Children and Young People: Digital Technology

Baroness Kidron Excerpts
Thursday 17th January 2019

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Moved by

Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron
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That this House takes note of the relationship between the use of digital technology and the health and well-being of children and young people.

Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have chosen to speak this afternoon, and very much look forward to each of their contributions. I refer the House to my interests on the register, particularly that as founder and chair of 5Rights.

Fundamental to this debate is the fact that we invented a technology that assumes that all users are equal when, in fact, a third of users worldwide and a fifth of users in the UK are children. It has been 150 years since we pulled children out of the chimneys and put them into school. Since that time we have fought on their behalf for privileges, protections and inalienable rights that collectively constitute the concept of and offer a legal framework for childhood.

Childhood is the journey from infancy to maturity, from dependence to autonomy. We design and mitigate for it in multiple ways across all aspects of society. We educate; we require doctors to obtain additional skills to practise paediatric medicine; we do not hold children to contractual obligations; we put pedestrian crossings near schools; we rate films according to age. Children have special protections around sexual activity. It is illegal for kids to smoke, drink and gamble. We even take steps to protect them in environments where adults smoke, drink and gamble.

In short, we provide a complex but widely understood and respected set of social norms, educational frameworks, regulatory interventions and national and international laws reflecting the global consensus that society as a whole must act in the best interests of the child, in the light of the vulnerabilities and immaturities associated with their age. The digital environment fails to reflect that consensus, and the cost of that failure is played out on the health and well-being of our children.

In setting out this afternoon’s debate, I shall concentrate on three areas: the nature of the digital environment, my concern about the way we conceive online harms and, finally, how we might support children to flourish. For children in the connected world, there is no off or on. Their lives are mediated by technological devices and services that capture infinitesimal detail about their activities, frame the choices available to them and make assumptions—not always accurate—about who they are. Theirs is not a world divided by real and virtual; it is a single lived experience augmented by technology. The vast majority of a child’s interactions are not deliberate decisions of a conscious mind but are predetermined. A child may consciously choose to play a game, but it is machine-engineered Pavlovian reward loops embedded in the game that keep them playing. A child may consciously opt to participate in a social group, but it is the stream of personalised alerts and the engineered measures of popularity that create the compulsive need to attend to that social group. A child may wish to look up a piece of information, but it is the nudge of promoted content and automated recommendation that largely determines what information they receive.

Those predetermined systems are predicated on a business model that profiles users for commercial purposes, yet businesses that sell devices and services in the digital environment deliver them to children with impunity—even though we know that screens eradicate the boredom and capacity for free play that very young children require to develop language, motor skills and imagination; even though we know that a single tired child, kept awake through the night by the hooks and notifications of a sector competing for their attention, affects the educational attainment of the entire class; and even though we know that for teenagers, the feedback loops of social validation and competition intrinsic to social media play an overwhelming role in their state of mind and ability to make safe choices.

The children we work with at 5Rights make the case that it is simply not possible to act your age online. As one young boy said, “Online, I am not a kid but an underage adult”. His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge said about the tech sector:

“Their self-image is so grounded in their positive power for good that they seem unable to engage in constructive discussion about the social problems that they are creating”,


“fake news, extremism, polarisation, hate speech, trolling, mental health, privacy and bullying”.

Last year, I was in Africa when a young girl was auctioned as a bride on Facebook. I have sat with the parents of a child bullied to death online. I have been with a young girl at the devastating moment in which she realised that she had been taping sexual acts for a group, not just for the man with whom she thought she was in a relationship. I have been witness to scores of children who have ruined their family life, educational opportunities, reputation and self-esteem through overuse, misuse, misunderstandings and straightforward commercial abuse. An individual child does not, and should not be expected to, have the maturity to meet the social, sexual, political and commercial currency of the adult world.

In December, the Nurture Network, a multidisciplinary group of academics, mental health workers and child development experts, agreed that the three existing agencies of socialisation—family, friends and school—have now been joined by a fourth: the digital environment, an environment of socialisation in which the status of children is not recognised. In an interconnected world, the erosion of the privileges, protections and rights of childhood in one environment results in an erosion of childhood itself.

That brings me to my concerns about how we conceive harms. I will briefly raise three issues. First, our public discourse focuses on a narrow set of extreme harms of a violent or sexual nature. Ignoring so-called “lesser harms” misunderstands that for a child, harms are often cumulative. It fails to deal with the fact that one child will react violently to an interaction that does not harm another, or that vulnerable groups of children might merit specific and particular protection. Crucially, it ignores the fact that for most children, it is the quotidian and the everyday that lowers their self-esteem, creates anxiety, and inflicts an opportunity cost in which education, relationships and physical and personal development are denuded, rendering children—or, should I say, “underage adults”?—exposed and unprotected. Children’s rights are deliberately conceived as non-hierarchical. We must take all harms seriously.

Secondly, it is not adequate to define children’s experience of the digital environment in terms of an absence of harm. As long ago as 1946, the World Health Organization declared that well-being was,

“not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

The NHS defines it as a feeling of “physical, emotional and psychological” well-being. We must set our sights not on the absence of harm but on a child’s right to well-being and human flourishing.

Thirdly, whether we are tackling the problems of live streaming, child sexual abuse, gaming addiction or thinking towards a new world order in which the fridge knows more about your child’s dietary tastes than you do and can exploit that fact, we must not wait until harm has been done but consider in advance the risks that children face. Technology changes fast, but the risks consistently fall into four categories: content risks, both unsuitable and illegal; contact risks, often, but not always, involving an adult; conduct risks, involving risky behaviour or social humiliation; and contract risks, such as exploitative contractual relationships, gambling, aggressive marketing, unfair terms and conditions, discriminatory profiling and so on. Most experts, including many in the enforcement community, consider that upstream prevention based on militating against risk rather than waiting for the manifestation of harm is by far the most effective approach.

There is much we can do. The Minister knows that I am not short of suggestions, but I will finish with a modest list. The digital environment is now indivisible from other environments in which our legal and regulatory arrangements embody our values. Parity of protection has been called for by the NSPCC. It was the approach taken in the Law Commission’s Abusive and Offensive Online Communications: A Scoping Report, and was articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, in establishing that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 applies equally to artificial intelligence. What plans do the Government have to bring clarity to how our laws apply to the digital environment? Specifically, will the Government bring forward a harmonisation Bill to create an obligation to interpret legislation in a manner that offers parity of protection and redress online and offline, in a similar manner to Section 3 of the Human Rights Act?

Designing out known risk, often referred to as safety by design, is standard across other sectors. We like our brakes to work, our food to be free of poisons and our contracts to be fair in law. The Secretary of State has said that he is minded to introduce a duty of care on the sector. That is very welcome—but to be effective, it must be accompanied by impact assessments, design standards, transparency reporting, robust oversight and a regulator with the full toolkit of persuasion and penalty. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are planning this full suite of provisions?

The age-appropriate design code introduced by this House demands that companies anticipate the presence of children and meet their development needs in the area of data protection. I hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s determination to produce a robust code across all areas of design agreed during the passage of the Data Protection Act. The code’s safety by design approach could and should be an exemplar of the codes and standards that must eventually form part of an online safety Bill.

Finally, companies make many promises in their published guidelines that set age limits, content rules and standards of behaviour, but then they do not uphold them. It is ludicrous that 61% of 12 year-olds have a social media account in spite of a joining age of 13, that Facebook says that it cannot work to its own definition of hate speech or that Twitter can have half a million pornographic images posted on it daily and still be characterised as a news app. Subjecting routine failure to uphold published terms to regulatory penalty would prevent companies entering into commercial contracts with underage children, drive services to categorise themselves accurately and ensure that companies say what they do, do what they said and are held to account if they fail to do it. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that this measure will be included in the upcoming White Paper.

Technology is often said to be neutral, and when we criticise the sector we are told that we are endangering its promise to cure cancer, educate the world and have us experience space travel without leaving our home, or threatening the future prosperity of the nation. Technology is indeed neutral, but we must ask to what end it is being deployed. It could in the future fulfil the hope of its founders and offer the beneficial outcomes for society that we all long for—but not if the price is the privileges, protections and inalienable rights of childhood. A child is a child until they reach maturity, not until the moment they reach for their smartphone.

Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con)
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My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the chance to have this debate. I enjoyed listening to her address very much. I do not join her in all things. My overall view on the large-scale effects of the association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use accords with that of Amy Orben, as published in Nature Human Behaviour at the beginning of this week, whose study of large-scale databases found that the overall average effect of digital technology use accounted for 0.4% of the overall well-being of the young people concerned—up there with a fondness for potatoes. In other words, it is extremely statistically insignificant and of no practical significance whatever. The same study pointed out that, on the evidence, the main positive effects on well-being were getting a good enough breakfast, enough sleep and vegetables; and, on the downside, drink, drugs and bullying. In other words, what we are dealing with is looked at on a large scale and on average is not something that children as a whole find it difficult to deal with. However, the fact that something is not a problem generally does not mean there are not specific problems. I thoroughly recommend to the Minister the NSPCC briefing for this debate. I line up behind all its recommendations.

It is important that we properly regulate the social media giants. When they started out, many of us might have believed that at their heart they were good and wonderful and intended nothing but delight and helpfulness to the rest of humanity. I think most of us now realise that they are exploitative and immoral, with no care for us in any particular way, just like the commercial behemoths before them. Under those circumstances the Government have a crucial role in mediating on our behalf, with the immense power that these organisations have. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, pointed out, there are many things to be done. Some very good intentions have been expressed, and we very much hope that the Government will carry them through.

At local level, schools and parents have to take many decisions concerning social media. We need to encourage sensible, locally decided practice. We want our children to have a life beyond social media—to do homework and to succeed at school. I very much commend to the House the work done by Katharine Birbalsingh at Michaela, where she has an absolute ban on mobile phones in school. That works for her. That is not to say it should be everywhere, but we as a Government should look at good practice, understand what works and tell people about it. We should support parents in making good decisions, as we do in many other aspects of health and family, through good public information. I very much hope that my noble friend will commit to that.

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Lord Ashton of Hyde Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for curtailing his remarks—I sometimes feel that he could go on for a lot longer. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for convening a debate on this important subject and for discussing it with me beforehand. Finally, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I will race through my response because I want to leave a minute or two for the noble Baroness to respond.

We all agree that the internet offers a huge range of opportunities and benefits. However, as we heard today, there are legitimate concerns about the relationship that young people have with digital technology and the impact it can have on their health and well-being. A great deal of work is taking place across government, and I will come to some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on that. Work is also ongoing in the tech sector, health services and the education sector to ensure that young people can access the benefits of the internet safely. However, we recognise that more research is required to better understand the impact that the digital world can have on health and well-being. This is new technology, changing before our eyes, so it is not surprising that we are experiencing unintended consequences, nor that the evidence is incomplete and sometimes contradictory, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned in his excellent speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, was a bit dismissive of the digital charter. However, through the charter we have already seen age verification, age-appropriate design, data ethics and innovation bodies set up, the Green Paper and hours of interaction within the sector. There is of course more to do, and I will come to that in a minute, but we have not been doing nothing in the meantime. The principle is ambitious—to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online—and we want to achieve it. That will include taking specific steps to support children and young people.

The forthcoming joint DCMS and Home Office online harms White Paper will be published this winter. It will set out a range of non-legislative and—I say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin—legislative measures detailing how we will tackle online harms. It will set clear responsibilities for technology companies to keep all UK citizens safe, particularly children and other vulnerable users. There are, however, difficult lines to be drawn between liberties, freedom of speech, the freedom of the internet and protecting the public. We will therefore continue to encourage participation as we further develop our proposals. As has been mentioned, the Secretary of State had a useful first meeting open to all Peers on Tuesday this week, and we will encourage further discussion with Peers as the process goes on. I will say more about the White Paper in a minute.

We spend a lot of time in this House and at the DCMS talking about harms, especially to children, but it is important that we acknowledge the benefits of digital technology and social media. As my noble friend Lady Redfern said, it is about balance. The technology enables young people to access educational resources, make social connections, build relationships and demonstrate their creativity. It has impacted every area of our lives: the genie is out of the bottle and we cannot put it back. We therefore need to find solutions.

While we recognise the benefits, we also understand the concerns about the impact that digital technology may have on young people’s physical and mental well-being. The impact may relate to the device itself or to the content being accessed. For example, we know that parents and professionals are concerned that digital technology can lead to a lack of sleep and a lack of exercise, both of which are well documented as playing an important role in maintaining good health and well-being. There are also concerns about the impact of specific online harms which may not be illegal, such as cyberbullying, the encouragement of self-harm and online grooming. More generally, there are concerns about the impact of celebrity culture, disinformation and the pressure to live up to unrealistic portrayals of other people’s lives.

We have seen in recent years that the technology industry can deal with some of those harmful impacts through technical solutions and guidance—for example, filters and new well-being tools—and parents can use apps to set controls to limit their children’s access. Some of the big technology companies have provided resources for teachers and parents, so they are doing something. However, I am not suggesting that this will get them off the hook.

We recognise that companies can do more and, in particular, our internet safety strategy consultation highlighted that users, civil society organisations and professionals working with children felt that platforms needed to do more to manage the content and behaviour on their platforms. In addition, more can be done to make technical tools more effective and guidance more accessible.

The online harms White Paper I have mentioned will concentrate on supporting everyone’s ability to access the benefits of the internet while staying safe. In answer partly to the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, it will consider how we will protect children and vulnerable people in particular, and outline measures targeted at improving children’s safety online specifically.

Although we have had some success working with companies at a voluntary level, legislation is necessary to ensure that progress is extended across a greater range of platforms—we are not talking about only social media—and replicated in countering a wider range of online harms, and to give confidence to the public, which is important, that standards apply to and are enforceable on all platforms.

The White Paper will establish a government-wide approach to online safety, delivering the digital charter’s ambitions of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, while leading the world in innovation-friendly regulation that supports the growth of the tech sector. It is a complex area and we are taking a thorough and traditional policy approach. We had the publication of the Green Paper, a consultation and the Government’s response, and now the White Paper which will precede legislation.

The noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones, Lord Bichard and Lord Storey, implied that progress was slow. However, this is a complex area so we are taking it at a reasonable measure. We expect and earnestly hope that we will be able to legislate, I have been asked to say “imminently” rather than “shortly”, but I have been around long enough not to get involved in that game. At least I did not say “in due course”. We wish to proceed and get to legislation once the White Paper has been discussed.

We are also engaging with industry, civil society, peers and academia, who sit at the heart of our operation, which we hope will enable us to develop world-leading law that is future-proof. As well as setting out the expectations for the tech industry, it will highlight the role of education and technical solutions in supporting young people online, and will build on the important work which the Department for Education has already taken forward in relation to ensuring that children are taught about online safety in schools.

Let me turn to what we know about these problems. There are, rightly, concerns about the impact of digital technology on young people’s health and well-being. We realise the need to build evidence about specific harms and to ensure that consistent advice is available. As has been mentioned, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has commissioned a systematic evidence review of the impact of social media use on children’s and young people’s mental health. This review covers cyberbullying, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, and we understand the issues around safeguarding in this respect. It covers online gaming, sleep problems and problematic internet use—also known as internet addiction—where there is a social impact.

I have found the evidence, particularly as described in the media, confusing and sometimes contradictory. The only overwhelming view seems to be that we should not look at a screen before we go to bed—which, incidentally, most people should do earlier for optimal health. We are continuing to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Secretary of State there, a former DCMS Secretary of State, knows about the issues concerning digital.

I shall try to deal with a few questions quickly as I have not got much time. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned education. I reassure them that we think that the arts are very important in that. In fact, quite a lot of work is being done in the Department of Health about arts for health. Although we are behind this and are making the case in government, we hope we have the Department of Health with us on that.

Perhaps I should start on the questions asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans about gambling as this is the third day running I have been talking about this. I shall be very brief because I have a lot to get through. In 2017, the Gambling Commission set out its continued commitment to tackle issues arising from a potential convergence between gaming and gambling, and to look at developments such as skins betting and social casino gambling. In September 2018, the Gambling Commission, along with 16 other regulators from Europe and the USA, signed a declaration which outlined common concerns about gaming and gambling. It is also seeking to work with the video games industry to raise awareness of this.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, asked about online gaming and addiction. The response to the Internet Safety Strategy outlined how we will work with online platforms and agencies, such as the Video Standards Council Rating Board, trade bodies and others, to continue to improve. He can look at that. I am not going to go through it in detail now.

The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked what we are going with regard to loot boxes. The Gambling Commission has strong powers. We are aware of the concerns that entertainment products such as video games could encourage gambling-like behaviour, so we will look at evidence around that very carefully. The Gambling Commission is aware of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the importance of communication, and my noble friend Lord Lucas talked about parents. It is important that we do a lot to help parents because they may not have the skills needed to supervise what their children are doing. That was certainly highlighted in the Internet Safety Strategy consultation. We were keen to receive more information on data protection, mental health impacts, et cetera. The new UK Council for Internet Safety will be tasked by the Government to review current online safety materials and to identify any gaps. One problem is that parents frequently express an interest but do not turn up to schools, for example, when these things are discussed, so we will have to be imaginative in looking at how we can help parents. The Chief Medical Officer is going to consider providing advice for parents in spring 2019, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned. Also, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recently published The Health Impacts of Screen Time: A Guide for Clinicians and Parents, which the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked about.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, asked whether we were dealing with disinformation in the online harms White Paper or in another way. The UK Government take the issue of online manipulation very seriously, and tackling disinformation is already a key pillar of the digital charter. We will explore how we can use measures in the White Paper to address its harmful impact on society. I can also tell the noble Baroness that, as I mentioned before, we are not confining the online harms White Paper to social media.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford talked about safety by design. That is absolutely critical and we agree with it. We will get updates from tech companies that are developing new products to ensure that internet safety, cybersecurity and data protection are all part of the design process.

I am afraid that I have to stop. I have a lot more to say and will write to noble Lords, but I want to leave a couple of minutes for the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I thank noble Lords for all their questions, and I realise that we have more to do. I finish by saying that we are committed to ensuring that the UK is the safest place to be online and we will work with a wide range of partners, including the tech industry, civil society and online safety experts, to ensure that young people can fully access the benefits that the digital world can bring safely and with confidence that tech companies and platforms will act in a responsible manner.

Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron
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My Lords, this has turned into something of a “Today” programme moment, where, having been asked the question, you have no time at all to answer. I am very sorry about that but I thank everybody for their contributions. It has been a hugely interesting debate and very diverse. The one thing that I would like to say in concluding—

Baroness Newlove Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Newlove) (Con)
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My Lords, the time allotted for this debate has now elapsed and I must put the Question to the House.