicate this and a plan of implementation to prevent children being abused online can be brought forward?

My Lords, the issue is even broader than the noble Baroness suggests. It is international in scope, and the Government are working with Governments around the world and online providers based in other jurisdictions—we do that regularly. We are engaging with them on the online safety Bill. Those discussions are informing that Bill, which will be an important part of enforcing the action across the globe that we all want to see.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the relationship and sex education guidance and students being aware of these risks and dangers by the end of secondary school. Does he not think that may be a little late, given what we know about the age of children who are targeted and vulnerable online? Are the Government confident that teachers delivering this education are adequately trained to be the providers of this crucial information for young people?

The noble Baroness is right: it is by the end of secondary school that this should have been achieved, but of course the process begins earlier. One finding in the Children’s Commissioner’s report is that parents often underestimate the extent to which, and the age at which, their children are coming into contact with pornography and other online harms. Her very useful report gives practical advice to parents about how they can start having those conversations in an age-appropriate way.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister reassure the House that while, quite commendably, the accent is on pornography and other harms, gambling is also a very serious issue online? Loot boxes, which do not come under the Gambling Act, are in fact the entry point for kids to learn how to gamble.

That is one reason why the online safety Bill will take the approach of setting out in secondary legislation the sorts of harms that can affect children and other vulnerable people—and indeed all internet users—so that we can keep on top of emerging threats and make sure that our legislation does so as well.

My Lords, even a single conversation with a child about their online safety could reduce their risk of seeing sexual content or being persuaded to share indecent images. I agree with the Minister that the guide for parents from the Children’s Commissioner is extremely helpful, but what further steps will the Government take to encourage and equip not just parents but grandparents and other relatives to talk to their children about online dangers? Will the Government throw their weight behind a sustained public information campaign to encourage this?

The noble Baroness is right that it is not just for parents but all responsible adults in society to play a part. The Government are doing that through the Online Media Literacy Strategy, which we published in July last year, and I have mentioned the changes that have been made to the curriculum. We are consulting on how to strengthen that further for the version that will be published in September this year, so we are keeping it under review.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the greatest crimes of the moment is the destruction of childhood innocence, in which the internet plays such an enormous part? It does far more harm in many homes in the land than it does good. Can we please make sure that this Bill is as foolproof as pre-legislative scrutiny can make it? It must have post-legislative scrutiny as well.

My noble friend is right. As technology evolves, children are susceptible to a broader range of harmful content on a wider range of services. Of course, these services can bring great benefits to those who use them legitimately; that is why the approach set out in the online safety Bill will go much further than, for instance, the Digital Economy Act. We are grateful to the Joint Committee and everyone who has helped us to improve it so far.

My Lords, the Sunday Times yesterday alleged that there is a major hole in the Bill and that there is no provision for protecting children from grooming in the new technology of the metaverse. What does the Minister think about that and does he believe that there is a case for urgent action to be taken?

I read the very disturbing report in the Sunday Times to which the noble Lord referred. That is why the online safety Bill takes the approach of not being specific on certain technologies and making sure that our legislation can be future-proofed so that, as the internet continues to develop and new technologies are invented, the legislative protections for users keep pace with that. The metaverse, to which he referred, is a key example.

My Lords, I reinforce the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that inclusive relationship and sex education early in schools is vital. Does the Minister therefore agree that such relationship education empowers children as to which are the most appropriate and inappropriate relationships that can be developed online?

Yes, I would agree; I think the Children’s Commissioner’s guidance is very beneficial for teachers, as well as for parents, grandparents and guardians. As I say, we keep the curriculum under regular review, so we can make sure that new threats to children are being covered in it and so that conversations can be had in an age-appropriate way.