The role of parents
175. The Children's Charities' Coalition for
Internet Safety told us that "in our experience, it tends
to be that the majority of parents have a poor understanding of
what children are actually doing online and an even poorer understanding
of how to protect them in that space".
It commented on "the overwhelming gap between what parents
know and what children know in terms of the technical aspects
of IT"; and it recommended "a major public awareness
campaign that educates adults and children about Internet safety".
Ofcom's survey of children, young people and online content, published
in October 2007, recorded high levels of concern among parents
about Internet content but an alarming lack of knowledge about
where to find information to help them protect their children
online: 57% of parents said that they did not know where to find
176. Dr Byron told us that she had been struck
by how people were not warning their children about the dangers
of contact on the Internet because they were unaware of what their
children were doing while they were online. She said that "a
lot of people think when their kids are going online that they
are watching television and so the Internet is used as an electronic
nanny. It is not: it is actually like opening your front door
and saying "Go on then, go and play"".
Mr Gamble, Chief Executive Officer of the Child Exploitation and
Online Protection Centre (CEOP), pursued a similar point: he observed
that a parent who allowed a child to enter a shopping mall would
first warn and educate that child about the dangers. He said that
parents had "a responsibility with regard to how you empower
young people with information which makes them safe"; he
argued that the same responsibility applied in the online environment
as in the offline one.
177. Yet parents can be unduly relaxed about
their children's activities on the Internet or when playing video
games. Professor Livingstone spoke of "a kind of casualness
within the home or a difficulty for parents" in regulating
Microsoft told us that parents tended to allow their children
more freedom in the online world than in the offline world: for
example, they would allow their children to play a computer game
rated as suitable only for older children but would not allow
their children to watch a film with such a rating.
One witness told us of research suggesting that although the large
majority of parents were aware of the existence of an age-related
video rating system, they did not always operate it, possibly
because they had not played video games themselves when children
and were not familiar with the type of content.
Dr Byron had herself witnessed an adult buying a classified game
for a child, reasoning that it was "only a game".
178. Ofcom, in support of its submission to the
Byron Review, conducted a survey of research into Internet use
and safety. It found that:
"while many parents seem to have a good understanding
of what their child uses the Internet for at home, there are some
notable exceptions: they seem to be underestimating, in particular,
game playing, watching video clips, using social networking sites
and contributing comments to someone else's webpage
one in five parents do not know if their child has a social networking
Parents also appeared not to be fully aware of their
children's exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate content
when away from home, particularly when accessing the Internet
at friends' or relatives' houses.
The research exposed discrepancies between parents' perceptions
of their children's Internet use and children's accounts of their
use: it would appear that parents often believe that their child
does not have a social networking profile or has not viewed sites
featuring user-generated content when the child claims that in
fact they do have a profile or have viewed such content.
Alternatively, parents may not appreciate fully the reach of sites
hosting user-generated content: a Minister told us of his surprise
at finding that one of his daughter's videos on YouTube had been
viewed by over 100,000 people.
Recent research commissioned by Orange found that 65 per cent
of parents aged 41-60 had never accessed a social networking site
while 65 per cent of under 16s use social networking sites at
least once a week.
179. Childnet International warned that parents'
ignorance of the potential harm could isolate a child, who might
choose not to confide in a parent who it perceived as being ill-equipped
to give advice. It also noted that young people might fear that
the parent or carer would respond by confiscating their mobile
phone or limiting their Internet access.
Microsoft told us that it advised parents to "make it clear
from the moment you give your child online access that it will
never be taken away because of them reporting inappropriate or
offensive behaviour", and it observed that only 17% of children
who had been victims of cyberbullying had told their parents,
precisely because they feared having their Internet access taken
away. Dr O'Connell,
Chief Safety Officer at Bebo, reinforced this point.
180. Ofcom clearly believes that responsibility
will rest increasingly with parents. When we discussed with Ed
Richards, Chief Executive Officer at Ofcom, how a regulatory framework
might control access to content when technology was enabling access
on demand to material beyond jurisdictional reach or was eroding
the relevance of established controls such as the nine o'clock
watershed for television broadcasts, Mr Richards replied: "Is
it possible for parents to police the access of their children
to certain content by using that software or that hardware in
a particular way? I think in all honesty that is the territory
we are heading into. It is very difficult to imagine us regulating
the broadcast stream in a particular different way unless we were
to say that we are now going to stop certain content even after
nine o'clock, which is almost unimaginable".
181. Ms Church, Mobile and Broadband Safety Services
Manager at Orange UK, told us that a child needed to be able to
cope with the risks of the real world and that "there is
no substitute for a parent sitting down, discussing what is safe
and responsible use and ensuring complete understanding of what
the risks are on the Internet.
When we raised with Mr Purvis, the Partner for Content and Standards
at Ofcom, the question of how to control children's access to
adult content which could now be downloaded on demand at any time
of day, he pointed out that parents had a responsibility to use
the tools available to control access: "parents have not
shirked it over sending them to bed at nine o'clock so why somehow
should it be thought acceptable for parents to shirk the responsibilities
in an online area"?
182. In the past, parents have been able to exercise
some control, if they chose, over their children's Internet access,
by siting home computers in a communal area such as the living-room,
rather than in a child's bedroom. While this remains a sound principleand
there are particular dangers in siting webcams in children's bedroomsit
is of less value now that children often access the Internet through
portable devices such as laptops or mobile phones, which allow
unsupervised access. Mr Bartholomew, Head of Public Affairs at
O2, pointed out that there were now other types of
device (such as the iPod touch and the Sony PSP) which allowed
Internet access while "on the move"; none of these used
the mobile phone network and they thereby fell outside content
regulation structures built up by the network operators.
183. Dr Byron examined in great detail the scope
for improving children's and parents' media literacy. Her recommendations
included a "properly funded education and public information
and awareness campaign on child internet safety", a "one-stop
shop" for child Internet safety within the DirectGov information
network, and more stress upon e-safety in schools and on teacher
training programmes. She also urged better use by parents of parental
control software and safe search settings on computers used at
184. The Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet
Safety proposed that computer hardware supplied for home use should
have child safety software installed and set to the highest level
of security. Although
Dr Byron accepted the case for the supply of hardware with safety
software already installed, she did not agree that it should be
set to the highest level: she believed that it would be more valuable
to require users to make a decision, when setting up the hardware,
on what level of filtering they would choose to apply. She also
suggested that users could find the highest level of filtering
so restrictive that they simply switched it off altogether.
Microsoft suggested that consumers might become so frustrated
that they would migrate to a different technology which enabled
more open and uncontrolled access to inappropriate content.
185. We endorse the thrust of
Dr Byron's recommendations on improving media literacy, and we
commend her for her approach. However,
we believe that the one-stop shop will only be worth locating
on the DirectGov website if search tools, social networking sites,
video-sharing sites and Internet service providers offer a direct
link: otherwise the one-stop shop will languish in obscurity.
We also recommend that all new computer equipment sold for
home use should be supplied with a standard information leaflet,
to be agreed with the IT hardware and software industries through
the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, containing advice for
parents on Internet safety tools and practices.
186. We agree with Ofcom that
parents will need to take on greater responsibility for protecting
children from harm from the Internet and from video games. In
particular, they should be aware of the consequences of buying
devices which allow unsupervised access to the Internet; they
should have more knowledge of young children's social networking
activities and be more familiar with video game content, thereby
gaining a better understanding of the risks; and they should,
wherever possible, discuss those risks openly with their children.
We recommend that the UK
Council for Child Internet Safety should investigate ways of communicating
these messages to parents.