Children and Young People: Digital Technology DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Lord Black of BrentwoodMain Page: Lord Black of Brentwood (Conservative - Life peer)
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.
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.