3 Types of risk |
25. The ease of communication, the ready availability
of creative and informative content and the global reach which
are all such powerful features of the Internet, are of huge benefit.
In each case, however, those strengths have flipsides: malicious
communication is as easy as benign communication, content may
be potentially harmful or illegal, and global reach allows access
from almost anywhere in the world to content which would be illegal
in one's home country.
26. Social networking sites and chatrooms are
new types of environment which may appear to a user to be relatively
private, with defined boundaries, when in fact a user's profile
or an online forum may be open to thousands or even millions of
other users, all able to view even if they do not actively participate.
Some users of social networking sites may choose to limit the
visibility of their "profiles" but many do not: their
profile page then becomes a public space. Many users, particularly
children, are not even aware that their personal information is
being made available to anyone who chooses to access it. Unless
a user of a networking site takes steps to control access to their
territory, he or she is exposed to malicious communication or
comment and invasions of privacy. Users who publicise personal
contact details on Internet sites are especially vulnerable to
harassment which can be very distressing and very difficult to
27. We asked Jim Gamble, Chief Executive Officer
of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP),
how dangerous the Internet was for children: he responded simply
that "the Internet represents huge opportunity and risk".
The particular risks posed by new Internet-based services (such
as video-sharing sites, social networking sites and virtual worlds)
are chiefly those of exposure to harmful and inappropriate content,
contact from people whose intentions are malicious, and incitement
to dangerous or anti-social conduct. Some have found it convenient
to list them as risks derived from content, contact and conduct.
28. Those at risk are principally children, who
are less well equipped to take decisions for themselves and to
manage threats. Dr Byron observed that neural networks at the
front of the brain are very underdeveloped at birth and that it
is generally not until adolescence that the brain is sufficiently
developed to evaluate and manage risk, differentiate between fantasy
and reality, and regulate emotions.
Children may also be the target of exploitation for sexual purposes.
29. There is also a potential threat to adults
who are depressed, or who have a tendency to self-harm, or who
are emotionally unstable, who may find certain content disturbing;
it may also be that content can have an adverse effect on sexual
offenders or people with a tendency towards anti-social or criminal
30. Content-based risks have long been recognised
in broadcasting and in film, and it is generally accepted that
children will find certain material unacceptably shocking and
disturbing, even if less currency perhaps is given nowadays to
the notion that content might "deprave and corrupt",
to use the term from the Obscene Publications Act 1959.
The same risks are present in content on the Internet, which will
encompass not just broadcast programming but also on-demand entertainment,
user-generated content and material made available through pressure
groups and interest groups. The distinctive feature of the Internet,
however, is the ease of access and the ready availability of potentially
harmful material: the Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet
Safety (CHIS) warned of the Internet's capacity to provide information
"in an uncontrolled way which can be damaging to children".
31. CHIS told us that "children are known
to come across and download age-inappropriate content or disturbing
and upsetting material".
A joint submission from Professor Sonia Livingstone and Andrea
Millwood Hargrave cited research suggesting that 16% of 8-15 year
olds in the UK have come across "nasty, worrying or frightening"
content online; they observed that this finding was repeated in
other countries, sometimes with higher estimates.
32. The main concern for many parents is that
children will come across pornography while searching the Internet.
CHIS noted the "sheer volume" of pornographic material
that is in circulation and the ease of access to it.
Such content is likely to be hosted outside the UK: the Internet
Watch Foundation told us that it had not identified within the
last two years any content hosted on UK servers which might fail
the test of obscenity under the Obscene Publications Act 1959.
33. Other types of content, although perhaps
less widespread, may in fact be no less threatening. The Government
pointed out that terrorists used the Internet as an operational
platform and as a tool for radicalisation and recruitment.
Some websites set up by fringe groups encourage illegal acts (such
as assisted suicide) or incite hatred; others feature extreme,
sadistic or graphic violence. Childnet International pointed out
that not all information accessible on the Internet was necessarily
accurate; both children and adults could be at risk, for instance,
from misleading health advice.
Internet chatrooms can attract comments which are abusive or explicit
and which others find distressing.
34. Occasionally potentially illegal or harmful
content, such as material which features violence or is sexually
explicit or which is inflammatory or incites hatred, is uploaded
to interactive sites featuring user-generated content. The Internet
Watch Foundation, a self-regulatory body seeking to minimise the
availability of potentially illegal or otherwise harmful content
on the Internet,
told us that it had received just over 150 reports about material
on social networking sites since 2005; on examination, none of
the material was thought to be potentially illegal. At one point,
there had been a growth in the number of reports about potentially
illegal child sexual abuse content hosted on photo-sharing websites,
although the Internet Watch Foundation noted that larger companies
had since improved their security and abuse management policies.
We note the observation by Ofcom that public concern about harmful
content appears to be more acute for sites which host user-generated
content and which offer a "general use proposition"
rather than those which are niche sites with a stated objective
to share pornography or violent content.
35. There has also been concern about the use
of virtual worlds (such as Second Life) where, although
no-one in particular is a target, users have created avatars which
have then simulated sexual abuse of children.
36. Certain video games have become notorious
for their violent content. Manhunt, released in November 2003,
is set in a lawless imaginary city populated by violent gangs
of white supremacists, psychotic psychiatric patients and black
magicians. The main character, whom the player 'directs' through
the game, is a criminal on death row who proceeds to take on opponents
and kill them. The distinctive feature of Manhunt is the brutality
and the sadistic detail of the combat. A sequel, Manhunt 2, was
released in March 2008. Initially, the British Board of Film Classification
(BBFC) refused to award any classification because of its "unremitting
bleakness and callousness of tone" and its "unrelenting
focus on stalking and brutal slaying". The BBFC's decision
was challenged and ultimately overturned in the High Court. Although
the game has now received an 18 classification, the game's publisher,
Rockstar Games, has still not released the game onto the UK market.
37. Other controversial games include those from
the Grand Theft Auto series, set in the underworlds of fictional
cities. Players take on the role of lowlife criminals who, by
carrying out bank robberies, assassinations or other criminal
acts, rise through the ranks of the fictional cities' organised
crime networks. Unlike Manhunt, games in the Grand Theft Auto
series do include non-violent sequences and also feature a good
deal of humour and irony. The latest edition has been hailed as
taking gaming to the next level but it is clearly designed for
adults and should be restricted to them.
38. The Internet is an interactive public forum
and one of its strengths is the ease of communication which it
allows regardless of borders. This very ease of communication,
however, which enables strangers to converse with each other,
enables contact which is not sought and which may not be well-intentioned.
Posting personal details or images on social networking sites
can lead to uninvited contact from others, whose identity may
be shrouded. As Mr Angus, Executive Vice-President and General
Counsel for Fox Interactive Media, said, "people are not
always who they say they are" and children need to make sure
they know who they are talking to.
In the worst cases, sexual predators may use a casual exchange
as a starting-point for a more intense relationship and "grooming".
The Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS)
described the Internet's capacity for facilitating sexual abuse
of children "by persuading and manipulating them into secretive
relationships or meetings with abusers or potential abusers".
It added that "such sexual abuse may be contact abuse (through
a meeting in the real world) or non-contact (through webcams and
39. CHIS observed that chatrooms, social networking
sites and other online fora were places where it was known that
children might be identified and targeted.
Users of social networking sites provide personal details to build
up "profiles" which can, if not carefully managed, be
viewed by any other subscriber. Childnet International told us
that children and young people were not discriminate about the
information which they posted on social networking sites and that
many young people uploaded music, images or videos without thought
about long-term consequences.
Ofcom presented research suggesting that many users of social
networking sites did not conceal their personal details and often
included in their profiles their names, where they lived, the
schools they attended or their places of work. Some also published
their Instant Messenger account details. Some were unaware that
the default privacy settings for their profile were "open",
allowing people they did not know to see their page and their
personal details. Many seemed unwilling to consider that there
could be a risk attached to social networking.
40. Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave
cited a study by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection
Centre (CEOP) suggesting that 25% of children and young people
have gone on to meet someone in person that they first "met"
online, although no data was available to quantify the harm, if
any, caused. Research
conducted by Professor Livingstone and published in 2005 suggested
that 46% of 9 to 19 year olds have divulged personal information
to someone that they have met online.
41. Children may be bullied by other children
through use of new communications technologies, a practice commonly
termed "cyber-bullying". Typically, photographs or videos
may be taken of a bullying incident; those images are then circulated
using mobile phones or video-sharing websites, "scaling up"
the event and the potential distress caused. Different studies
(based on different age groups) have yielded different figures
for the proportion of children and young people who had been bullied
by text, Internet or e-mail, but there is consistent evidence
that between 10% and 20% of children have been cyber-bullied,
with girls more likely than boys to have suffered.
CHIS remarked upon the existence of "a great deal" of
research evidence to show that bullying can have a devastating
impact on children's social and emotional development".
42. The ease of distribution of images using
mobile phones and the Internet can also encourage exhibitionist
conduct. A recent and unwelcome practice is that of "happy
slapping"essentially a filmed assault (often using
a mobile phone camera) which is then shared either among friends
or with a wider audience, by being uploaded onto a site which
hosts user-generated content. A BBC Panorama programme broadcast
in June 2007 reported videos of children as young as 11 or 12
kicking and punching other children in the head. In one case,
onlookers shouted "kill her"; in another, a 15-year-old
girl was knocked unconscious and suffered a detached retina. Other
types of conduct which might be filmed and uploaded to such sites
include dangerous driving, displays of what appear to be firearms,
and dangerous stunts or "dares" (for instance on railway
tracks). Such content may not be illegal and may not, in some
43. Some conductsuch as posting images
of other people or comments about them on social networking servicesmay
not be calculated to distress or shock but may nonetheless be
44. Witnesses suggested that video games could
cause harm not just because of their content but also because
they could be addictive. The Children' Charities' Coalition for
Internet Safety (CHIS) reported that there was "a great deal
of anxiety about excessive use of games" and possible consequences
in deflecting children from schoolwork and the development of
social skills. David
Cooke, Director of the British Board of Film Classification, cited
evidence that people were playing games for more than 24 hours
on end; he maintained that "with online gaming you are also
incentivised to go on playing because you may lose your position
] if you do not go on playing very regularly."
Mr Carr, Executive Secretary of the Children's Charities Coalition
for Internet Safety, said that in some countries there had been
cases of children "dying at the console of exhaustion".
It is also alleged that video games may lead to low levels of
physical activity and, potentially, to obesity.
How real is the risk from exposure to harmful
45. A great deal of effort has been expended
in debating and trying to establish whether certain types of content
cause direct harm and whether exposure to violent content could
cause violent behaviour. The issue has surfaced in this House
from time to time, frequently in relation to the murder of Stefan
Pakeerah in Leicester in February 2004: it is alleged that the
behaviour of his attacker was triggered by playing Manhunt,
a video game in which players are able to simulate violent killings.
46. The debate about the effects of violent or
sexual content is not a new one and has raged whenever the boundaries
of what was deemed permissible content in visual entertainment
have been stretched or following particularly harrowing events.
Given the uncertainty about whether any causal link between viewed
violence and subsequent behaviour exists, we asked Ofcom about
the rationale for controls (such as the nine o'clock watershed)
applied to content on television. Ofcom was satisfied that, on
the balance of probability, there is a potential harm to children
from exposure to certain content, and it noted that "very
few people have actually challenged that".
47. The definition of what is "harmful"
is not hard and fast: for one ten-year old a scene will seem very
real and disturbing, whereas another will be able apparently to
dismiss it or treat it as fantasy (although this does not necessarily
mean that some form of harm does not occur).
Both children and young people may find it hard to interpret or
filter information. Equally, as Dr Byron pointed out, one parent
might take the view that children should not see certain content,
whereas another might judge that it was instructive and "empowering"
for a child to be aware that such content existed.
That is a judgment for each parent to make.
48. Dr Byron identified the causal question as
a key issue for her Review, as did Ofcom, which commissioned Professor
Sonia Livingstone and Andrea Millwood Hargrave to update a review
of research evidence published in 2006 on content-related harm
across a variety of media.
The outcome remains uncertain, with the debate polarised between
those who believe that there is evidence of a causal link and
those who challenge the methodology underlying that evidence.
One submission, from Professor Julian Petley,
described this debate as "an unbridgeable chasm between two
entirely different kinds of research".
Dr Byron concluded that
"there is some evidence of short term aggression from playing
violent video games but no studies of whether this leads to long
term effects" and also that "there is a correlation
between playing violent games and aggressive behaviour, but this
is not evidence that one causes the other". She points out
that "arousal brought on by some games can generate stress-like
symptoms in children" and that "games are more likely
to affect perceptions and expectations of the real world amongst
younger children, because of their less developed ability to distinguish
between fact and fiction".
Ofcom said that, for adults, "it seems that playing violent
video games is associated with emotional tension and arousal during
play, and it may increase feelings of hostility to others or aggressive
thoughts and behaviours following play", although it noted
uncertainty about whether such effects would occur in real life
(rather than just in experimental conditions) and whether such
effects would last beyond the period immediately after game play.
49. Representatives of the games industry challenged
the assertions that violent games led to violent behaviour. The
Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA)
told us that "no credible evidence exists clearly linking
gameplay with psychological or sociological risk" and that
"no credible evidence exists linking combative gameplay behaviour
with violent or anti-social behaviour in real life".
Dr Richard Wilson, chief executive officer of Tiga, said that
"when we look at violent behaviour in society I am sure the
evidence will show there is a much stronger link, for example,
between alcohol abuse and violent behaviour".
50. The research base for assessing the possible
harmful effects of sites which provide information about (and
possibly encourage) suicide, or eating disorders, or those which
project "hate speech", is less well documented. Ofcom
noted that little or nothing was known about how young people
(especially those from targeted groups, such as ethnic minorities)
respond to hateful content.
51. The conclusion overall is that there is still
no clear evidence of a causal link between activity or behaviour
portrayed on-screen and subsequent behaviour by the person who
viewed it. Professor
Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave told us that the research
evidence was "too patchy", particularly in relation
to new media platforms. Other witnesses bore out this conclusion:
the Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS)
told us that "we do not know how or whether the sheer volume
of pornographic material in circulation on the Internet, or the
ease of access to it, affects children in terms of a distortion
of their 'normal sexual development'". CHIS said that there
had been no major research studies into the subject and that it
was difficult to track the impact of exposure.
52. Dr Byron's conclusion on the addictive nature
of video games was ambivalent. She said in her Review that "we
need to consider whether excessive gaming by children is due to
the addictive nature of video games for them or if it is more
a matter of parents not feeling able to manage their children's
behaviour effectively. [
] Research has yet to determine
whether some types of game are more addictive than others or whether
there are inherent features, either individual characteristics
(e.g. children with obsessive compulsive tendencies) or circumstantial
features (e.g. children in situations of boredom) that predict
Dr Byron noted the ethical difficulty of undertaking research
through exposing children to potentially harmful material, as
did Mr Carr.
53. Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave
argued that "to look for simple and direct causal effects
of the media is not appropriate". They concluded, from their
review of research literature on behalf of Ofcom, that there was
"a lack of evidence for actual harm but evidence for the
risk of harm".
However, the absence of any evidence of harm to children from
the Internet does not necessarily prove that children are not
being harmed; and
the lack of evidence of harm directly caused by exposure to content
does not mean that there should not be controls. Dr Byron recommended
that the protection of children from online dangers should be
based on probability of risk.
Her conclusion echoes that of Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood
Hargrave, who proposed "a risk-based approach, which argues
for the likelihood of risk rather than inevitable harm".
that any approach to the protection of children from online dangers
should be based on the probability of risk. We believe that incontrovertible
evidence of harm is not necessarily required in order to justify
a restriction of access to certain types of content in any medium.
54. However, risks are part of growing up. Childnet
International noted that it was important for children and young
people to learn to understand, assess and manage risks, both online
and offline, as part of the process of growing up.
Dr Byron, both in her evidence to us and in her Review, warned
of a risk-averse culture and a "zero-risk" approach
to parenting which, by restricting children's opportunities to
take risks, socialise and develop, was causing children to take
risks in an online environment which was poorly understood by
adults. We agree.
It is sensible that parents set boundaries for their children's
online activities, but a totally risk-averse culture in parenting
will not equip children to face dangers which they will inevitably
encounter as they grow older.
39 Q 194 Back
See Byron Review Back
Q 340 Back
See Ev 18 Back
The provisions of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 were applied
to television and sound broadcasting by section 162 of the Broadcasting
Act 1990, which specified that inclusion of any matter in a programme
was "publication" within the meaning of the 1959 Act.
Prosecutions for obscenity in audio-visual material are a matter
for the police rather than for Ofcom: Annex 3 to Ofcom memorandum
[not printed] Back
Ev 4 Back
Ev 4 Back
Ev 16 Back
Ev 4 Back
If the effect of the material is, if taken as a whole, "such
as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having
regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the
matter contained or embodied in it". See also Ev 43 Back
Ev 346 Back
Ev 10 Back
See paragraph 71 Back
Ev 45-46 Back
Ev 254 Back
Such activity led to a police investigation in Germany in May
2007: see Guardian 8 May 2007 Back
Q 387 Back
Ev 3 Back
Ev 3 Back
Ev 11 Back
Ev 229 Back
Ev 17 Back
Ev 117 Back
Ev 17. See also Mr Carrick-Davies, Q2 and Microsoft Ev 39. An
early study by Goldsmith's College suggested a figure of 22%. Back
Research by Goldsmiths' College and the National Children's Home:
see Third Report from the House of Commons Education and Skills
Committee, Bullying, Session 2006-07, HC 85, Ev 92 Back
Ev 4 Back
See Ofcom Ev 256 Back
Ev 2 Back
Q 570 Back
Q 3 Back
Q 504 Back
See Professor Livingstone Q 29 and 31 Back
Q 342 Back
Ev 189 Back
Professor of Film and Television at the School of Arts at Brunel
Ev 361 Back
Byron Review, p 11 Back
Ev 245 Back
Ev 163 Back
Q 455 Back
Ev 16; Ofcom Ev 244 Back
For instance DCMS/BERR memorandum Ev 346 Back
Ev 4 Back
Byron Review, p 153 Back
Q 3; Q 342 Back
Ofcom, Ev 248 Back
Q 20 Back
Q 341 Back
Ev 18 Back
Ev 9 Back
Q 339 Back