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Earlier, I mentioned age verification. Current systems are inadequate and are easily circumnavigated. Yet the problems cannot be insurmountable. Urgent work

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must now be undertaken by internet and technology companies to find and agree a simple, efficient and cost-effective means of achieving age verification on the internet, to prevent underage persons accessing inappropriate sites and older people passing themselves off as under-18.

The absence of such an agreed solution does not, however, absolve the sites from their responsibilities. Where there are minimum age requirements, some effort should be made to enforce them, and steps should be taken to identify and remove underage users who have misrepresented their age to gain access. In addition, there should be protection for younger users from uninvited communications. Social networking sites should implement default privacy settings that prevent adults contacting those under 16 who they do not already know in the physical world.

Many of those who run social networking sites are alive to the problems and are working hard to conform to best practice. They work hard to co-operate with the police and are proactive in trying to protect children and young people. There have been well publicised initiatives such as the removal by MySpace of the profiles of 90,000 known sex offenders. The significance of this is that those 90,000 were readily identified once MySpace tried, which happened only after paedophile teacher Mark Little was jailed a month ago at Chester Crown Court for five and a half years for abusing a 14 year-old girl he had groomed partly through that site. The reality will be that most paedophiles are unlikely to be very open or truthful about their identity.

While some sites are being proactive, many are not. The “mere conduit” defence highlighted in the Personal Internet Security report I mentioned earlier is a case in point. Some providers, such as YouTube, argue that they are not liable for any offensive or illegal material because they do not look for it. They are in effect hiding behind the 2002 e-commerce regulations, which provide a defence for network operators against legal liability for the consequences of traffic delivered through their networks. This was not, I am sure, the intention of those drafting the regulations but, whether it was or not, it now needs to be looked at.

The reality is that these issues cannot be ignored any longer. With 3 million young people in this country actively engaged in social networking on the internet and with the rapid developments in technology, children and young people need to be equipped to deal with the modern world and encouraged to operate safely within it. I began by talking about the need for all children to be given schooling in e-citizenship, but I have also talked about the responsibility of those who provide services on the internet as well. Both approaches must move forward hand in hand. There is no simple, single solution. Nor must we forget that those who are vulnerable will probably be vulnerable in any environment, whether electronic or not.

Nevertheless, we all have a responsibility. The Government have a responsibility in terms of the regulatory framework and requirements of the educational curriculum; industry and service providers must take

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more responsibility for safety warnings and the way in which they organise, secure and monitor their services; and, of course, parents too have a responsibility.

The internet and the modern means of communication and interaction that it has created provide an exciting world in which children can grow and learn. The digital world is creating new opportunities for children and young people. It captures their enthusiasm because it provides new means for extending their social world, and because it facilitates self-directed learning and allows independence. That enthusiasm must not be stifled, nor must it be strangled by overweighty regulatory restrictions, but at the same time, sensible safety precautions must be in place. I hope that this debate will help to take forward the discussion on what needs to be done and how to strike that balance.

3.10 pm

Baroness Greenfield: My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on drawing attention to this timely problem. The social networking site Facebook turned five years old last week. Arguably, it marks a milestone in a progressive and highly significant change in our culture as tens to hundreds of millions of individuals worldwide, including the very young, are signing up for friendship through a screen. Other noble Lords may follow the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and speak on specific regulatory measures that may be taken to ensure that children come to no physical harm. We hope that personal safety and privacy is soon to be improved in the light of the recommendations made in the report on personal internet security from the Science and Technology Committe and in the Byron Review Action Plan. However, as a neuroscientist, I think that there are still two more basic and, if you like, brain-based questions that ultimately need to be addressed. First, why are social networking sites growing? Secondly, what features of the young mind, if any, are being threatened by them? Only when we have insights into these two issues can we devise more general safeguards, rooted not so much in regulation as in education, culture and society.

I turn to the first question, surely the most telling of all. What precisely is the appeal of social networking sites? First, there is the simple issue of the constraints of modern life, where unsupervised playing outside or going for walks is now perceived as too dangerous. A child confined to the home every evening may find at the keyboard the kind of freedom of interaction and communication that earlier generations took for granted in the three-dimensional world of the street. But even given a choice, screen life can still be more appealing. As Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, suggests:

“Building a Facebook profile is one way that individuals can identify themselves, making them feel important and accepted”.

Continuing that train of thought, I recently had a fascinating conversation with a young devotee who proudly claimed to have 900 friends. Clearly, there would be no problem here to satisfying that basic human need to belong, to be part of a group, as well as the ability to experience instant feedback and recognition-at least from someone, somewhere, 24 hours a day.

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At the same time this constant reassurance—that you are listened to, recognised, and important—is coupled with a distancing from the stress of face-to-face, real-life conversation. Real-life conversations are, after all, far more perilous than those in the cyber world. They occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses, and they require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones, those sneaky molecules that we release and which others smell subconsciously. Moreover, according to the context and, indeed, the person with whom we are conversing, our own delivery will need to adapt. None of these skills are required when chatting on a social networking site.

Although it might seem an extreme analogy, I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction. In the words of one user:

“The fact that you can't see or hear other people makes it easier to reveal yourself in a way that you might not be comfortable with. You become less conscious of the individuals involved (including yourself), less inhibited, less embarrassed and less concerned about how you will be evaluated”.

It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world. This so-called “plasticity” has been most famously illustrated by London taxi drivers, who as we know need to remember all the streets of the city, and whose brain scans correspondingly revealed in one study that the part of the brain related to memory is bigger in them than it is in the rest of us.

One of the most exciting concepts in neuroscience is that all experience, every single moment, leaves its mark almost literally on your brain. So you have a unique configuration of brain cell circuits, even if you are a clone—an identical twin. It is this evolving personalisation of the brain that we could view as the mind, and it is this “mind” that could therefore be radically changed by prolonged exposure to a new and unprecedented type of ongoing environment, that of the screen.

So, we come to the second basic question: what might now be in jeopardy? First, I would suggest that it is attention span. If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention deficit disorder. It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for ADHD.

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Related to this change might be a second area of potential difference in the young 21st century mind—a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating. Interestingly, and as an aside, one study has shown that obese people are more reckless in gambling tasks. In turn, the sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the “pleasure” of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people; rather, we should be paying attention to whether such activities may indeed result in a more impulsive and solipsistic attitude.

This brings us to a third possible change—in empathy. One teacher of 30 years’ standing wrote to me that she had witnessed a change over the time she had been teaching in the ability of her pupils to understand others. She pointed out that previously, reading novels had been a good way of learning about how others feel and think, as distinct from oneself. Unlike the game to rescue the princess, where the goal is to feel rewarded, the aim of reading a book is, after all, to find out more about the princess herself.

Perhaps we should therefore not be surprised that those within the spectrum of autism are particularly comfortable in the cyber world. The internet has even been linked to sign language, considered as beneficial for autistic people as sign language proved for the deaf. Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can—if there is a true increase—be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering.

Finally, I draw your Lordships’ attention to a fourth issuer: identity. It seems strange that in a society recoiling from the introduction of ID cards, we are at the same time enthusiastically embracing the possible erosion of our identity through social networking sites. One 16 year-old intern who worked in my lab last summer summed it up as follows:

“I can see that Facebook makes you think about yourself differently when all your private thoughts and feelings can be posted on the internet for all to see. Are we perhaps losing a sense of where we ourselves finish and the outside world begins?”.

With fast-paced, instant screen reactions, perhaps the next generation will define themselves by the responses of others; hence the baffling current preoccupation with posting an almost moment-by-moment, flood-of-consciousness account—I believe it is called Twitter—of your thoughts and activities, however banal.

In summary, I suggest that social networking sites might tap into the basic brain systems for delivering pleasurable experience. However, these experiences are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance.

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As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.

When talking about safeguards, surely we need also to think about safeguarding the mindset of the next generation so that they may realise their potential as fully-fledged adult human beings. Of course we cannot turn back the clock, nor would that be any solution to maximising the individual’s potential in this new century. However, surely the Government could consider investing in some kind of initiative, the goal of which would be the identification of realistic alternatives—be it in the classroom, on the screen, in conjunction with the media, or in society as a whole—for developing a sense of privacy and identity and, above all, a real appreciation of friendship.

3.20 pm

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey on securing this debate and on introducing it so clearly and so graphically. I am pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, with all her expertise—I was struck by the phrase “sneaky chemical molecules”—and she has given us a great deal to think about, much of which I find quite scary and depressing. But there we are.

The debate is very timely for me as I have just introduced into your Lordships' House a Private Member's Bill, the Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification) Bill referred to by my noble friend Lord Harris. This is not the same as social networking, but the two issues have some common aspects which I shall discuss in a minute. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, also mentioned the previous debate today on the Good Childhood inquiry, in which I took part. It is interesting that, in a wide-ranging discussion, the influences of the media and the internet were included as part of how children nowadays spend their time.

The Bill was first introduced by Margaret Moran MP in another place. A meeting on the Bill was held in December last year to discuss age verification and issues were raised which are relevant to today's deliberations. First, the internet is a wonderful thing. It is a great tool for education and communication but it has its dangers, particularly for children. We have as a society a responsibility to protect children; the welfare of the child is paramount, as the United Nations convention states. Parents have a difficult, if not impossible, job to police it and to know what their children are doing on the internet. Surely if something is illegal in the real world, then we need to find a way to provide similar protection in the virtual world, and yet, as others have said, legislation is limited.

There is also the issue of international sites. In the case of online child pornography, a self-regulation approach has worked well, even without legislation. So how should we provide safeguards and can government departments combine their efforts to do so? In April last year, Ofcom carried out a study, mentioned by my noble friend, which showed that 49 per cent of all

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children and young people between the ages of eight and 17 use a social networking site. It is highly likely that this number has increased dramatically by now. Social networking has become, very rapidly, the dominant internet site used by young people. It is easy, it is exciting and it is what everyone does.

Social networking sites have not represented a major technological shift in the internet but have brought together, in a single website, many components which had previously been used separately. It is possible to integrate e-m ail with instant messaging and put them alongside favourite photographs, videos or your favourite music. It is quite brilliant and gives the user a personal profile which can be shared.

The internet has become one of the major ways in which young people communicate. Members of your Lordships' House may be involved in this kind of technology. Indeed, I note from my computer today that we have our own social networking site, which seems to be called Twitter. We can call up Tweets, which link us to the latest reports and inquiries, and remind us about parliamentary business. Will we end up with attention deficit disorder or become reckless gamblers?

I used to be sceptical of any communication via technology. I now use e-mail where I once would have communicated much more by letter or phone. I use the internet for information, and I love it. I am very attached to my Blackberry. I do not use Facebook, MySpace, Bebo or whatever else things are called, but young people communicate a lot via social networking sites. Young people have an internet community. But the information is personal and therefore carries risks. When you put something on the internet, you may be putting it there for ever and you have no control over it. You do not know where the information might end up now or in the future.

A substantial number of employment agencies have acknowledged that they now routinely trawl the internet for information about prospective employees. Imagine some of the scenes that may be on a website photograph. Imagine your most embarrassing moment being recorded for a future employer to find. Imagine naked or drunken scenes which you would rather forget and disown. This is all shocking stuff. Prospective employers or student admissions staff have in theory no right to invade private material of this kind, but they can if they want to. There should surely be a health warning on websites.

Similarly, we know that children have put personal information about themselves on a website which has been picked up by sexual predators or bullies with dire consequences. Bullying on the internet is now, to my surprise, one of the most common forms of bullying. In some cases, children have put on the internet highly sexualised images of themselves. Those are, in fact, child pornography and therefore technically illegal. In the USA, children have been prosecuted for this, whereas in the UK the police have so far issued only cautions.

As I have said before, nearly all the sites allow material to be marked as private. However, not everyone understands the consequences of making or not making something private. This message needs to be reinforced strongly. By and large, the larger social networking

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sites accept that they have a responsibility to do this, and to work with parents and schools to help make the internet a safer place. However, I am not sure that some of the smaller sites do it, which is worrying. In programmes of personal, social and health education and citizenship, schools might include a section on internet safety and involve parents in being aware of the hazards.

Early last year, the Home Office published its guidance on social networking sites. Later, Tanya Byron looked at the issue independently and reported in September. The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport also investigated how social networking sites were working. We know what needs to be done, but there seems to be no obvious sign that things are happening fast enough. The new UK Council for Child Internet Safety, created as a result of the Byron report, is only now getting under way. Its actions will create great interest and scrutiny, and I am sure that your Lordships will follow it closely.

There is great public anxiety about the complexities of the internet, much of it justified. The basis of policy on the internet in the UK has been self-regulation, which may or may not produce results. If it does not, the Government will surely have to step in with more direct measures. We need action on this. I again ask the Minister how he sees government departments collaborating—for example, the Department of Health, the DCSF and the Home Office—to ensure that our children are better prepared to use social networking sites with caution, and how they can be better protected against their more dangerous aspects.

3.30 pm

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for initiating this important and timely debate. I would also like to say how much I have enjoyed, and learnt from, the three speeches so far.

I put my name down to speak in the debate because I was part of the Science and Technology Committee that looked at personal internet security, although it coincided with an extended visit to Australia and New Zealand so I felt that I was a bit of a passenger. Nevertheless, I found it a fascinating and important investigation. I thought that, since I was on that committee and knew a little about it, I would probably be able to cope with the debate.

Looking at the issues concerned, I realised that although the report was published on Friday 10 August 2007, a great deal had happened in the 18 months since then. Indeed, it is two years almost exactly to the date since the committee heard evidence from the police service the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and from the Children's Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, which gave extensive input to our deliberations. In particular, during that period we have witnessed the rise and rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and YouTube, and the increasing accessibility of these sites via the 3G generation of mobile phones and iPods.

The importance of these developments was brought home by two reports which have already been mentioned: the Ofcom research report, published last April, Social

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Networking,containing a massive amount of very interesting information, to which we have been referred, and the report prepared for the Prime Minister by Tanya Byron on children and new technology, published in early April last year.

The degree to which young people use social networking sites has been stressed. Ofcom found that almost 50 per cent of our 8 to 17-year olds use these sites, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. It is probably much more than that because these figures were gathered through a survey that is now more than a year old. There has been an explosion in the use of such sites by young people. There are 6 million young people in the 8 to 17 cohort, so probably somewhere in the region of 4 to 5 million young people are using social networking sites.

Interestingly, although there is an age bar on some sites—for example, in MySpace it is 13—according to the Ofcom report, 27 per cent of 8 to 11 year-olds said that they were active users of social networking sites. Therefore, a lot of very young children are using them, although many use child-accessible sites. Bebo, in particular, is their favourite site, but they regularly post material on YouTube.

Why are children so attracted by the sites? Essentially, it is to keep up with their friends, is it not? Parents used to complain about the amount of time my generation spent on the telephone. Now, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, indicated, that time is spent by these young people—13 hours a week on average—on computers and the internet.

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