Children and Young People: Digital Technology

Lord Archbishop of York Excerpts
Thursday 17th January 2019

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
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.

Lord Archbishop of York Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford
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My Lords, an unregulated digital environment is causing moral decay. There is no time to reiterate the various harms that are being caused, but they are deep-seated, corrosive and pervasive. Just last week I was at a school in Essex talking to 7 to 11 year-olds about their use of a game called TikTok. All of them were using it. The lower age limit for using it is 13. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, pointed out, the digital world assumes that all users are equal and all users are adults, whereas in fact one-third of users worldwide are children. Therefore, their health, well-being and development require us to ensure that the internet, and the many ways that children access it, are as safe as they can be. This has usually meant creating special safe places for children or safety options that can be activated.

Would it not be better to turn this whole approach on its head? With any other public space, be it a cinema, a shopping mall or a city square, our assumption is that this is a safe place for all ages to gather and therefore safe for children. Regulation and, where necessary, legislation supports this view and then we create dedicated spaces for adults—not the other way round. In the cinema we do this through film classification. In a public park or a city square we do it through public order legislation. The internet is a public space. Indeed, for children and young people it is the public space. This means that regulation and guidance to make the internet safe by design are all the more necessary. Far from inhibiting the internet, as some vested interests claim, it will enable the internet to be the democratic, creative and liberating space it is meant to be. It is the lack of regulation that makes it dangerous and debilitating. Achieving a common standard does not make the internet restrictive for adults; it just means that we apply the same principles to all parts of our common life.

Let me put it another way. In the 1970s we added fluoride to water and to toothpaste. Dental hygiene was transformed. We stopped dealing with the symptoms of tooth decay and designed a way of improving everybody’s health. There is an important philosophical question here. What sort of world do we wish to build in this digital age? It is no good shrugging our shoulders and saying that it is all too difficult. Nor is it acceptable for Facebook, Google and Amazon to say that they are not to blame because they are just platforms. They curate the way we receive the information they gather, and this gives them a powerful editorial voice. Increasingly they are publishers as well, and their big bucks distort the whole ecosystem of our media economy. They are creating monopolies that it is hard to imagine us tolerating in any other industry.

The forthcoming report of the Communications Committee—on which it has been my privilege and education to sit, alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—will present some recommendations on how we might regulate the internet. Most of all, we need to make it safe by design, and teach children how to inhabit it. Without this, we will sell them short and allow the liberating genius of the internet to be compromised and stymied. In other walks of life, if it were your child in the betting shop or flicking through a pornographic magazine, with their worldview being shaped by an increasingly narrow echo chamber of gossip, speculation and fake news, you would want to do something about it. That is our job. We need to find a way of putting fluoride in the internet.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this debate. I rise to express my concern about one particular way in which the internet can adversely affect children’s health—online gaming addiction, which has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield.

Gaming on the internet is enjoyed by millions of adults and children across the world. For them, it is the most wonderful form of stimulation, and a way to interact with friends and family. But for a minority of young players it can turn into an addiction. It mainly affects young men aged 12 to 24, and the results can be devastating. They can play up to 16 hours a day and their escape into a virtual world can devastate their lives, their schooling and their family. Games are becoming ever more complicated, with ever more attractions, and as result they are becoming ever more addictive.

I would like to share with your Lordships the case of one young addict. Let us call him Troy. He reported to his local child and adolescent mental health services at the age of 15, suffering from long-standing low mood and suicidal thoughts. The therapist discovered that for the past year he had been gaming for up to 15 hours a day. Not surprisingly, he was becoming isolated and lived as a recluse, reluctant to leave the house for any reason. His single-parent mother tried to restrict his excessive gaming, but stopped when he threatened suicide.

Troy was diagnosed with internet gaming disorder. The therapists set him a reduction plan and encouraged him to develop activities beyond the game. But, after initial success, he was encouraged by fellow players to go back. Soon he was back up to 14 hours a day. When at the start of the new term he was forced to stop playing, he became so distressed that he tried to jump out of his bedroom window. Doctors discovered that Troy's levels of brain stimulation, from extended online gaming, were similar to those of people who had taken amphetamines and other stimulants. The addiction can lead to depression, paranoia and difficulty in enjoying the simple pleasures of life—eating, walking or meeting friends.

This and other case studies are just anecdotes, but this form of addiction is so new to psychiatrists and to policymakers that, although they are aware of the increasing problem, they do not have a definitive way of measuring its extent. The World Health Organization is considering including gaming disorder in the international classification of Diseases 11 at the May meeting of the WHA. Its inclusion will be a vital step in enabling clear diagnosis of the condition, and in providing a standardised tool for comparing the problem in different countries. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government support this move.

As policymakers in this country grapple with the issue, they can take some guidance from China and South Korea, where gaming addiction is widespread among young men. They are working with parents and schools to raise awareness and prevent the spread of the addiction. But Asian policymakers are also working with manufacturers to reduce the addictivity of games. They have had some success: one game now sends a message warning the player of how long they have been playing; another can be set to time out after a certain number of hours. This work needs to be put on a more systematic basis. We already have regulation for sex and violence in games; this should be extended to regulating their addictivity as well.

If and when we leave the EU, I suggest that the Government investigate how EU regulations in this area would work. They should bring together stakeholders to rate the addictivity of existing games and horizon-scan new games. This could be done through a new regulatory body, but I hear the groans from DCMS at the great difficulty of doing that. Maybe we should just extend the remit of the Gambling Commission to cover gaming. These regulations could certify games with a score, warning players of their addictive nature. They could also work on preventive measures to ensure that vulnerable children are protected, particularly during their teenage years. Above all, they could co-ordinate work with gaming companies to build in more ethical design. It would create a win-win situation, encouraging trust in the companies and allowing all players to have an entertaining time playing games rather than becoming addicted. I urge the Minister to act now before further damage is done to our young people.