Children and Young People: Digital Technology

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Excerpts
Thursday 17th January 2019

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Baroness Redfern Portrait Baroness Redfern (Con)
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I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating the debate and for giving me the opportunity to take part in it. We are all too aware that there is an immediate need for a greater focus and action in preventing cyberbullying online content being published in the first place. Online abuse remains an issue for millions of our young citizens, against the view that what is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online. The consensus is that abusive or offensive posts should be automatically removed from social media platforms. Government has a major part to play in driving an online world that is fit for purpose for our younger generation, who can in many cases be so easily influenced. This is so that everyone can abide by the values that we all live by, with the attitude and behaviours we duly expect in the offline world.

The use of screens has become nearly inescapable in our daily lives as we search the net to access entertainment, communicate with others, socialise and of course to do shopping. With the development of new technology, most children and young people now use at least one form of technology every day but research demonstrates that cyberbullying can in many cases have serious effects on health outcomes, independent of the effects of traditional bullying. We see that the number of young people being cyberbullied at age 15 is almost double that at age 11, with girls more than twice as likely as boys to report being a victim.

As an interesting aside, it is noticeable that those young people who report come from a background of high family affluence, where they are most likely to say they had in fact been cyberbullied. It seems that young people who are assured and converse well with their parents are more likely to have better health and social outcomes, and be better equipped as they go through adolescence and early adulthood. It is the opposite for those who receive free school meals; they are, seemingly, less likely to report being a victim. Schools and colleges should be supported and encouraged more in their role to work closely with students, not only for academic success but to help them feel safe and have a place to belong. As research has also shown, where young people live—together with a good community environment—can have a significant impact on health and well-being.

Turning to physical health issues, as we witness young people using at least one form of technology every single day, that leads to less exercising. This is more prevalent in teenage girls. The opportunity to exercise more is a given, as it promotes helping to sustain emotional and mental health well-being. It delivers positive steps to improve self- confidence and determination and to manage stress and anxiety, so that our young people feel better about themselves.

Finally, this is about getting the right balance: using digital technology and keeping active. Ultimately, listening to every voice is so important, as it is for them to have fun, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said. The Government must make this the safest place in the world for children and young people to be online, and the sooner the better.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Portrait Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve (CB)
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My Lords, the topic of this debate is often understood in ways suggesting that what is at issue is either a generic problem with the use of online technologies or a more specific problem arising from the use of social media. I declare an interest as someone who does not use social media, but whose life is greatly dependent on digital technologies. We are mistaken if we focus excessively on social media.

The generic problems for children and young people are said to include too much screen time, loss of sleep, educational damage, less social life and less exercise—I agree. The specific problems of social media use by children and young people, but not them only, are said to include a lurid list that runs across the risks of cyberbullying, a loss of privacy, exposure to porn and extremist propaganda and lots more. I agree entirely that each of these can damage young people; for that matter, they can damage older people as well. But the tech companies may, even if pretty belatedly, conclude that failure to curb these harms is damaging their reputations and commercial interests, so they will do more to prevent these harms. How successful they will be remains to be seen. So far, moves to take down harmful material have not been wholly successful.

However, these may not be the most damaging harms done by digital technologies and, more specifically, not the harms which most damage young people. The harms I have mentioned are all private harms in the economist’s sense of the term: they are harms suffered by individuals who are bullied or whose privacy is invaded, or whose education is damaged. There is a second range of less immediately visible harms that arise from digital media. These are public harms that damage public goods, notably cultures and democracy.

There is a large and growing body of knowledge about ways in which digital technologies are used to subvert democratic processes, including elections and referenda. It has happened in many jurisdictions. Such use of technology is cheap and its influence can be purchased and peddled by those who are not citizens, including corporations and states, among them hostile states and their intelligence services. Moreover, it can be done anonymously. Our electoral law, which regulates party-political expenditure during campaigns, is pathetically inadequate for dealing with hidden digital persuasion.

Equally, there is now substantial evidence of the use of digital technologies to undermine the reliability of news and information. This has often been hailed as a point of pride. When Mr Mark Zuckerberg first propounded his now infamous slogan “Move fast and break things”, one may assume that he took it that everything that would be broken would be something unjust and exclusionary that obstructed the dissemination of knowledge and information to the public. In the event, the digital revolution has swept away not only the wicked intermediaries, the censors, but essential intermediaries without whom we would have no serious journalism, no editorial judgment nor reliable ways of telling whether we were encountering fake news or the real thing. The wholesale destruction of intermediaries is a form of cultural vandalism, damaging to all but the perpetrators and the hidden persuaders, and in particular to young people.

I am all for pursuing the agenda of protecting young people from the private harms inflicted by uses of digital or of other technologies, but I think that we short-change the next generation if we do not protect them also from the public harms that such technologies enable. Protection from them will be far more difficult, I suspect, because it will not be in the commercial interest of the big tech companies that organise the data obtained from many sources—not, by the way, always social media—and package it for sale to those who pay to target specific groups for political and commercial purposes cheaply and, once again, anonymously.

In September 2018, Sir Tim Berners-Lee expressed his disappointment about what has happened to the web in these words:

“I’ve always believed the web is for everyone. That’s why I and others fight fiercely to protect it. The changes we’ve managed to bring have created a better and more connected world. But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas”.

We have been warned.

Lord Ramsbotham Portrait Lord Ramsbotham (CB)
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My Lords, I join all those who have thanked my noble friend Lady Kidron not only for tabling this important debate and her masterly introduction but for her relentless concentration on the issue in legislation and on other occasions. I also thank Nicole Winchester for her excellent Library brief.

My contribution will be limited to two personal observations about which I have been asking questions ever since making them. In 1997, as Chief Inspector of Prisons during a thematic review of young offenders, I visited the only young offender institution in Scotland, which I was told had an outstanding governor. To my surprise, as we were walking around, he suddenly said to me that if, by some mischance, he had to get rid of all his staff, the last one out of the gate would be his speech and language therapist. Never having come across such a person in any YOI in England, I naturally asked him why. He replied, “Because the young people cannot communicate, either with each other or with us, and until they can, we cannot begin to know what problems and needs they have or how to begin helping them to overcome them”. He went on to say that too many of them had never been communicated with by their parents or sat down to meals as a family, being dumped in front of the television or encouraged to play on their electronic devices, leading to their being able to communicate only in “binary grunts”. Having met his wonderful therapist, I learned what she was able to do for both young offenders and staff. I have been campaigning ever since for such a therapist to be appointed in every YOI. This inability to communicate is the scourge of the 21st century, for which I hold the amount of time children and young people spend using digital technology partly to blame. As the Library briefing points out, the range of topics relating to the impact of digital technologies on the health and well-being of children and young people is vast and there is no clear agreement on the impact, positive or negative, of screen time on an individual’s well-being.

My second observation is based on my chairmanship of a criminal justice and acquired brain injury interest group, which has a particular interest in the effects of such injuries on the developing brains of children and young people. Possibly influenced by evidence of a possible link between brain tumours and excessive use of mobile phones, there are those who suspect that too much digital technology use may cause damage to the growing brain. Hard evidence is impossible to come by, largely owing to the technology being comparatively new. Two years ago I remember being shown two scans, one of a 10 year-old’s brain taken 10 years ago and one taken that year. You did not have to be an expert to see that there were differences, which might be because they were different people. Experts admitted that they could not interpret the difference or what it meant in the long term, but it was sufficiently worrying for them to say that, while it was too early to predict any long-term implications, excessive use of digital technology could not be ruled out as a possible cause.