Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Tenth Report

3  Types of risk

25.  The ease of communication, the ready availability of creative and informative content and the global reach which are all such powerful features of the Internet, are of huge benefit. In each case, however, those strengths have flipsides: malicious communication is as easy as benign communication, content may be potentially harmful or illegal, and global reach allows access from almost anywhere in the world to content which would be illegal in one's home country.

26.  Social networking sites and chatrooms are new types of environment which may appear to a user to be relatively private, with defined boundaries, when in fact a user's profile or an online forum may be open to thousands or even millions of other users, all able to view even if they do not actively participate. Some users of social networking sites may choose to limit the visibility of their "profiles" but many do not: their profile page then becomes a public space. Many users, particularly children, are not even aware that their personal information is being made available to anyone who chooses to access it. Unless a user of a networking site takes steps to control access to their territory, he or she is exposed to malicious communication or comment and invasions of privacy. Users who publicise personal contact details on Internet sites are especially vulnerable to harassment which can be very distressing and very difficult to control.

27.  We asked Jim Gamble, Chief Executive Officer of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), how dangerous the Internet was for children: he responded simply that "the Internet represents huge opportunity and risk".[39] The particular risks posed by new Internet-based services (such as video-sharing sites, social networking sites and virtual worlds) are chiefly those of exposure to harmful and inappropriate content, contact from people whose intentions are malicious, and incitement to dangerous or anti-social conduct. Some have found it convenient to list them as risks derived from content, contact and conduct.[40]

28.  Those at risk are principally children, who are less well equipped to take decisions for themselves and to manage threats. Dr Byron observed that neural networks at the front of the brain are very underdeveloped at birth and that it is generally not until adolescence that the brain is sufficiently developed to evaluate and manage risk, differentiate between fantasy and reality, and regulate emotions.[41] Children may also be the target of exploitation for sexual purposes.

29.  There is also a potential threat to adults who are depressed, or who have a tendency to self-harm, or who are emotionally unstable, who may find certain content disturbing; it may also be that content can have an adverse effect on sexual offenders or people with a tendency towards anti-social or criminal behaviour.[42]

Content-based risks

30.  Content-based risks have long been recognised in broadcasting and in film, and it is generally accepted that children will find certain material unacceptably shocking and disturbing, even if less currency perhaps is given nowadays to the notion that content might "deprave and corrupt", to use the term from the Obscene Publications Act 1959.[43] The same risks are present in content on the Internet, which will encompass not just broadcast programming but also on-demand entertainment, user-generated content and material made available through pressure groups and interest groups. The distinctive feature of the Internet, however, is the ease of access and the ready availability of potentially harmful material: the Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS) warned of the Internet's capacity to provide information "in an uncontrolled way which can be damaging to children".[44]

31.  CHIS told us that "children are known to come across and download age-inappropriate content or disturbing and upsetting material".[45] A joint submission from Professor Sonia Livingstone and Andrea Millwood Hargrave cited research suggesting that 16% of 8-15 year olds in the UK have come across "nasty, worrying or frightening" content online; they observed that this finding was repeated in other countries, sometimes with higher estimates.[46]

32.  The main concern for many parents is that children will come across pornography while searching the Internet. CHIS noted the "sheer volume" of pornographic material that is in circulation and the ease of access to it.[47] Such content is likely to be hosted outside the UK: the Internet Watch Foundation told us that it had not identified within the last two years any content hosted on UK servers which might fail the test of obscenity under the Obscene Publications Act 1959.[48]

33.  Other types of content, although perhaps less widespread, may in fact be no less threatening. The Government pointed out that terrorists used the Internet as an operational platform and as a tool for radicalisation and recruitment.[49] Some websites set up by fringe groups encourage illegal acts (such as assisted suicide) or incite hatred; others feature extreme, sadistic or graphic violence. Childnet International pointed out that not all information accessible on the Internet was necessarily accurate; both children and adults could be at risk, for instance, from misleading health advice.[50] Internet chatrooms can attract comments which are abusive or explicit and which others find distressing.

34.  Occasionally potentially illegal or harmful content, such as material which features violence or is sexually explicit or which is inflammatory or incites hatred, is uploaded to interactive sites featuring user-generated content. The Internet Watch Foundation, a self-regulatory body seeking to minimise the availability of potentially illegal or otherwise harmful content on the Internet,[51] told us that it had received just over 150 reports about material on social networking sites since 2005; on examination, none of the material was thought to be potentially illegal. At one point, there had been a growth in the number of reports about potentially illegal child sexual abuse content hosted on photo-sharing websites, although the Internet Watch Foundation noted that larger companies had since improved their security and abuse management policies.[52] We note the observation by Ofcom that public concern about harmful content appears to be more acute for sites which host user-generated content and which offer a "general use proposition" rather than those which are niche sites with a stated objective to share pornography or violent content.[53]

35.  There has also been concern about the use of virtual worlds (such as Second Life) where, although no-one in particular is a target, users have created avatars which have then simulated sexual abuse of children.[54]

36.  Certain video games have become notorious for their violent content. Manhunt, released in November 2003, is set in a lawless imaginary city populated by violent gangs of white supremacists, psychotic psychiatric patients and black magicians. The main character, whom the player 'directs' through the game, is a criminal on death row who proceeds to take on opponents and kill them. The distinctive feature of Manhunt is the brutality and the sadistic detail of the combat. A sequel, Manhunt 2, was released in March 2008. Initially, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) refused to award any classification because of its "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone" and its "unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying". The BBFC's decision was challenged and ultimately overturned in the High Court. Although the game has now received an 18 classification, the game's publisher, Rockstar Games, has still not released the game onto the UK market.

37.  Other controversial games include those from the Grand Theft Auto series, set in the underworlds of fictional cities. Players take on the role of lowlife criminals who, by carrying out bank robberies, assassinations or other criminal acts, rise through the ranks of the fictional cities' organised crime networks. Unlike Manhunt, games in the Grand Theft Auto series do include non-violent sequences and also feature a good deal of humour and irony. The latest edition has been hailed as taking gaming to the next level but it is clearly designed for adults and should be restricted to them.

Contact-based risks

38.  The Internet is an interactive public forum and one of its strengths is the ease of communication which it allows regardless of borders. This very ease of communication, however, which enables strangers to converse with each other, enables contact which is not sought and which may not be well-intentioned. Posting personal details or images on social networking sites can lead to uninvited contact from others, whose identity may be shrouded. As Mr Angus, Executive Vice-President and General Counsel for Fox Interactive Media, said, "people are not always who they say they are" and children need to make sure they know who they are talking to.[55] In the worst cases, sexual predators may use a casual exchange as a starting-point for a more intense relationship and "grooming". The Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS) described the Internet's capacity for facilitating sexual abuse of children "by persuading and manipulating them into secretive relationships or meetings with abusers or potential abusers". It added that "such sexual abuse may be contact abuse (through a meeting in the real world) or non-contact (through webcams and other means).[56]

39.  CHIS observed that chatrooms, social networking sites and other online fora were places where it was known that children might be identified and targeted.[57] Users of social networking sites provide personal details to build up "profiles" which can, if not carefully managed, be viewed by any other subscriber. Childnet International told us that children and young people were not discriminate about the information which they posted on social networking sites and that many young people uploaded music, images or videos without thought about long-term consequences.[58] Ofcom presented research suggesting that many users of social networking sites did not conceal their personal details and often included in their profiles their names, where they lived, the schools they attended or their places of work. Some also published their Instant Messenger account details. Some were unaware that the default privacy settings for their profile were "open", allowing people they did not know to see their page and their personal details. Many seemed unwilling to consider that there could be a risk attached to social networking.[59]

40.  Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave cited a study by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) suggesting that 25% of children and young people have gone on to meet someone in person that they first "met" online, although no data was available to quantify the harm, if any, caused.[60] Research conducted by Professor Livingstone and published in 2005 suggested that 46% of 9 to 19 year olds have divulged personal information to someone that they have met online.[61]

Conduct-based risks

41.  Children may be bullied by other children through use of new communications technologies, a practice commonly termed "cyber-bullying". Typically, photographs or videos may be taken of a bullying incident; those images are then circulated using mobile phones or video-sharing websites, "scaling up" the event and the potential distress caused. Different studies (based on different age groups) have yielded different figures for the proportion of children and young people who had been bullied by text, Internet or e-mail, but there is consistent evidence that between 10% and 20% of children have been cyber-bullied,[62] with girls more likely than boys to have suffered.[63] CHIS remarked upon the existence of "a great deal" of research evidence to show that bullying can have a devastating impact on children's social and emotional development".[64]

42.  The ease of distribution of images using mobile phones and the Internet can also encourage exhibitionist conduct. A recent and unwelcome practice is that of "happy slapping"—essentially a filmed assault (often using a mobile phone camera) which is then shared either among friends or with a wider audience, by being uploaded onto a site which hosts user-generated content. A BBC Panorama programme broadcast in June 2007 reported videos of children as young as 11 or 12 kicking and punching other children in the head. In one case, onlookers shouted "kill her"; in another, a 15-year-old girl was knocked unconscious and suffered a detached retina. Other types of conduct which might be filmed and uploaded to such sites include dangerous driving, displays of what appear to be firearms, and dangerous stunts or "dares" (for instance on railway tracks). Such content may not be illegal and may not, in some cases, even breach the Terms of Use drawn up by the site owner.[65]

43.  Some conduct—such as posting images of other people or comments about them on social networking services—may not be calculated to distress or shock but may nonetheless be deeply hurtful.

44.  Witnesses suggested that video games could cause harm not just because of their content but also because they could be addictive. The Children' Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS) reported that there was "a great deal of anxiety about excessive use of games" and possible consequences in deflecting children from schoolwork and the development of social skills.[66] David Cooke, Director of the British Board of Film Classification, cited evidence that people were playing games for more than 24 hours on end; he maintained that "with online gaming you are also incentivised to go on playing because you may lose your position […] if you do not go on playing very regularly."[67] Mr Carr, Executive Secretary of the Children's Charities Coalition for Internet Safety, said that in some countries there had been cases of children "dying at the console of exhaustion".[68] It is also alleged that video games may lead to low levels of physical activity and, potentially, to obesity.

How real is the risk from exposure to harmful content?

45.  A great deal of effort has been expended in debating and trying to establish whether certain types of content cause direct harm and whether exposure to violent content could cause violent behaviour. The issue has surfaced in this House from time to time, frequently in relation to the murder of Stefan Pakeerah in Leicester in February 2004: it is alleged that the behaviour of his attacker was triggered by playing Manhunt, a video game in which players are able to simulate violent killings.

46.  The debate about the effects of violent or sexual content is not a new one and has raged whenever the boundaries of what was deemed permissible content in visual entertainment have been stretched or following particularly harrowing events. Given the uncertainty about whether any causal link between viewed violence and subsequent behaviour exists, we asked Ofcom about the rationale for controls (such as the nine o'clock watershed) applied to content on television. Ofcom was satisfied that, on the balance of probability, there is a potential harm to children from exposure to certain content, and it noted that "very few people have actually challenged that".[69]

47.  The definition of what is "harmful" is not hard and fast: for one ten-year old a scene will seem very real and disturbing, whereas another will be able apparently to dismiss it or treat it as fantasy (although this does not necessarily mean that some form of harm does not occur).[70] Both children and young people may find it hard to interpret or filter information. Equally, as Dr Byron pointed out, one parent might take the view that children should not see certain content, whereas another might judge that it was instructive and "empowering" for a child to be aware that such content existed.[71] That is a judgment for each parent to make.

48.  Dr Byron identified the causal question as a key issue for her Review, as did Ofcom, which commissioned Professor Sonia Livingstone and Andrea Millwood Hargrave to update a review of research evidence published in 2006 on content-related harm across a variety of media.[72] The outcome remains uncertain, with the debate polarised between those who believe that there is evidence of a causal link and those who challenge the methodology underlying that evidence. One submission, from Professor Julian Petley,[73] described this debate as "an unbridgeable chasm between two entirely different kinds of research".[74] Dr Byron concluded that "there is some evidence of short term aggression from playing violent video games but no studies of whether this leads to long term effects" and also that "there is a correlation between playing violent games and aggressive behaviour, but this is not evidence that one causes the other". She points out that "arousal brought on by some games can generate stress-like symptoms in children" and that "games are more likely to affect perceptions and expectations of the real world amongst younger children, because of their less developed ability to distinguish between fact and fiction".[75] Ofcom said that, for adults, "it seems that playing violent video games is associated with emotional tension and arousal during play, and it may increase feelings of hostility to others or aggressive thoughts and behaviours following play", although it noted uncertainty about whether such effects would occur in real life (rather than just in experimental conditions) and whether such effects would last beyond the period immediately after game play.[76]

49.  Representatives of the games industry challenged the assertions that violent games led to violent behaviour. The Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) told us that "no credible evidence exists clearly linking gameplay with psychological or sociological risk" and that "no credible evidence exists linking combative gameplay behaviour with violent or anti-social behaviour in real life".[77] Dr Richard Wilson, chief executive officer of Tiga, said that "when we look at violent behaviour in society I am sure the evidence will show there is a much stronger link, for example, between alcohol abuse and violent behaviour".[78]

50.  The research base for assessing the possible harmful effects of sites which provide information about (and possibly encourage) suicide, or eating disorders, or those which project "hate speech", is less well documented. Ofcom noted that little or nothing was known about how young people (especially those from targeted groups, such as ethnic minorities) respond to hateful content.[79]

51.  The conclusion overall is that there is still no clear evidence of a causal link between activity or behaviour portrayed on-screen and subsequent behaviour by the person who viewed it.[80] Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave told us that the research evidence was "too patchy", particularly in relation to new media platforms. Other witnesses bore out this conclusion: the Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS) told us that "we do not know how or whether the sheer volume of pornographic material in circulation on the Internet, or the ease of access to it, affects children in terms of a distortion of their 'normal sexual development'". CHIS said that there had been no major research studies into the subject and that it was difficult to track the impact of exposure.[81]

52.  Dr Byron's conclusion on the addictive nature of video games was ambivalent. She said in her Review that "we need to consider whether excessive gaming by children is due to the addictive nature of video games for them or if it is more a matter of parents not feeling able to manage their children's behaviour effectively. […] Research has yet to determine whether some types of game are more addictive than others or whether there are inherent features, either individual characteristics (e.g. children with obsessive compulsive tendencies) or circumstantial features (e.g. children in situations of boredom) that predict high usage".[82] Dr Byron noted the ethical difficulty of undertaking research through exposing children to potentially harmful material, as did Mr Carr.[83]

53.  Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave argued that "to look for simple and direct causal effects of the media is not appropriate". They concluded, from their review of research literature on behalf of Ofcom, that there was "a lack of evidence for actual harm but evidence for the risk of harm".[84] However, the absence of any evidence of harm to children from the Internet does not necessarily prove that children are not being harmed;[85] and the lack of evidence of harm directly caused by exposure to content does not mean that there should not be controls. Dr Byron recommended that the protection of children from online dangers should be based on probability of risk.[86] Her conclusion echoes that of Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave, who proposed "a risk-based approach, which argues for the likelihood of risk rather than inevitable harm".[87] We agree that any approach to the protection of children from online dangers should be based on the probability of risk. We believe that incontrovertible evidence of harm is not necessarily required in order to justify a restriction of access to certain types of content in any medium.

54.  However, risks are part of growing up. Childnet International noted that it was important for children and young people to learn to understand, assess and manage risks, both online and offline, as part of the process of growing up.[88] Dr Byron, both in her evidence to us and in her Review, warned of a risk-averse culture and a "zero-risk" approach to parenting which, by restricting children's opportunities to take risks, socialise and develop, was causing children to take risks in an online environment which was poorly understood by adults.[89] We agree. It is sensible that parents set boundaries for their children's online activities, but a totally risk-averse culture in parenting will not equip children to face dangers which they will inevitably encounter as they grow older.

39   Q 194 Back

40   See Byron Review Back

41   Q 340 Back

42   See Ev 18 Back

43   The provisions of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 were applied to television and sound broadcasting by section 162 of the Broadcasting Act 1990, which specified that inclusion of any matter in a programme was "publication" within the meaning of the 1959 Act. Prosecutions for obscenity in audio-visual material are a matter for the police rather than for Ofcom: Annex 3 to Ofcom memorandum [not printed]  Back

44   Ev 4 Back

45   Ev 4 Back

46   Ev 16 Back

47   Ev 4 Back

48   If the effect of the material is, if taken as a whole, "such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it". See also Ev 43 Back

49   Ev 346 Back

50   Ev 10 Back

51   See paragraph 71 Back

52   Ev 45-46 Back

53   Ev 254 Back

54   Such activity led to a police investigation in Germany in May 2007: see Guardian 8 May 2007 Back

55   Q 387 Back

56   Ev 3 Back

57   Ev 3 Back

58   Ev 11 Back

59   Ev 229 Back

60   Ev 17 Back

61   Ev 117 Back

62   Ev 17. See also Mr Carrick-Davies, Q2 and Microsoft Ev 39. An early study by Goldsmith's College suggested a figure of 22%. Back

63   Research by Goldsmiths' College and the National Children's Home: see Third Report from the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, Bullying, Session 2006-07, HC 85, Ev 92 Back

64   Ev 4 Back

65   See Ofcom Ev 256 Back

66   Ev 2 Back

67   Q 570 Back

68   Q 3 Back

69   Q 504 Back

70   See Professor Livingstone Q 29 and 31 Back

71   Q 342 Back

72   Ev 189 Back

73   Professor of Film and Television at the School of Arts at Brunel University Back

74   Ev 361 Back

75   Byron Review, p 11 Back

76   Ev 245 Back

77   Ev 163 Back

78   Q 455 Back

79   Ev 16; Ofcom Ev 244 Back

80   For instance DCMS/BERR memorandum Ev 346 Back

81   Ev 4 Back

82   Byron Review, p 153 Back

83   Q 3; Q 342 Back

84   Ofcom, Ev 248 Back

85   Q 20 Back

86   Q 341 Back

87   Ev 18 Back

88   Ev 9 Back

89   Q 339 Back

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