The second Chamber of the UK Parliament was not the obvious place for a young woman from Pennsylvania to end up, but she brings a distinctive perspective through her rare experience. The noble Baroness’s CV is like a roll-call of the great and good of the tech sector, from early video in Silicon Valley to Google, Bebo, AOL and Facebook; but for more than that, her commercial smarts, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, has earned her place among the leading voices in our sector. Alongside the work on the issue that she has described today, she has tirelessly championed more recognition and support of entrepreneurs, particularly women, and was instrumental in the Government’s renewed focus on technology, founding Tech City and moving on to advise the Prime Minister on digital policy. Perhaps we should not find it surprising that a few weeks after entering your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, has launched a free
digital academy providing skills to help people move on in their careers. Watch out, noble Lords—she may be hoping to use you as test cases. I look forward to working with her very much.
I also add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Kidron, both personally and professionally. She has been a great ally and supporter since my arrival in the House and I have watched with admiration as she has built her iRights campaign. Like this debate, it is timely and important.
In some ways I feel ill equipped to speak. I have no children of my own and have spent my entire working life in the company of grown-ups. During the founding of lastminute.com, the closest I came to dealing with the difficulties of children and the web was one customer who claimed that he had not meant to book a fairly ritzy holiday but that his dog and his two year-old had completed the transaction. I suggested that his child should be sent straight to college as the child was clearly a genius. That happened in 2000. How things have changed. Now it seems more than possible that a two year-old child could complete a transaction on a website. I read just yesterday that a five year-old boy, Ayan Qureshi, has become the world’s youngest qualified Microsoft Certified Professional.
However, no one who works in or around the digital world can ignore the questions and challenges that the internet now raises in relation to young people. It was interesting to read the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child and consider how fast technology is evolving, how hard it is to unpick themes and how difficult it is to future-proof legislation. No one would have predicted social networks when I started my career in technology, and even at the start of this Parliament WhatsApp and Snapchat were fanciful notions, yet they now present some of the knottiest problems.
I will make three points. The first is about digital exclusion. As noble Lords may know, I have been working for the past five years on the lack of basic digital skills in the UK. I declare an interest as founder and chair of Go ON UK, an alliance of eight public and private sector organisations coming together to help people reach their digital potential. There are still 10 million adults in the UK who are unable to communicate, transact, stay safe or search using the web, meaning that information, jobs and significant savings—let alone entertainment and all the things we take for granted—are unavailable to them. This is a huge issue for the country, especially as this group is from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and the older population—two groups that could arguably benefit most from online skills. More than 4 million of that 10 million are parents and I cannot imagine how intimidating and difficult it must be to navigate your child’s online life if you have no understanding of your own.
yet 10% of schoolchildren are excluded from doing so. It is vital that we do not let up on championing and creating access and skills for all to ensure that there is not a disadvantaged group of children or a disadvantaged group of parents. Will the Minister please elaborate on how the Government plan to ensure that half a million children—a worryingly large number—are not permanently left behind?
Secondly, I would like to reflect on the changes to the curriculum that this Government have introduced so boldly. It is a fantastic ambition to have mandated that every child of primary school age should learn to code. In an age when the internet underpins all aspects of our daily lives—like water—giving children the confidence to look under the bonnet and start to create and build is essential. With innovations such as Raspberry Pi, the Scratch sites and Codeacademy, there really are few barriers that prevent curious children from becoming the next tech stars of tomorrow. As we have heard already, we need them, with 700,000 tech sectors jobs empty right now and 1 million more predicted by 2020.
Education is being blown apart by technology. Children are as likely to use YouTube as a textbook. They whizz to the web as a default when faced with homework. One of my favourite examples was a wily group of children in Michigan who realised that they could outsource their homework to Singapore overnight. Teachers were baffled as results suddenly and dramatically improved. There is a whole new set of challenges for teachers, who are so central to this debate.
The shift is both exciting and vexing for the rest of us. As my noble friend Lady Kidron articulated so well, concepts of authenticity, context and credibility are more important than ever. The connectedness of the world allows for deep and broad learning but it is not a simple transition. I agree completely that it is key for all educational institutions and the national curriculum to establish a place in children’s lives from an early age for the discussion of what it means to be a good user of digital media, as well as having exposure to coding.
This discussion should not be too preachy, fearful or didactic—better to acknowledge the uncertainties and anxieties that accompany many online experiences and encourage children to share those feelings. Above all, they should learn how to access good-quality information and advice, and we should avoid scaremongering by overuse of words such as “addiction” and “dysfunction”. Ensuring that there is the time to express, share and explore nuances is an important part of any education system that aims to promote digital literacy.
Finally, as we, the older generation, grapple with the rapidly changing nature of our world, it is easy to forget that there is much online to amaze, inspire, help and sometimes even save children’s lives. I met one very young carer recently who told me that without the support of the young carers community on the web, she was not sure that she could cope. I agree with the Harvard professor danah boyd, who argues that we fail young people,
“when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens”.
Her recent book is called It’s Complicated. It sure is, and that is why this debate is vital in this Chamber and in the wider world. But it must be rooted in facts not fiction and, crucially, at the heart of the debate we must not forget to listen to young people themselves.
I end with a quote from a brilliant young woman I met recently, Amy [email protected], if noble Lords would like to look her up—who at just 15 is the EU’s young digital leader. In a conversation we had on stage at the recent Open Data Institute summit, she summed it up: “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is, all children deserve the opportunity to make the future”. I agree. I would add only one word—safely.
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I begin by echoing the congratulations offered to the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on an excellent maiden speech. I join her in applauding the wonderful work in this area of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, to whom I am also grateful for providing the House with an opportunity to take stock of the changes wrought over the past couple of decades by the growth of the internet and evolution of digital technologies—on this auspicious day, 25 years since the establishment of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which coincides, as she pointed out, with the beginning of the development of the internet. What a different world we live in now that the convention has come of age. It behoves us to consider the new cultural landscape in which we find ourselves, in which 81% of 12 to 15 year-olds use the internet every day.
As has been observed, the internet has the capacity for great good and great harm. Too often in our society it is characterised as either an unprecedented good or an unmitigated evil. The fact is, of course, that the internet is morally neutral. It is like water, which we need to live and in which we can drown. We just need to take care about the way in which we use it, particularly the way in which we encourage young people to use it. It behoves us to do our utmost to ensure that it is used for good and not harm by the young in our society.
With this in mind, it is good that digital and online learning has become an integral part of most children’s education in this country. For teachers, aggregated resources online enable differentiated learning in unprecedented ways. While the inclusion of online learning tools as part of homework is a good thing, the unintended converse is that those without internet access are disadvantaged, as we have been reminded. I applaud the invaluable work of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in addressing this.
“personality, talents and … abilities to their fullest”.
around them and further afield. The Church of England schools’ commitment to this aim is seen in the breadth of our holistic educational vision. We seek to conceive of education as developing children’s creativity and awareness of the world around them—of course, we are not alone in that. To fit students for a life of active civic engagement, and not just to learn facts, is what education should be about. To this end, church schools and the National Society are developing ways of teaching through digital pedagogy, something which needs a great deal of attention all around.
So much for the good; we are all aware of the dangers of the internet and some of the more horrific dangers have been alluded to during this debate. An Ofcom document, Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, found that 83% of eight to 11 year-olds and 91% of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they are confident about how to stay safe online, while 67% of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they are confident that they can judge whether websites are truthful. As a parent of a 15 year-old and a 10 year-old, I do not think that I am alone in feeling that young people can sometimes be on the overconfident side about their ability to care for themselves. Much more education is needed in this area. It seems telling that the Ofcom report found that, on average, 12 to 15 year-olds have never met in person three in 10 of the friends listed on their main social networking site profile. Children with a social networking site profile that may be visible to people not known to them are more likely to have undertaken some kind of potentially risky behaviour online, such as adding people to their contacts whom they do not know in person or sending photos or personal details to people whom they only know online.
Three of the key risks identified by Her Majesty’s Government and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons in relation to children’s online activity are, unsurprisingly, sexual exploitation, cyberbullying and social network misuse, as well as access to inappropriate content. In my experience, I have learnt the hard way with my own children about the insidious nature of bullying through social network sites—some of it very subtle, as with all sorts of bullying. There are clearly much more dangerous aspects of internet and social media use but the question of cyberbullying is a very important one, to which attention has already been drawn.
We need to do our utmost to equip parents, teachers, social workers and youth leaders to use the internet well themselves, and to model good practice in using it in their work with children. I agree that we should not do it in a preachy fashion and applaud in this regard the work of iRights and the all-party group chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. Very clear guidelines about the use of the internet and social media should be taught and rigorously applied in all schools. I applaud the work of the taskforce about which the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, informed the House. A lot more is beginning to happen but a lot more still needs to happen. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment that, from September of this year, the national curriculum’s computing programmes of study in England will encourage children from five to 16 to learn about safe and appropriate internet use.
The Government’s £25 million campaign to raise awareness of the risks associated with the internet and promote Safer Internet Day every February are also much needed steps in the right direction.
Finally, widening access to the internet for young people is also important for the realisation of Article 13 on freedom of expression, Article 15 on freedom of association and Article 17 on access to information and mass media. According to the convention, children have the right to obtain information that is important to their health and well-being. We have a responsibility therefore to encourage mass media—radio, television, newspapers and internet content sources—to provide information that children can understand. Figures show that only 34% of 16 to 24 year-olds had used the internet to obtain information on public authorities or services within the past 12 months, and that only 29% had used the internet to download or submit official forms.
In summary, it seems that just as the internet and digital media are morally neutral—there are good aspects and bad aspects—so there are at present good and bad developments and, as a matter of urgency, we need to build on the good development. The development of online and digital interactions over the 25 years of the lifetime of the UNCRC is to be welcomed. Their potential for good and harm are enormous and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, once again for enabling us to consider such potential and such harm in this debate. I support her in asking the Minister for a review.
Lord Farmer (Con): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating this debate and particularly for drawing attention to the relevance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child for children’s and young people’s online and digital interactions. Although this debate is about securing child well-being in a digital age, it touches on much wider issues, not least in terms of our economy. We have heard it reported this week that the spike in the CPI is mainly due to people splurging pre-Christmas on computer games such as FIFA 15, which the children’s fathers might let them play after they have played it.
“the most digital economy in the G20”.
My noble friend also said that we need another 750,000 people with good digital skills by 2017. Children have to be tech-savvy for their own and for the country’s economic competitiveness. But as we have heard today, safeguards are essential because children are breathtakingly vulnerable to the commercialisation and sexualisation of society. Not only are they imbibing values from strangers and learning about relationships from soap storylines and soft porn—or worse—they are also one click away from meeting someone who could poison their childhood or adolescence, sometimes irrevocably.
Mothers’ Union for their help in my preparation for this debate. Undoubtedly, Governments have some responsibility to ensure that children and young people are protected from the worst excesses of online culture, particularly if companies and others will not take up their responsibilities, which were clearly identified in Bailey’s report,
Children be Children
“parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child”,
and that appropriate assistance should be provided for parents. While parents must shoulder responsibility for their children’s online safety, the Government must ensure that the industry is adequately implementing Bailey’s challenges to them, such as to raise parental awareness of marketing and advertising techniques. Parents can also help each other. Care for the Family’s short pamphlet Pester Power provides tips to cover a range of parenting challenges, including those arising from the internet, and those all came from a survey of parents themselves. However, we must stand back and look at the broader context of the UNCRC. Its preamble recalls that, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
“the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community”,
“the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”.
It is on this recognition of the importance of growing up in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding that I want to focus. Noble Lords will be as concerned as I was that the Spectator recently pointed out that a young person is more likely to have a smartphone in their pocket than a father at home. Only 57% of 15 year-olds are still living with their own fathers, while 62% own a smartphone. By the time they sit their GCSEs, almost half of young people have gone through some form of family breakdown.
However, it is even more concerning that by the time children in the poorest households are five, almost half of them are no longer living with both their parents. They are seven times more likely to be in this position than children from the richest households. The former Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, stated that children’s biggest fear was that their parents would split up. Stability is incredibly important to children, so I welcome the Government’s family stability review, carried out as part of their social justice strategy, and urge them to publish its findings. That would give local authorities the evidence base that they need to treat family breakdown as a driver of poverty, which can undermine children’s educational achievement.
What has emerged from this research is the sheer scale of family instability in poorer communities, as I have mentioned. Perhaps less well known is the fact that exposure to digital and online influences is also
spread highly unevenly across the income scale, according to research carried out by Nairn et al in 2007. Children in poorer families were far more likely to have a TV and computer in their bedrooms, where parents have far less control. Fewer than half of affluent nine to 13 year-olds in the sample had a television in their bedrooms, and just under one-third had a computer in their rooms. However, 97% of deprived children had TVs and two-thirds had a computer in their rooms. Although smartphones will have changed many older teenagers’ access to screens in the seven years since this research was carried out, it is unlikely that these underlying differences have disappeared in this younger age group of nine to 13 year-olds.
The same study found that children who spend more time on screens are more materialistic, regardless of income, and have a toxic cocktail of poor relationships with their parents and lower self-esteem. The more materialistic children are, the poorer their opinion of their parents and of themselves. When considered alongside Rindfleisch et al’s research showing that children who have experienced their parents’ divorce and separation are more likely to be materialistic, this sounds like a recipe for a deeply unhappy childhood.
While the Government have a role to play in strengthening parents’ ability to guard their children’s well-being online, helping more parents to stay together for the duration serves this purpose indirectly but very importantly. Why do I lay such emphasis on that? Mainly, as we have heard in today’s debate, because it is incredibly hard to monitor your child’s online and digital interactions in an age-appropriate way if you are struggling to raise them on your own. There is simply far less time and energy. Two-parent families also struggle with time famine but at least they can back one another up. Resisting a pleading child who always wants that little bit more unrestricted access to the web sometimes requires Herculean reserves of strength. We have to enable both parents to play their role of primary educator and protector wherever possible, particularly when it comes to teaching children about relationships—largely, again, by example.
This is not just about government and parents. Schools should also ensure that all young people get worthwhile relationship education as standard. The biology of sex is already compulsory, but learning about conflict resolution and how to conduct respectful and non-manipulative relationships is also indispensable to a rounded education.
Finally, those writing storylines for soaps should be exploring the anatomy of commitment and why marriage makes a difference, recognising the drama in the effort that many people make day in and day out to sustain relationships because they value them so much.
In summary, we have to see the importance of the family in the fight to keep children safe. It is a fight that parents are playing out daily amid homework, hormones and developing brains. The Government and others must strengthen their hands.
introducing it in such a penetrating and thoughtful way. I would also like to compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on a fascinating maiden speech. I welcome her to the House.
I speak with an acute awareness of the limits of my own personal exposure to some of the issues raised in the debate so far. Indeed, it has been rather reassuring to know that I am not alone in the House in my lack of personal knowledge of online gaming and the appeal of Minecraft and Xbox Live. I do not use social media platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat. I do not have a Facebook presence. I say this with no pride; I realise that it is a form of generational isolation. Anyone who spends any time with children or teenagers today knows how important social media are to their lives. They are how they communicate with each other. They seem to be the filter through which they experience almost everything.
Of course these technologies can have many powerful and positive benefits, educationally and socially but, as the Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, has said, for young people to be at ease in the virtual environment does not mean they are immune from its ill effects. I have been horrified by the statistics and data that I have seen about those ill effects, many of which have been mentioned in this debate. I have talked to parents of young children and heard how anxious they are. I know of teachers who have shocking stories about what children and young teenagers can be exposed to and the damage that this does.
It is absolutely right that we take this opportunity to look to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to help us view issues around children and young people’s use of the internet in terms of rights. Article 16 of the UNCRC encompasses their right to privacy. Given that so much of young people’s lives is now spent in an online environment, teaching them to stay safe and to both value and protect their privacy and dignity is of vital importance. Similarly, Article 19 talks about the promise of adults to ensure children’s protection from abuse in all its forms.
As I indicated, I am not equipped to wade into technical waters, but I will just dip in a toe to welcome an undertaking by the four big internet service providers—BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media—that by the end of this year they will introduce solutions for home filtering that prompt parents, as account holders, with an unavoidable choice to apply a filter. I know that filters can be bypassed but they are still one important way of protecting children from harmful content. But other ISPs are still dragging their feet so I hope that the Minister can tell us what the Government are doing to encourage other ISPs to commit to ensuring that access to online child abuse images is prevented and deterred, and what steps the Government will take if ISPs do not deliver on this commitment.
The scope of this debate is vast and I am going to focus my remaining remarks today on social networking and one huge area of parental concern—one raised by several other noble Lords—which is cyberbullying. Sadly, there has always been bullying in schools but before social media much of it may have stopped at the school gate. Now it can follow a child home. It can
take the form of abusive text messages, sexting or explicit mobile phone messaging, and sending menacing or upsetting messages over social networks, known as “trolling”.
It is a serious concern. More than 1,700 cases were heard in 2012 in English and Welsh courts involving abusive messages, sent online or via text message. The NSPCC says that 4,500 children contacted ChildLine last year regarding online bullying. Of 12 to 15 year-olds, Ofcom reports that almost one in 10 say they have experienced bullying in the past year, and close to half know someone with experience of online or mobile phone bullying, gossip being spread or embarrassing photos being shared. The NSPCC says that one in five think being bullied online is part of life.
I was shocked at that, but that statistic was no surprise to one London secondary school teacher I know of, who says all her students use the website Ask.fm. Users have to register but they can do so anonymously. You can pose any question at all on this site and people will respond. It is good for chatting about homework; it might even be genuinely informative. But then someone will ask, “What do you think about so and so?” The responses can be horrible—comments on that person’s sexual experience, appearance, weight and so on. There is no accountability as the comments are all anonymous.
Teenagers are acutely self-conscious, and of course these sorts of remarks can also be made off-line—in what I like to call real life—but online spaces such as Ask.fm can make matters so much worse. Other youngsters hear about the exchanges, they take screen shots and text those to the victim or their friends. This teacher says that when it happens to girls their confidence is ripped to shreds. Building up their self-esteem, raising their aspirations, encouraging them to think beyond their social media friendships is a huge task.
We get media headlines when this sort of bullying ends, tragically, in suicide, but cyberbullying is not a specific criminal offence in the UK. The relevant laws were introduced many years before Twitter, Facebook and Ask.fm. The Communications Act 2003 was drafted with no mention of the internet. The Online Safety report issued earlier this year by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee called for greater clarity in legislation around child abuse images. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will review current legislation and make cyberbullying a criminal offence so that young people have the protection they need?
While legislation is part of the solution, it is clear that educating children about online safety is key to tackling cyberbullying, so I welcome the extension of e-safety teaching to primary school pupils aged between five and 10 from this September. It will take a combined effort to tackle this terrible problem, so having e-safety on the school curriculum, along with better advice to parents and carers on how to report harmful material, is vital. Websites such as Thinkuknow, the advice offered by Childnet, and the hotline provided by the Safer Internet Centre along with its initiatives such as Safer Internet Day, are all making a difference. So is CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, The teachers I have spoken to have nothing but praise for its work and for its website and online
information for schools and parents, but it is a drop in the ocean. I hope the Minister will give the House an assurance that bringing CEOP within the National Crime Agency will indeed enhance its resources. I am thinking of the concerns I have heard over whether, within the NCA, the centre’s education and social care work will continue alongside its criminal justice remit. I would welcome his views.
Schools cannot be left to work on this in isolation. Parents need to be educated about how best to familiarise themselves with the social media that are so central to their children’s lives. Information about how to deal with upsetting information needs to be displayed prominently by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Everyone involved with children’s and young people’s use of the internet, whether parents, schools, organisations or ISPs, shares a responsibility for online safety. But alongside teaching techniques for staying safe, we must also attempt to shape attitudes. The UN convention gives us another opportunity to make that commitment and ensure that, in our ever-changing digital world, we stay a few clicks ahead.
The Earl of Listowel (CB): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for calling this important and timely debate on the very day of the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I also pay tribute to the charity that she founded, FILMCLUB, which we were discussing recently. It helps children in this country and across other parts of the world to gain a wide experience of film, not just of Steven Spielberg but also Godard and Truffaut, and not just American films but German, French and Asian ones. I am grateful to my own father for taking me to see Russian and French movies and for the joy I have had through my life through seeing such things, which have had so much meaning for me, so I feel that is a huge achievement for my noble friend.
I begin by talking about the positive side of the technology that we are discussing today. Last night I attended the launch of a new Baby Buddy app at the Royal College of Midwives. I have downloaded it myself and I hope some of your Lordships might wish to do so, or maybe suggest to their daughters or granddaughters that they do so. I was speaking to a midwife who helped develop it, and for instance if a mother has difficulty encouraging her baby to breastfeed, there is a video they can download. The midwife explained that by using this video she could very simply—and in a much better way than in the past—show mothers how to help the child to get to the breast. The app also involves using social media, and young mothers spoke about its value in helping them to feel connected, so some of this technology has immense benefits for children and families.
Maybe it is also a good day to remember the work of the late Baroness Thatcher, because she introduced the Children Act 1989, which enshrined in British law the paramountcy of the best interests of the child. This has been foundational. When the noble Lord, Lord Laming, talks about children’s legislation that comes to the House, he says that if only we thoroughly
implemented the Children Act 1989 we would need none of this, so the late Baroness needs to be remembered in this discussion.
Finally, turning to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, I think of the institutions which have drawn strength from or been founded on that convention, particularly UNICEF. It works in the developing world to ensure that families who are starving receive nourishment, that children are properly registered and that programmes of immunisation take place. It is currently focusing, particularly in the last year, on hunger in the developing world and the trafficking of children. I also think of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and particularly the work of the first commissioner in his championing of the needs of families who are detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration centre following their failure to seek asylum successfully. We successfully campaigned on that. There is also current work on the sexual exploitation of children, investigating—which is particularly interesting for me—children who go missing from children’s homes and from care. It is therefore right that we have a chance today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I was taken by the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Framlingham, and their concerns about the disappearance of the father from family life. I was troubled recently to read OECD statistics showing that the percentage of children with fathers living away from home, after living in the home, is increasing in this country, and that in about 10 years we would overtake the United States in that regard; Germany will be about stable, France is accelerating a bit. This is an important issue to keep in mind. The research evidence is clear, particularly regarding young men from poorer backgrounds, whose outcomes are far poorer if they do not have contact with their father. There are many circumstances in which it is best that they do not have such contact. It is important to keep in mind that many lone-parent families do extremely well. However, the research shows that fathers’ absence from their sons is a real challenge to the country. That applies also to daughters, and the research shows that they do better if their father takes interest in how they are doing in their school work. I am therefore grateful to the noble Lords, and hope that perhaps we can meet at some point to discuss the use of mentoring for young people. If we cannot help fathers to stay in touch, at least we can ensure that young people have a mentor who can help them to move forward, particularly through adolescence.
I should like to concentrate my remarks on the development of children and the need for adults close to children to feel comfortable with having conversations about this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, hit the nail on the head; many of us feel really uncomfortable discussing this matter—I certainly do because I know so little about it. Adults need to be made to feel comfortable; children need to be able to talk to them about the issues arising from their use of the internet.
I begin with child development. Humanity is unique in the animal world in its total dependence upon its parents from birth. Some animals are ready to walk and most, quickly after birth, can look after themselves
and move on. We have a very long period of nurturance. As a perinatal mental health psychiatrist pointed out to me last night, it takes 25 years for the process of neurodevelopment of the brain to come to a halt. There is rapid development of the brain around the period of birth and for the first two or three years, and then again in adolescence the neurological make-up changes greatly. It is therefore important to realise that we need to allow children to have a proper and long childhood. For instance, in Scandinavia, it is normal for children to start school at seven and spend a lot more time with their families—learning, for example, to swim and ride a bicycle. They then go to school at seven and quickly pick up the reading and writing and do very well. Indeed, in Finland, their performance is among the best in the world. There is real pressure on us all to try to speed up our children. I would say: give them time.
Consider children who are in trouble in the criminal courts, which may see a 17 year-old who is huge, six feet and four inches, with big fists and a deep voice, but who emotionally may be like a 12 year-old. Many will have a history of trauma and being in care. Do not look at children just from the outside and think, “This is a grown-up person”. I spoke to a businessman who runs an internet service provider. He said of this debate, “Children know; they can sort this out”. Clearly, many children are going to be technically savvy and can easily outwit us in terms of using the internet. However, that does not mean that they are mature adults.
Recent inquiry reports on the sexual exploitation of girls in Rochdale highlighted the responses of a few policemen in that area. A 13 year-old girl was having sexual intercourse with a number of different men—inappropriate relationships—and the response of those policemen was, “Well, she knows what she is doing. She wants to be doing it”. I may not have that precisely right and it was the response of just a few policemen, but it demonstrates a failure to understand child development and recognise that we as adults have responsibility to recognise the immaturity of children, which changes over time. I therefore very much welcome what the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, is doing in terms of introducing iRights and recognising that we as adults constantly let children freely play around the internet. We need to give them guidance, boundaries and so on.
That brings me to the second aspect on which I should like to focus—the ability of adults to have conversations about this matter, particularly in schools. A while ago, I attended a seminar on child protection and the internet. I was struck by an expert who works with children in schools. He said that it was important to have the sort of protections that I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, will talk about in her report next month. I very much welcome her maiden speech and her expertise in this area. However, he felt that it was at least as important—possibly even more—for children to talk with adults in school about their use of social networks and the difficulties they face. When thinking about the new curriculum and PSHE, we need to equip those teachers in order to have those conversations. More generally, we need to train all
school staff and teachers to deal comfortably with difficult issues such as this and others, including difficult sexual matters.
I was struck by a recent article in the Sunday Times talking about the development of Teach First and the launch of a new initiative. Research showed that 60% of Teach First teachers stayed on after five years. That was good news and many are becoming head teachers. However, stories were also told of, for example, a teacher being locked in a cupboard by the children when he went to fetch paper. Another teacher, when his back was turned, was showered with the paper coverings from McDonald’s straws. The teachers have six weeks of training and are wholly unequipped to cope with situations such as this and have to work out their own ways of dealing with them. One teacher said, “I just try to praise them as much as possible and ignore the bad behaviour; and that seems to work”. We really need to think about how to equip our teachers better and I should be grateful if the Minister would ask the noble Lord, Lord Nash, in particular to think about Teach First and academies, and how he can create communities of teachers, because it is important that they do not feel isolated. In Teach First there are many opportunities for alumni to get together and talk about their experiences, particularly challenging pupils, and get advice from other teachers on how to deal with those situations. There should be a sense of connection because we are inviting these Teach First teachers to go to the roughest schools with the most challenged teachers. They are given the least teacher training and we need to think of innovative ways in which to ensure that they get the support they need.
Then there is the approach that we have seen over many years and has been found to be most effective, particularly when working with challenging or challenged children—oh! I see that I have passed my time, so I will write to the Minister.
Baroness Uddin (Non-Afl): My Lords, I thank and salute the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her dedication to developing iRights and for this debate. I congratulate also the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, and welcome her to the House. As a former child protection social worker, I look forward to her pursuit of protecting vulnerable children, in particular online, and look forward to seeing the report.
When the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was introduced a quarter of a century ago—this is a good day to remember that, and I congratulate the noble Baroness even more for securing the debate on this day—its authors could not have imagined that parliamentarians would be debating today how to uphold the human rights of children in the digital age. The UNCRC’s authors would have lacked the lexicon to imagine it. My noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson made me feel somewhat nostalgic as she reeled off the current availability of technology. When I came into this House 16 years ago, I used to hold a fantastically large mobile and I went into Black Rod’s office and said, “I have a seven month-old child waiting for me while I am here 17 hours a day and I want to try to be available on the mobile”. I remember to this day the stare down that I had to face in responding; I stood
my ground and carried on with my mobile. It took us nearly five or six years after that to ensure that we were allowed to carry on and I am often aghast to see how much technology we all use in this House. I was picking up my various messages from my mum and my son and everyone else and at the same time trying to pretend that I am listening to every word that is being said—seriously, I was listening to everything that was being said. How good we have become at managing all this new technology.
I would like also to pay tribute to the organisations that have marked this day and contributed one way or another to this debate, including the children’s commissioners and UNICEF. I was moved to read of UNICEF’s rights respecting workshop with primary school children to mark the anniversary. When 250 children chose their top rights to uphold, they selected the basics: clean air, clean water, nutritious food, health care and shelter. One cannot help but wonder whether peace, safety and security would also top the list for the children in occupied Palestine, or those under attack in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, or those who survive chemical attacks or attacks by drones or cluster munitions, or even those who are affected by Ebola in villages in Africa. It is a great sadness that these rights are not universal for all our children across the globe today. That makes the convention as relevant now as ever.
Although many important rights of children are more widely enshrined than they once were, the contemporary age has brought new threats to human rights, from the spectre of climate change, conflicts and wars to the more immediate scourge of online abuse. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke eloquently about the internet creating a global marketplace that drives child abuse. It has produced new models for old crimes. I, too, worry that new global and accessible communication tools are being used and may make the despicable act of grooming children ever more a threat.
From cybersecurity to cyberbullying and online child pornography, our laws are too often behind the times and the media in identifying and responding to abuse. The move through the Crime and Courts Bill to make revenge porn—the malicious distribution of private sexual images without consent—a criminal offence was overdue. Police forces in England and Wales have recorded children as young as 11 years old reporting that they have been unwilling subjects of revenge porn. Such victims deserve recourse to the law and civil as well as legal remedies. When I was with a group of Metropolitan Police cadets from Southwark as well as Navy cadets and Girl Guides only a couple of days ago, they told me that not enough is being done to caution young people and counter these online acts. I am glad to hear of the progress reported by the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, and that Governments and regulators are to work together to clamp down on the sites that host this pernicious material.
Notwithstanding the deepening concerns stated by the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, I wish to focus today on the positive contribution that the digital world makes to the lives of children and all who learn to navigate it. The internet and digital technology can
be transformative to the lives of people who find social interaction and communication challenging. For people with a physical immobility, an autism spectrum disorder or a hearing impairment, the internet opens the door to conversation and social interaction at the click of a button. A recent survey by the National Autistic Society showed that 41% of adults with autism feel lonely, compared to 11% of the general population. Though it is not a panacea, social media can create networks for people who are isolated.
This also made me reflect today that, as far back as 1980, when faced with a child with autism I went to the local education authority and asked, “Is there some kind of computer that will assist my son to say things and bring him along in his communication skills?” Of course, I was treated as some kind of mad hatter woman. I was told, “Yes, you can have a computer but not for children with disabilities; that is out of the question”. I was laughed at for my outrageous request. Nobody had heard of Stephen Hawking; that was yet to be, but I rest my case. My son, who is nearly 36 years old, has recently discovered the magic of the iPad. It is superb that with his finger he can open up the best plane flying across the globe or whatever it is that his heart desires—although he spends much too much time away from communicating with others.
Access to the online world also has huge potential in classrooms across England. There are now around 100,000 children with an autism spectrum disorder and 1.1 million children for whom English is not their first language. The language and communication challenges that can be associated with ASD and having English as a second language often indirectly affect other children in the classroom. For that reason, the technology being developed by companies such as the social enterprise Ai-Media can transform children’s education. Using tablets to display live written transcripts of what teachers are saying as they are saying it empowers students in lessons. Lessons become easier to follow for those with a hearing impairment, English as an additional language and certain types of autism.
As the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, has pointed out, the rise of adaptive technologies and aids to communication with, and active engagement in, the modern world has positive resonances for children with disabilities. Yet adaptive technologies remain out of the reach of too many children who would benefit from them. The UNCRC is instructive with respect to the rights that children should be afforded in this regard. Article 17 refers to the right of children to have access to information, including through mass and readily available media sources. Article 23 states that children who have any kind of disability have the right to special care and support, as well as the other rights in the convention, so that they can live full and independent lives. Article 24 encompasses the right to receive child-friendly and appropriate physical and mental health services, advice, information, support and guidance. Despite these articles, however, I hardly ever see UN advocacy or action on ensuring equity of access to digital technologies for children. As we celebrate the UNCRC and seek to uphold its values, children still are being denied access to this sort of information and advice when they lack access to devices that provide them.
Unless children have access to the internet at home as well as at school, they will be at an unfair disadvantage when learning. Already there is a digital divide whereby poorer children rely on schools or diminishing library resources to access computers or the internet, so their access is restricted, whereas richer children are better able to carry out research and develop digital skills. Will the Government consider embedding technology access in their work with so-called troubled families and those with special needs? Surely, access to the web would enhance children’s education and improve social mobility, although I heed the caution expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, that access alone will not enhance education or improve people’s livelihoods.
Notwithstanding the resonance of Article 31 guaranteeing the right to leisure, cultural activities, engagement with the arts and the right to play, we can, should and must use the internet and technology to greater advantage to educate children, particularly those with special needs.
Noble Lords will be aware that I am the sponsor of the Online Safety Bill, which had its First Reading in your Lordships’ House on 11 June and is currently awaiting a date for Second Reading. I hope that the usual channels are listening. I readily admit that on the majority of occasions on which I have spoken about this issue, I have focused on trying to address concerns about online safety, so I welcome the opportunity today at least to begin my comments by focusing on the positives of the internet. After then moving on to the dangers, I would also like to set out some principles that I believe should inform how we debate online safety before finally homing in on some specific challenges relating to the live streaming of R18 material and posing questions to the Minister.
On the positives, the truth is that in many ways the internet greatly benefits the lives of children. As I look at this subject, mindful of the reference to the UN convention, it seems to me that many aspects of the convention are relevant, but I particularly pick out Article 17, with its stress on children’s access to information, in relation to which the internet clearly has an absolutely key role to play.
Research undertaken by the E-Learning Foundation has shown that children who access the internet at home are likely to receive higher marks at school than their counterparts. This is because they are able to take advantage of educational tools available online that enhance their educational experience. Such tools include the International Children’s Digital Library, which gives children free access to literature as well as access to free and fee-based games for younger children. These tools clearly show how the internet can have a positive role in children’s intellectual development.
technical skills of children. The same research also notes that these skills are transferable and can be applied just as well offline as online. This gives children greater ability to communicate positively and interact with the world around them in a way that they may not have been able to before.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics report that 96% of households with children have an internet connection. However, that still means that some children are unable to reach the rich world of the internet. Of the households that are not connected to the internet—I recognise that not all of these have children within them—32% said that they lacked the necessary skills, 12% said that equipment costs were a barrier and 11% said that access costs were a barrier. We should remember that a small minority of children will find themselves disadvantaged without this access.
It is precisely because I passionately believe that children should go online to access all the positive educational and recreational opportunities that it affords that I am equally passionate that they should be able to do so in safety. On the question of safety—the negatives and dangers, if you like—I immediately think of a tragic case I mentioned in a speech just a couple of weeks ago of a 14 year-old boy acting out pornographic content he had seen online on a 10 year-old girl. Judge Robin Onions said the boy,
“used, abused then abandoned his victim”,
“treats women as objects and not people”.
I also think of the report by the Authority for Television on Demand, For Adults Only?, which demonstrated that children as young as six are accessing hardcore pornography and that at least 44,000 primary schoolchildren accessed an adult website in one month alone. This raises a very important question for all parents: what are your children actually watching online via their home or mobile devices? The mother of the Shropshire boy had no idea he was watching the porn that inspired him to rape a 10 year-old. The fact that the Ofcom Report on Internet Safety Measures, published in July, demonstrates that, since 2013, there has been a 10% decrease in children aged five to 15 going online while a parent is in the room with them is of real concern. Of course, it is not always possible for parents to be present, especially when mobile devices are being used, which is why default filtering is an important policy tool to have in the mix. In reflecting on the UN convention, I again find myself thinking of Article 17 because, as well as emphasising the importance of access to information, it also says that states parties shall:
In debating the whole question of online safety, when we come to discuss how best to respond to the safety challenges—and respond we must—I get very concerned that the debate is muddled and confused by a tendency for those expounding a particular solution
immediately to be attacked as naive by others who come along and expound another solution. What seems to happen is that someone talks about the importance of, for example, default adult content filters, in response to which someone else will stand up and say, “You are very naive. That isn’t the answer. The answer is education”. I believe that this is profoundly unhelpful. I do not believe that there is always “the answer” to public policy challenges. Almost always there is a mix of different policy solutions that together will generate the best possible outcome, at least for the present. My Online Safety Bill very much reflects this approach with its two central pillars of education and default adult content filters provided by internet service providers and mobile phone operators and, on top of this, additional age verification checks actually at the doors of websites specialising in R18-rated and 18-rated video on demand content from within the UK and, crucially, beyond.
I passionately believe in the importance of all these elements. Education can help children to deal with online behavioural challenges and to avoid content they would rather not encounter. Default adult content filters, meanwhile, provide additional protections to help children not stumble across unwanted adult content. They also provide a mechanism to protect children from damaging adult content that they should not see but might want to.
Mindful of the tragic Shropshire case I mentioned earlier, and thinking particularly of the duty to protect children articulated in Article 17 of the UN convention, I turn to the policy on access controls to R18-rated and 18-rated video on demand. The fact that children can easily access R18 material is absolutely shocking and a terrible indictment on our society. When people consider the story of the boy who watched hardcore porn and then went and acted out what he had seen on a 10 year-old girl, the initial instinct is to feel huge concern for the girl and anger with the boy, but I would suggest that, while he must take responsibility for his actions, there is a sense in which he is a victim as well. Why is it that the society he lives in has not seen fit to change the law to protect him? Are we not as legislators also responsible? If my Online Safety Bill had been law, that boy would not have been able to access this material because it would have been behind robust statutory age verification. Mindful of this, I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce access controls.
“ensure that material that would be rated R18”—
“is put behind access controls … and ban outright content on regulated services that is illegal even in licensed sex shops”.
“remove any doubt that material that would be rated R18”
online safety. It welcomed the Government’s intention to legislate for R18 videos as promised in 2013, arguing that there,
“needed to be greater clarity over the legality of providing unrestricted access to hardcore pornography”.
In this regard, I have three questions for the Minister. Firstly, can he please provide us with an update on this legislation? I am aware that it may have been laid before Parliament in the form of regulations which I have missed. Secondly, can he explain why the Government’s commitment relates only to R18 material and not 18-rated material? If we have decided that it is not appropriate to sell a child 18-rated material offline and we have the technology to protect children from accessing R18 material offline, why do we not also protect them from 18-rated material? Surely this double standard is completely unacceptable.
Finally, I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the vast majority of live streamed R18 material is live streamed from sites outside the UK. Can he clarify that the legislation will deal with R18 and, I hope, 18-rated video material, live streamed from sites beyond the UK? If it does not, the Shropshire lad to whom I referred earlier is likely not to have been protected by such provision, because statistically it is more likely that he was accessing R18 material live streamed from beyond the UK than from within the UK.
Baroness King of Bow (Lab): My Lords, the online world is the real world for digital natives. That is exactly what worries so many of us. However, we would be doing our children a huge disservice if we viewed their online interactions in only a negative light. In fact, for many young people, the internet is far more likely to be a place of opportunity. The internet will bring them opportunities that generations before them could only dream of.
“About a year ago, I realised that every time I looked at a teenager, they had an electronic device in their hand, a device connected to the internet. I started asking questions. First the simple ones, like why can’t you leave that thing alone? And how can you do homework while checking Facebook at the same time? Quickly, I graduated to the more difficult: do you have any privacy settings? Do you know where your data goes? Do you know the person you’re talking to? Each of my questions was answered with a shrug. I always have and always will believe, that the internet could be the instrument by which we deliver the full promise of human creativity. But perhaps it’s time we asked ourselves: have we outsourced our children to the internet? And if yes, where are they, and who owns them?”.
I urge everyone interested in this debate to watch the noble Baroness’s extraordinary film, “InRealLife”. It teaches us so many things. It also reminds us that policymakers in general and politicians in particular need to recognise that we are at best digital tourists. However, that cannot prevent us legislating on behalf of digital natives—young people who live and breathe the internet. Indeed, it is our responsibility. That is
where the problem, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, alluded at the beginning, lies, because we are trying to govern the terrain of digital natives. With a few honourable exceptions in this House—today they are the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron, Lady Shields and Lady Lane-Fox—the rest of us really do not have a clue what we are doing. Let us be honest, in comparison to the digital natives, most of us are digitally housebound agrophobes.
“Agoraphobe” is an interesting word in relation to how too many of us in politics instinctively view the internet. It comes from the Greek “agora” meaning marketplace, which is similar to what a first-century Roman might call a forum or an open space, or what a 21st century teenager might call cyberspace. According to Wikipedia, agoraphobia is,
“an anxiety disorder where the sufferer perceives certain environments”—
“as dangerous or uncomfortable, often due to the environment’s vast openness or crowdedness”.
“someone with a morbid and irrational fear of the outdoors, and in particular, of crowded public spaces.”
There we have it. That is basically us in the House of Lords when we view the internet. We view it in a morbid, irrational manner because we instinctively find it dangerous and uncomfortable. It is dangerous because none of the rules that we were brought up with apply and uncomfortable because we cannot navigate the vast terrain. We do not know how to get around, and it seems hideously overcrowded because the whole wide world is there, otherwise known as www. For the younger generation, everyone is there, yet we, the digital tourists, can barely connect a computer to a printer or upload a blog.
I am not even joking. This is a really bad thing to say and I apologise in advance. If your Lordships go to my website www.oonaking.com—that is unforgivable, I grant you, but let me explain—you will see that my penultimate blog entry is dated July 2014. The next one is from this month, November. There are four months in between. Contrary to public perceptions of politicians, that is not because I was on holiday for four months. It is not because I did not have anything to blog about for a third of a year. It is because, despite being shown on four separate occasions over a three-year period how to upload a blog to my website, I just cannot do it. I don’t get it—it does not stick in my brain, because I was not brought up on computers, or I have not spent enough time learning how to navigate them. Let me put my cards on the table: I hate computers; they never work for me. I know that if I try to upload a blog, it will take four hours out of my life, it will end in failure, I will lose the will to live and I may sob hysterically. So, like many noble Lords, I distrust computers and I cannot effectively navigate the vast terrain of the internet.
Of course, when you are in that position, you would rather think the internet is a place ram-packed with paedophiles and con-merchants, because then our agoraphobia would be a blessing not a curse. Now here is the thing again: the internet is ram-packed with
paedophiles and con-merchants, because the internet is the real world through another lens. Think of the real world and go back a few decades to, say, the 1970s. It turns out there were paedophiles everywhere you looked, from “Jim’ll Fix It” to the political establishment to “Top of the Pops”.
Police forces across Britain are today investigating 7,500 child abuse cases, including historical cases at children’s care homes. We all know that humans can be monsters, whether online or offline, and humans can be angels, online or offline—creative, inspiring, empathetic and transcendent. Between those two extremes is everything else. The internet means that children can come into contact with greater numbers of monsters or angels than ever before. The monsters we know about are predatory online paedophiles. The angels are, for example, the online mentors who can literally transform a young person’s life for the good. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned some of the mentoring that takes place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Shields, in her excellent maiden speech, spoke about the need for the creation of digital content to be safe by design. She said that we in authority must be faster, nimbler and more innovative than the minority of perpetrators who use the internet for criminal purposes. The We Protect initiative mentioned by the noble Baroness is also hugely important. She may also have suggested—I will be corrected if I am wrong about this—that we should close loopholes when people try to get around the structures we are building.
Action on what can be done falls into two distinct camps. On the one hand, we need to prevent the worst excesses and online abuse. In the context of today’s debate on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are talking about Article 16 on privacy and Articles 19, 35 and 36 on protection. The second part of what we need to do is to educate children to be critical and self-aware users of the internet—not used and abused by the internet. That is covered by Article 17 on mass media and Article 31 on the right to recreation and cultural activities, and the right to self expression.
On preventing the worst excesses, we need to move beyond the question of whether we should regulate the new wild west of the internet to how to regulate it. Obviously, there has been a huge amount of discussion on this, but we realise that there are things that we can and must do to protect our children. On extending that protection, we heard powerfully from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to whom I pay great tribute for the work that she is doing. We have recently discussed her proposals on adult content filters in the Consumer Rights Bill, and I must say to the Minister that I am genuinely perplexed by the Government’s position. It makes no sense that the Government go out of their way to get protection from the four main ISPs but then leave a loophole in which 10% of houses and the children in them will have no protection from adult content filters. What will the Minister do to get his colleagues to change their view and position before we get to Third Reading? There are the other issues, such as making online bullying an offence, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, outlined, and revenge porn on which the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, spoke powerfully.
On the second part, educating children to be critical and self-aware, we need to push digital literacy right up the political agenda. I think that the iRights agenda is a fantastic place to start, with its five key principles. First, all under-18s should have the right to delete data that they have posted. Secondly, we should have the right to know who holds our data and who profits from these data—we would all like to know that, would we not? Thirdly, under-18s should be able to explore the internet safely. Fourthly, there should be safeguards on compulsive technologies, such as gaming. Fifthly, users should be educated so that they can navigate the terrain. I would say that we need iRights for Members of the House of Lords as well.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, outlined the plight suffered by 10 million adults in the UK who are still barred from the benefits of the internet. I cannot speak highly enough of the work that she does to close the digital divide, which has never been more important.
In conclusion, we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that children’s lives have been revolutionised by technology, and that we must take this opportunity to ensure that we build a rights-based approach to children in the digital world. That is the lesson of this debate. It makes sense for a rights-based approach to stand on the architecture of the UNCRC. I thank the noble Baroness again for securing this debate and ask her forgiveness if I do not blog about it.
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con): My Lords, I am very pleased to wind up for the Government in this debate. In starting, I have to say that I find myself in agreement—it must be rare when the two Front-Bench spokespeople agree—especially with the first part of the speech of the noble Baroness about having three distinct experts in the House of Lords and the rest of us being digital tourists. I found myself in much sympathy with that.
I hope that I will do justice to what has been an excellent debate, and I shall try to pick up the points raised in so far as I have time. I should also say at the outset that I hope this marks the start of a process because the debate can take us only so far, and I hope that we can carry it further and develop some of the themes that have been set out this afternoon.
I thank very much the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for proposing this very important topic. She has spoken passionately, and of course, as the noble Baroness opposite said, she takes a great interest in children’s activity and digital issues. As a film-maker documenting the impact of the internet on children’s lives and through her involvement in iRights to make children and young people better able to use the internet, she has done much to raise awareness of their online activity.
I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on a maiden speech of rare erudition, based on extraordinarily wide experience. She spoke of the velocity of change, and certainly brought it home to me when she said that she was a digital veteran. That does demonstrate the velocity of change if that is the case. The internet is truly amazing. It has opened up massive opportunities. I felt as we listened to the debate that
the internet is very much Janus-like; it can be used for good and bad. It is up to us to ensure that in so far as it can be it is used for good rather than bad. The noble Baroness was correct in saying that many of the problems thrown up by the internet have parallels in the analogue world prior to the growth of the internet. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, also demonstrated the pace of change when she talked about an episode with a mobile phone and how things have moved incredibly quickly.
Children’s increased use of social media gives them new opportunities for social interaction and creativity, and to learn and understand more about the world, but as we have heard it also exposes them to risks, such as cyberbullying, grooming and potentially harmful content. Their safety online is therefore everybody’s responsibility. Empowering children to make the most of online opportunities and build their resilience to risks is part of preparing them for adult life. Children are not born fearful of the internet, and adults have a duty to ensure they do not become so, at least in part by teaching them how to protect themselves in an online world.
Many noble Lords, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, have spoken about how the internet has opened up new possibilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, spoke about a range of opportunities that presented, and quoted examples. If she can e-mail the pizza takeaway number I would be most grateful.
Schools have an important role to play, and many noble Lords touched on that. They can equip children and young people for adult life through different aspects of the curriculum, such as personal, social, health and economic education. The new computing curriculum, to which some noble Lords referred favourably, also emphasises computer science and programming at all key stages, and ensures that children become digitally literate and are able to use digital technologies responsibly and safely. In practice, effective use of the internet is picked up throughout the curriculum, helping children access information relevant to all their areas of study. The Government are considering ways to support the effective use of technology in schools through the work of the independent Educational Technology Action Group, which will report jointly to BIS and the Department for Education by January 2015. In the modern world, children increasingly need to develop the ability to sift volumes of data and not just use a book as a single source of information, which may have been the position in the past. They must become discerning users of information and schools should help them in that. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, spoke of the possibilities, not least by tapping into the expertise in Singapore.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, spoke about teacher training. The Department for Education is funding subject knowledge enhancement courses for new teachers of computing which, in practice, will mean all primary teachers. At present this is a voluntary programme. New teachers are also able to access a range of materials and support programmes developed by the sector, and supported and funded by the Department for Education, and £3.6 million will have been spent by the end of this financial year over a
two-year period. We should also emphasise the role of Ofsted, whose inspection and annual report in 2011 led to changes in the IT curriculum to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, referred.
As well as all these good aspects, we need to protect children from harm—a subject referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and my noble friends Lady Benjamin, Lord Farmer and Lord Framlingham. Just as there are challenges in the offline world, there are also challenges in the online world. I shall use an analogy here. In the real world, the logic of child development says that falling off a bike is an integral part of learning to ride a bike. That same logic should be applied online as well, because it can lead to children learning from their mistakes. As in the offline world, any policy of total risk avoidance is in danger of being counterproductive.
Looking beyond schools, children can also use and share their digital content in a very positive way, to help develop their digital skills and as an outlet for their creativity. Just one inspiring example of that is the game “Spacepants”, made by a 12 year-old developer, Sam Smith, and named one of the best new games on Apple’s App Store. We want children to see information technology as a tool they can conquer, which gives them access to a range of opportunities.
Amid all these wonderful developments, we must not neglect online safety. As I mentioned earlier, this involves addressing a range of other safeguarding issues. Let me try to deal with those now. As research published recently by Ofcom shows, children are accessing the internet more frequently and on a wider variety of devices than ever before. That pace is likely to continue. With this prevalence comes associated risks, and two in 10 children aged from 12 to 15—18%—say they have seen something online in the past year that was worrying, nasty or offensive.
“leading in children’s internet safety, adopting both social and technical forms of mediation with vigour”.
Ofcom’s qualitative research shows that children’s theoretical understanding of online risks, as compared with that of those in other countries, is relatively good. One of the reasons for the United Kingdom’s success is our collaborative approach. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety brings together government, industry, law enforcement, academia, charities and parenting groups—and young people, through the membership of the council—who work in partnership to help to keep children and young people safe online. This means we are able to respond quickly and effectively to ever developing challenges.
We believe that the self-regulatory approach is the best for a fast-paced sector such as the internet. Regulation could not keep pace with innovation and technological change. This is not a laissez-faire approach, but a recognition that the best way of approaching the matter is through the industry, and by self-regulation. But that does not mean that we should be complacent, and we need to make sure that parents are given
support and technical solutions to protect their children in a way best suited to their individual family composition and circumstances.
That is why, in July last year, the Prime Minister asked the four major internet service providers, covering around 90% of the UK’s broadband market—I will come to the other 10%—to provide parents with the ability to filter content easily. The ISPs—BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin—have responded positively. It would not be true to say that the other 10% are not responding. The fifth and sixth in size are responding positively as we speak, and I think that they are due to come online with protection very shortly. The remainder are smaller ISPs, many business-focused, which perhaps do not face the same challenges that the other providers do. So there is work going on in that direction—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, as well as my noble friend Lady King. The ISPs’ Internet Matters campaign informs parents about parental controls and helps them understand what risks their children might face online.
We are also determined to tackle cyberbullying—a subject raised with great vigour and passion by my noble friend Lady Benjamin. It is a particularly insidious and harmful form of bullying. It is not confined to school hours, but can affect a child 24/7—and, of course, it can be anonymous, with a child not knowing who is bullying them. We have sought to tackle this by giving teachers greater powers through the Education Act 2011 to tackle cyberbullying. Indeed, this is Anti-Bullying Week, and this Monday we made an announcement encouraging parents to talk to their children about their online activities. I should also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, who raised the possibility of specific action in this context, that I believe that in the offline world, which parallels what is happening in the online world, there are already sufficient powers to deal with those issues—such as the powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the criminal justice Act 2013 and the Defamation Act 2013.
We have a responsibility to educate young people to use technology safely, and to strongly discourage them from sharing self-taken indecent photographs, or sexting. This, too is being dealt with, through the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003.
The increase in online child sexual exploitation and sexual grooming, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Framlingham, is a problem of real concern. As is all too clear from recent reports, child sexual exploitation is an appalling crime, which this Government are determined to stamp out. We have strengthened our operational response through the National Crime Agency, with a legal duty on every NCA officer to safeguard and promote child welfare, and more posts dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse now than in 2010, when we came into office. As part of the NCA, the CEOP command, which the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned, ensures that child abuse investigators have access to the agency’s extensive crime-fighting resources and global expertise, which includes officers in over 40 countries around the world. Her Majesty’s Government believe that this incorporation actually strengthens the institution.
Perhaps I may mention topically something that I do not think was raised in the debate; I just wish to get it on the record. There is also a grooming for terrorism dimension to the internet, and at a meeting in Downing Street last week the major ISPs collectively agreed to host a public reporting button for extremist and terrorist material online. It is a growing problem and again shows the fast developing nature of the challenges as well as the opportunities provided by the internet.
We should acknowledge that there are international aspects to internet use which make this area quite unique. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to the international dimension, which throws up jurisdictional issues. There are two unique aspects to the internet that we have to recognise. One is how fast it is developing, to which noble Lords around the House referred in the debate, and there is the international aspect, which makes it quite a challenge to deal with some of the opportunities as well as the challenges thrown up by this area.
I want to say something about the iRights manifesto and the five principles that have been talked about. We have focused more on the protection aspects in the debate, which are rightly important, but there are other issues such as the right to remove material on the internet. The Google judgment in the European Court of Justice in May this year said that there is a right to be forgotten—someone’s past details, and so on. The Government are looking at this and will continue to discuss it with the sector because we agree that it is appropriate. There is also the right to know. All individuals have legal rights under the Data Protection Act, but we have to see how they translate across to the internet. Again, the Government continue to discuss this aspect within a range of issues with the sector. We have also spoken about the educational aspects of the digital side, which are extremely important.
I have omitted to deal with the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in relation to the R18 classification. I am advised that the new law around video-on-demand content comes into force on 1 December. This will mean that, in the future, TV-like video content that would be classified by the BBFC as R18 will be put behind age control barriers. Perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness on the other points she raised because I was slightly blind-sided by them. I am grateful for this debate, but rarely have my powers been so exaggerated by noble Lords asking for things. I am very happy to write to the noble Baroness on the point.
As I said, I am keen that this should move forward positively. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, plays a key role in iRights, while as trustees so too do the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and my noble friend Lady Shields, and I think that we can build on that. Let us not forget that today we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, reminded us. It is an important landmark, and although the document was written before the world wide web was invented, the UNCRC is a living document and subject to modern interpretation. It includes rights to protections and freedom of expression, along with children’s access to the media. Once again,
we can see the Janus-like nature of this in that there are threats as well as opportunities. The Government have put on the record their commitment to children’s rights and to giving due consideration to the UNCRC when developing new policy. The department will consider, as part of that, the digital dimension in the checking of UNCRC compliance, to see if it cannot be incorporated as a separate item. That is important; certainly it is symbolically important.
Another aspect that occurred to me as we went through the debate was the importance of the all-party parliamentary group chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, on children, media and the arts, and how it could be used as a focus for the concerns expressed pretty much universally around the Chamber. This has been a very consensual debate in which people can see the challenges as well as the threats and opportunities. I suggest that the all-party group might like to act as a task force and produce a paper for the department.
In conclusion, it is tremendous to see the House of Lords taking the initiative in this area—perhaps counterintuitively based on the age profile and some confessions of little or no knowledge—of looking at the impact of the digital world on children and young people. I should like to offer the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the signatories to iRights a meeting with officials before the Recess to consider the way forward in this area, and to extend an invitation to iRights campaigners to attend the first meeting in the new year of the United Kingdom Council for Child Internet Safety. I think that both of those could be useful ways of moving things forward. This debate can offer only a kick-start, but I hope that it will kick-start what is clearly an important area not only for children and young people, but also for the country, the economy and our society. This is a massively challenging, important and interesting area.
Today’s debate is an important step forward in looking again at the UNCRC so that children’s rights which are guaranteed offline are also applied online. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for this debate, and in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her comments and innovative ideas. She is absolutely right to act as a champion in this area. It did occur to me that past revolutions such as the agrarian revolution, the Industrial Revolution and now the digital revolution have all thrown up their challenges and their opportunities. It is our task to ensure that it is the opportunities that win and that the challenges are met.
Baroness Kidron: I must thank all noble Lords. This really has been by all standards a broad and friendly debate. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for not citing each contribution. I do not have the capacity to improve on what has already been said by others or, indeed, on the way it was articulated. I will just pick up on a few things. We heard the internet described as “water” twice in this debate. The centrality of it in our lives is now beginning to be understood. Everybody who has spoken has shown an overwhelming commitment to education of a non-didactic kind. I think we all agree with what that looks like.
We have heard of the value of the internet: being offered late-night pizza; breast-feeding apps; outsourcing homework; and, possibly more important, preventing isolation through outreach and mentoring. I myself have felt the terror that all must feel when being quoted in this House. Noble Lords have also expressed concern about the safety and upset of children and the inequalities of access. I want to particularly pick up on those noble Lords who mentioned the worrying trend that makes the internet a hostile or difficult place for girls. The internet will never fulfil the ambitions of its inventors if it is not an equal platform for women and young girls.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for her kind words and her mantra of “safe by design”. Her success proves that what may look impossible now is indeed possible in the future. She has proved today what an important and welcome addition she is to this House, however great our number.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said, the technology is neutral, and that leaves the question of rights and responsibilities to all stakeholders —industry, government, parents, teachers and young people—not just on the issues of safety that have been raised but, as the Minister suggested, more broadly, in the way that young people engage with web-based technology.
The Minister could not have been warmer to this agenda, and I thank him and his officials. I am also grateful for many of the things that the Government are striving to do in this area. I welcome his invitation to talk to officials in the department and explore this with noble friends and other Members of the House more fully. He has my support. When he works out how we make the Members of this House feel more confident about digital and web technology, he will have my support and, I am sure, the support of other Members to alert them to the potential opportunities and contradictions of our digital world.
It has been a long debate, and I cannot say much more. I wanted to make a very technical point, that the right to remove is a lot less ambitious than the European judgment on the right to be forgotten. I am very interested to see what the government finding will be on that question of data and the right to remove them. It is a very important piece of what we are trying to establish.
As I said at the beginning, this is a technology of infinite promise and imagination, and no world is ever risk free. By adopting a path that carefully balances the necessity of children to be guardians of their own interests alongside our needs to be guardians of their interests, we allow them to grasp the opportunities that lie ahead. I salute the authors of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its work is not yet done. This is a very important day and a very important document.