Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Tenth Report

5  Media literacy

Why media literacy matters

160.  Many of the controls described earlier in this Report, such as filter settings and privacy settings for social networking profiles, are designed to be applied by consumers, at their discretion. Such controls can only be effective if consumers understand what choices they have, and the evidence to this inquiry has suggested that many consumers are either unsure of what is being offered and what their choices are or they are unaware of why those choices matter.

161.  The understanding needed to make those informed choices underlies the term 'media literacy',[286] enshrined in section 11 of the Communications Act 2003, which places upon Ofcom duties to bring about (or encourage others to bring about) better public understanding and awareness of aspects of material published using electronic media. Ofcom told us that it did "absolutely everything we can" to carry out that duty: it would spend more than double what it would receive in Grant in Aid in 2008-09 because of the priority which the Ofcom Board accorded to it. Ofcom sees its role as an enabler, not, for instance delivering information campaigns but rather helping in the co-ordination and promotion of initiatives.[287]

162.  The need for greater awareness of the risks and the ways in which they might be controlled was widely recognised in evidence and was one of the main themes of the Byron Review.

Steps taken to raise awareness

163.  It was put to us that manufacturers and retailers selling Internet-enabled devices for the domestic market did "not routinely provide any safety-related advice about the technology".[288] Some believe that hardware manufacturers and retailers have shirked their duty to inform consumers: the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS) criticised what it saw as manufacturers' and retailers' reliance upon parents to take the initiative in buying and installing safety software.[289] We also note the observation by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, in its inquiry into Personal Internet Security, that "the current assumption that end-users should be responsible for security is inefficient and unrealistic".[290] Witnesses representing Internet-based services, on the other hand, drew attention to the comprehensive safety information which they placed on their websites.[291]

164.  The Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety criticised the Internet industry for failing to match expenditure on advertising products with expenditure on child protection.[292] We asked witnesses from the industry about their budgets for child protection in the UK, but few were able to give us figures. BT suggested that it spent £1 million, "possibly more".[293] AOL said that "we do not have a figure because it is integrated in any of our products".[294] Neither Bebo nor MySpace were able to give us definitive figures for the UK in oral evidence, pointing out that there was no distinct safety budget,[295] or that safety efforts "were on a global basis" and could not be broken down by country,[296] or that spending on safety was difficult to identify as it was integral to the company.[297] MySpace subsequently provided us with a figure for its overall annual safety budget, and Google provided a figure for spending in the UK on online child protection. Both of these figures we have treated in confidence, as requested.

165.  We note that mobile network operators have created a dedicated website for teachers, offering information and advice on how to manage issues associated with misuse of mobile phones.[298] The Government and the Internet industry have jointly sponsored the Get Safe Online campaign, designed to educate users on how to protect themselves online and to make people aware of the treats to their personal security.[299]

166.  The information provided by much of the industry is complemented by leaflets, websites and campaigns mounted by the voluntary sector. A CD on child internet safety produced by Childnet International—Know IT All for Parents—has been made available to all maintained schools in England free of charge: over one million orders were received within a few months.[300] Childnet International cited O2 as a network operator which had agreed to use a checklist drawn up by Childnet, in its communications with customers, prompting parents with questions that they should ask mobile operators in order to ensure that available protective measures were in place on their child's phone.[301] BT listed many other sites offering safety advice, including,,, and[302]

167.  Jim Gamble, Chief Executive Officer of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), reminded us of the educational work undertaken by the Centre, complementing its law enforcement activities. The Centre has launched a national campaign—Think U Know—providing advice on how to have fun online, how to stay in control online, and how to report online. Since July 2006, CEOP has trained over 4,000 school liaison officers, educational professionals and local safeguarding children board members in the programme. Mr Gamble told us that "we want to make sure that our education programme goes to every single child in the country, not just the ones in mainstream schooling but those who are vulnerable and harder to reach".[303] CEOP has also established a Youth Advisory Panel, composed of 60 children aged between 11 and 16 "working to help us ensure that all our resources and messaging remain contemporary, engaging and clear".[304] CEOP's efforts in this area have been impressive, and we believe that it should have the resources to continue to fund this work.

168.  The wealth of information available to consumers in the UK may be almost overwhelming. BT accepted that all such sites appeared to provide good advice, even if they took different approaches, but it argued that "what is missing is an overall campaign that pulls all of the initiatives together"; and other witnesses agreed.[305] Mr Lansman, Secretary-General of the Internet Service Providers Association, pointed out that information needed to be available in hard copy format, which would be more likely to be read by parents than online information.[306]

169.  Several witnesses questioned how extensively filters were understood and used. Microsoft accepted that some of the tools which it offered to parents to filter harmful content were not very widely used, though this did not necessarily mean that there was low awareness.[307] Childnet believed that there were still parents who were not aware of the tools available, did not know how to use them or deactivated them because they blocked too much material.[308]

170.  BT disputed claims that uptake of parental controls was low. It observed that less than one third of UK households had dependent children and concluded that it had to be borne in mind, when dealing with figures for take-up of controls, that two thirds of households did not have dependent children. BT estimates that 42% of its broadband customers that have children aged between 5 and 15 have in fact set up parental controls.[309]

171.  The Australian Federal Government, in an attempt to increase general awareness of the value of filtering tools, used public funding to offer a filtered service or a free filter for home computers, either for download from a dedicated website or supplied on CD. Internet service providers were also required to offer filters to new and existing customers at no additional cost.[310]

172.  We also note the opinions of Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave that there is as yet little evidence that efforts to raise awareness have been effective in the extent or nature of risk or in affecting how children respond to risk. They concluded that while it seems likely that awareness and increased media literacy have a positive role to play in the management of content-related risks, more research in the area—and on what worked best—was urgently needed.[311]

173.  Other tools, besides filtering, are being developed for use by parents or carers in controlling children's Internet access. Using Microsoft's Family Safety Settings, parents can generate activity reports for each family user, chronicling their children's Web browsing and online communication history.[312] MySpace told us that it was developing software which, once downloaded onto a PC, would reveal information which had been provided by users (such as age, user name and home town). Parents could then establish whether their child had a MySpace profile and, if so, what age they had claimed to be, regardless of the computer subsequently used by that child to log into the MySpace site.[313]

174.  Childnet International told us that it firmly believed that the "key universal point of access in engaging with children, young people and schools in managing the potential and actual risks of engaging with the Internet is through schools".[314] The Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS) recommended that Internet safety skills should be a part of the PSHE element of the national curriculum,[315] although it argued that to rely solely upon schools as the vehicle to reach parents would not be sufficient, as "some of the most vulnerable children and parents will have little contact with school".[316]

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".[317] 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 such material.[318]

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"".[319] 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.[320]

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 game-playing.[321] 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.[322] 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.[323] Dr Byron had herself witnessed an adult buying a classified game for a child, reasoning that it was "only a game".[324]

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 … Around one in five parents do not know if their child has a social networking site profile".[325]

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.[326] 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.[327] 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.[328] 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.[329] 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.[330] Dr O'Connell, Chief Safety Officer at Bebo, reinforced this point.[331]

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".[332]

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.[333] 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"?[334]

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 principle—and there are particular dangers in siting webcams in children's bedrooms—it 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.[335]

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 home.[336]

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.[337] 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.[338] 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.[339]

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.

286   See also UK Film Council submission, Ev 47 Back

287   Q 522 Back

288   Ev 6 Back

289   Ev 6, Q 32 Back

290   Fifth Report of the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology: Personal Internet Security, HL 165-I, Session 2006-07, paragraph 3.67 Back

291   For instance Microsoft on the MSN site Ev 39, T-Mobile Ev 63, O2 Ev 67, Orange Ev 71, MySpace Ev 152 Back

292   Ev 7 Back

293   Q 212 Back

294   Q 216 to 219 Back

295   MySpace Q 396 Back

296   MySpace Q 395 Back

297   Bebo Q 407 Back

298   Ev 67 Back

299   Internet Service Providers Association Ev 99  Back

300   Ev 12 Back

301   Ev 12 Back

302   Ev 104. See also Ofcom Ev 264 Back

303   Q 183 Back

304   CEOP Annual Review 2007-08, page 20 Back

305   Ev 104. See also Q 73 and 74; ISPA Ev 100 Back

306   Q 255 Back

307   Q 46 Back

308   Ev 12 Back

309   Ev 103 Back

310   Childnet Ev 12 and Ofcom Ev 259 Back

311   Ev 18 Back

312   Ev 36 Back

313   Ev 151 Back

314   Ev 11 Back

315   Ev 7 Back

316   Ev 5 Back

317   Ev 5 Back

318   Ev 234; see also Q 535 Back

319   Q 337 Back

320   Q 167 Back

321   Q 3 Back

322   Ev 31 Back

323   Q 51 Back

324   Q 346 Back

325   Ev 191 Back

326   Ev 210 Back

327   Ev 219 and 220 Back

328   Q 623 Back

329   Ev 11. See also submission from Professor Livingstone and Ms Millwood Hargrave Ev 17, Mr Carrick-Davies Q 20 Back

330   Ev 39 Back

331   Q 388 Back

332   Q 507 Back

333   Q 117 Back

334   Q 520 Back

335   Q 136 Back

336   Byron Review paragraph 4.74 and much of chapter 5, for instance paragraphs 5.46 and 5.73 Back

337   Q 32 Back

338   Q 377 Back

339   Q 52 Back

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