Children and Young People: Digital Technology

Lord Black of Brentwood Excerpts
Thursday 17th January 2019

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for raising this subject and for her outstanding introduction to this debate.

Fifty-five thousand children in this country are classified as problem gamblers. The Gambling Commission’s report, Young People and Gambling, published in November, shows that gambling participation has risen, with 14% of 11 to 16 year-olds having spent their own money on gambling. That is a greater proportion of young people than have drunk alcohol, smoked cigarettes or taken illegal drugs.

Today’s children are being conditioned to think that the normal way to enjoy sport is to bet on it—as opposed to what I was brought up with, where you simply enjoyed seeing people competing with one another. They face a barrage of adverts during sports broadcasts. Young people today see an average of 3.8 gambling adverts daily, and 66% of children have seen gambling adverts on TV—a product of the £1.2 billion spent by the industry on advertising. The wild west of the online world is compounding the problems among young people. These digital natives, who are wonderfully adept with technology, are most at risk from the digital switch that the gambling industry is currently undergoing. The many millions of children and young people on social media sites have the option to follow accounts created by the gambling lobby, which often floods the very same sites with adverts, all without any need for age verification.

Yet, more than this, the very nature of gambling is changed by being online. No longer are people limited by how long a bookie stays open and no longer are people easily prevented from gambling if they are underage. Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones of Imperial College has highlighted how young people can disengage from previously rewarding activities and relationships in the real world and move towards using screens excessively. This is the very seedbed in which gambling disorders can easily take root. The report refers to what any parent already knows: children’s predilection to seek immediate gratification makes them particularly susceptible to habit-forming rewards. Take away time limits or age verification on phone and online games, and they can all too easily become addictive.

The online world has changed dramatically since the Gambling Act 2005. Nowadays many in-app games are promoted by popular TV personalities. Before 2005, words such as “loot boxes” and “skins” would have been met with blank stares—indeed, I suspect they still may be from many people in this Chamber—yet they are now commonplace language among young people. It is not simply my opinion that loot boxes function as gambling in everything but name; the Belgian Parliament has outlawed them because of its worries.

This debate is centred on the challenges facing young people. I believe we need urgently to monitor the use of online games that use skins and loot boxes. We need to adopt the precautionary principle in limiting, or preferably banning, online gambling adverts. Therefore I hope the Minister will set out the steps that Her Majesty’s Government are taking to monitor and respond to this worrying aspect of the digital world.

Lord Black of Brentwood Portrait Lord Black of Brentwood (Con)
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My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness on securing this debate. Whenever we discuss this enormous issue, I am reminded of the words of Bismarck, who would no doubt have had a thing or two to say about recent events, who once said that people cannot create or divert the stream of time; they can only travel on it and steer with more or less experience and skill. For all of us in 2019, that stream of time is to be found in the transformative power of digital technology, which is sweeping all before it.

This awesome industrial revolution—for that is what it is—is having its greatest impact on young people. Every aspect of their lives and their careers is being shaped by it. A survey for Ofcom last year showed that one-fifth of young people aged 16 to 24 are so addicted to smartphones that they spend more than seven hours a day online, which is equivalent to more than two full 24-hour days per week. For a generation born at the millennium, smartphones are now an indispensable part of life.

We know what the damaging consequences of digital technology on the lives and well-being of young people can be. Social isolation, cyberbullying, radicalisation and an increased propensity to depression are all very real problems but, used properly, with comprehensive safeguards and with parents and teachers playing an active role in informing children about potential dangers, digital technology can be a fantastic enabler, with a central role to play in educating healthy, happy and well-informed students, making them more literate and developing critical thinking skills. Indeed, perhaps instead of focusing quite so much on the dangers of technology, those involved in the development of public policy should also understand the opportunities and benefits it provides, or we will risk restricting its positive impact on creativity, education and well-being.

One area which demonstrates this positive impact extremely well is music education, and here I declare my interest as chairman of the Royal College of Music. Studying music has a profoundly positive impact on young people. It increases cognitive ability, improves attainment in maths and English, boosts employability and helps maintain good physical and mental well-being. So learning music at school is absolutely crucial for the way that children develop, although, shockingly, too many people are currently denied that.

Where children are lucky enough to have access to music education, digital technology can assist extremely effectively, although I must underline that it is an enabler, not a substitute, for proper academic learning. The UK music industry is leading the way in developing the technology to support it and to ensure that a musical experience is accessible to all. Key to that is seeing digital devices as musical instruments, allowing teachers to involve everyone in a class.

One teacher I know from the Royal College of Music told me how he used technology in his classroom to enable a performance in public for every year 9 pupil in the school, playing Pachelbel’s “Canon” on iPads. That technology allows pupils to write and rehearse compositions, to provide context for film music, which allows them to see their compositions combined with film, and to learn new instruments at their own pace. Those are fantastic achievements and point the way to the future. A growing number of digital services and websites are being developed to deliver this essential support, including Tido, Charanga and the innovative, which is used by 3 million people around the world and by schools on every continent.

Digital music technology, safely and intelligently deployed, enables all children to learn the vital skills of collaboration, public performance, practice discipline, self-direction and the development of an independent creative voice. Those skills are transferable across a whole range of activities and career choices later in life, which is why they are so important.

Of course, we must be alive to the dangers posed by digital technology. We must keep under review the case for greater regulatory safeguards, as we have heard in a number of speeches; ensure that parents and teachers play an active role in educating children on how to use technology as a balanced part of their lives; and make accessible and affordable high-quality educational resources available online—an area where government has a key role to play. If we do that, it is absolutely right that technology should now be at the heart of every child’s education. Our country’s creative economy and the future of music, which are very much in jeopardy, will be all the stronger for it.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote Portrait Baroness Howe of Idlicote (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this important debate, and for her excellent speech.

Last month we debated the Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations 2018, which will see commercial pornographic websites placed behind age verification. I very much welcome that decision and ask the Minister to give the House an update on its “go live” day.

I fear, however, that significant problems remain in relation to child access to adult content, as a number of concerns have been raised about the exclusion of social media from the scope of the regulations. Indeed, in November the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, noted that the Digital Economy Act 2017, while seeking,

“to restrict children’s access to pornography based on scale … failed to bring platforms such as Twitter within scope, despite 500,000 pornographic images being posted daily”.—[Official Report, 12/11/18; col 1766.]

Clearly this is a subject that needs to be kept under review, and I hope that the Government will address it in the online harms White Paper.

I have been a consistent supporter of parental filters for online services. We discussed this subject in detail during the passage of the Digital Economy Bill in 2017, but I would be grateful if the Minister updated the House on what both large and, crucially, small ISPs are doing about online filtering. The most recent Ofcom report on children’s and parents’ media use and attitudes, published in 2017, says that 39% of three and four year-olds use home network-level filters, as do 37% of five to 15 year-olds. Although this is an increase on previous years, it is still surprising to me that more parents do not use that option. Does the Minister have any new data on the use of filters?

As I said last month, I remain concerned about online gambling. We know that, notwithstanding the Gambling Act, young people gamble online. I very much welcome the Gambling Commission’s efforts to ensure stricter age-verification checks for those seeking to gamble online or who play free-to-play online gambling games. I very much hope that the new licensing conditions proposed in the recent consultation on proposals to strengthen age and identity verification for online gambling will come into effect soon.

I am very concerned to note that in last year’s report on young people’s gambling, 13% of 11 to 16 year-olds had played gambling-like games online, for free and without prizes. Some 40% of those who played online gambling-style games played these before gambling for money. I also note with great concern that information about gambling is easily accessed by young people: 59% have seen gambling advertisements on social media, more than one in 10 follow gambling companies on social media, and they are three times more likely to spend money on gambling. Of those who have ever played online gambling-style games, 24% follow gambling companies online. We are surrounding our young people with messages about gambling from a young age. If we are serious about living up to the licensing conditions in Section 1 of the Gambling Act, I do not believe it appropriate to passively accept this situation.

Lastly, I am concerned that 31% of 11 to 16 year-olds have bought so-called loot boxes, which, as has already been mentioned, allow for in-game purchases. In the 2017 Ofcom report, 30% of parents of five to 15 year-olds were concerned about the pressure on their child to make in-game purchases, and they were right to be so. There is a particular concern about loot boxes, also known as mystery boxes because the purchaser does not know what is in the box—it is an act of chance. A recent academic paper states that,

“loot-box systems share important structural and psychological similarities with gambling”.

The Gambling Commission itself has acknowledged that there is a blurring around the edges of gaming and gambling.

In this context, and again mindful of our obligations under Section 1 of the Gambling Act, I believe that the time has come for the Government to take robust steps to protect children and young people from loot boxes. The DCMS Select Committee in the other place is looking into this issue. I shall read its report with interest, and I sincerely hope we are going to hear more from the Gambling Commission about how many young people are betting on e-sports—that is, competitive video gaming—and whether they are betting with cash or with items won or purchased while playing video games. Above all, we need to ensure that young people do not get drawn into gambling unwittingly.