Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Andrea Millwood Hargrave and Professor Sonia Livingstone


  1.1  Much of the evidence that is available to submit to this inquiry does not offer firm conclusions about the potential risk of harm from the Internet, video games and mobile telephony—but it is directional. That is, it does show that there may be such risks, particularly to "vulnerable" groups.

  1.2  The research shows that some of the risk derives from the greater range of content, and forms of contact and conduct, available on the Internet than the public is familiar with from broadcast and print media. Further, much of the risk comes from the nature of the delivery mechanisms which offer far greater accessibility to media contents that were less easy to find previously, especially by children and young people.

  1.3  Our review of the research literature reveals little published research about these potential harms as yet, for the delivery platforms and the possibilities of content manipulation are still too new for the research community—both researchers and research funders—to have considered them in detail. Although the body of rigorous and independently conducted work is increasing, there is still insufficient to replace anecdotal claims (regarding, for example, suicide, anorexia or race hate websites) with good evidence.

  1.4  We recommend a risk-based approach to regulation and policy-making, premised on the precautionary principle, and combined with other factors such as awareness raising although the ability of these additional measures (including media literacy) to help minimise risk have yet to be proven. A risk-based approach means that the consequences of access to and use of inappropriate or potentially harmful media content and contact must be understood as one factor among several putative causes of particular social harms for particular individuals or groups.


  2.1  Sonia Livingstone is a Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is author or editor of ten books (including Young People and New Media, Sage 2002) and 100+ academic articles and chapters on media audiences, children and the Internet, domestic contexts of media use and media literacy. Having recently directed the research project, UK Children Go Online, for the ESRC's e-society programme, her current projects include a 21 country thematic network, EU Kids Online, for the EC's Safer Internet Plus programme. She serves on the UK's Home Secretary's Task Force for Child Protection on the Internet, the DCSF's Ministerial Taskforce for Home Access to Technology for Children, Ofcom's Media Literacy Research Forum and, until recently, the Internet Watch Foundation.

  2.2  Andrea Millwood Hargrave is an independent advisor on media regulatory policy and research issues, working internationally across the communications field. With a keen interest in the benefits of the new technologies, she is developing a cross-industry evaluation framework for media literacy projects in the UK. As former Research Director of the UK's Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission, Andrea has published widely on media content issues, in particular as they relate to children. With Professor Sonia Livingstone, she published a review of the research evidence for harm and offence across a variety of media, currently being updated.[37]


  3.1  Much of the evidence submitted here is drawn from the review of the research evidence for content-related harm across a variety of media, mentioned above and published in 2006. This has since been updated, with the focus on children and young people, in response to a request from Ofcom for information to be submitted to the Byron Review.

  3.2  Nearly 1,000 research items form the database which has been mainly, but not exclusively, research from the United Kingdom and the United States of America. It is primarily, although not exclusively, academic, peer-reviewed research. A determination was made to look at recent research, and the research evidence is drawn from 2000 onwards. While much of the policy focus is on children, the review—like the Committee's inquiry—is not limited to children.

  3.3  The review was not designed to cover research evidence for the positive or pro-social benefits of the media, including the newer technologies that offer both economic and social opportunities to society. Both Professor Livingstone and I have written and spoken widely about these, although this is not the focus of this particular submission.

  3.4  It is important also to note that while there is an increasing body of research on the potential risks from possibly harmful material carried via the technologies considered by the inquiry (the Internet, video games and mobile telephony), much of the research evidence on the possible effects of harmful content is still focussed on the medium of television, and this drives many of the research (and policy) discussions of harm from the newer delivery mechanisms.

  3.5  We note that the inquiry is considering video games in particular, rather than interactive, internet-driven electronic gaming as a whole. Like television, video games are one-way and offer no return path. A key defining feature of both internet-delivered content and mobile telephony is that they offer such a return path. So whereas the potential for harm from video games is solely about inappropriate or harmful content, the concerns that there may be about the Internet and mobile telephony include inappropriate contact (such as bullying and the other areas outlined in the notice about the inquiry). Within this submission we look (briefly) at the research evidence for the risk of potential harm based on content and then, separately, the risk of potential harm from inappropriate contact.

3.6  Inappropriate or Potentially Harmful Content

  3.6.1  The research literature shows that young people come across a significant amount of unsolicited sexual material. In the UK, Ofcom's Media Literacy Audit on children (2006) noted found that 16% of 8-15-year-olds have come across "nasty, worrying or frightening" content online. This finding is repeated in other countries, with higher estimates in many countries, and with pornographic websites most frequently mentioned.

  3.6.2  It can be argued that there is little new about the content of online pornography, and the policy concerns about the effect of such material remain the same in any medium. However, the change is in the availability of such material offered, easily accessed, at times more extreme in nature, thus expanding the market's potential in several ways.

  3.6.3  There is little research evidence that looks at the potential of harm from sites such as the pro-suicide or pro-eating disorder sites, to name but two. Indeed the research studies considering sites and forums that deal with suicide or life-threatening illnesses such as cancer are often in conflict—they depend on the nature of the sites and, in some cases, they may offer timely social support to those in need.

  3.6.4  Hate speech is another area of concern on the Internet and through other easily accessed delivery platforms. The effect of such material on these platforms is not well-documented and in the USA, such content would be protected (in general) by the First Amendment, although it is illegal in many others such as France, Germany, Sweden and Canada.

  3.6.5  The limited research that there is would suggest that these areas fall within the realms of offence for many research respondents (Leets, 2001), although there are concerns that they might incite negative behaviour. However the concerns—expressed by US respondents—were not strong enough to suggest these should be banned (even if the legal framework allowed this). We found no research examining the effects of exposure to such sites by the minority groups (mainly, ethnic minorities) attacked by them.

  3.6.6  In the UK, Livingstone et al (2005) found that 9% of the sample of 9-19-year-olds they interviewed had accidentally visited a website hateful to a group of people and 2% had visited one on purpose. As with online pornography, half claim not to have been bothered but 27% were disgusted and 16% disliked what they saw. In general, the younger children surveyed (9-11-year-olds) are less likely to have encountered undesirable content, but more likely to be upset when they do.

  3.6.7  Much of the discussion about video games—both computer and internet-delivered—is concentrated around the potential for harm from violent content. There is an increasing body of research evidence which suggests there may be short-term negative effects, although the criticism of such research lies in its experimental methodology and sampling (as with criticism of television) and questions the validity of generalising such findings to everyday life.

  3.6.8  While much of the research (see Anderson et al, 2007, for example) centres on increases and changes in hostile emotions, attitudes and behaviour immediately following game play, there is also a body of research that links the playing of violent video games to low self-esteem. However, other research (Durkin, 1995) argues that game playing is generally sociable rather than solitary, especially on the Internet and may be a positive socialisation tool.

  3.6.9  A number of studies have looked at excessive video game playing which is likened to an addiction for a minority of players (Griffiths, 1998). Similarly the ease of access to gambling has also been discussed, although we have not considered that in particular in our review of the research.

3.7  Inappropriate or Potentially Harmful Contact

  3.7.1  In conducting the update of the research on the risk of harm from inappropriate contact (ie research published from 2005 to date), we note that while there has been an increase in research on the use of social networking sites, this research has concentrated on the fixed internet, although such sites are increasingly available on mobile telephony as a delivery platform.

  3.7.2  In terms of social networking, the research evidence shows that the issues of privacy, verifiability (including age verification) and anonymity is where the key policy concern should lie. There are a number of studies, both in the US and in Europe, that show that a significant proportion of young people communicate with strangers online.

  3.7.3  In the UK, a study by CEOP (2006) suggested that 25% of children and young people have gone on to meet someone in person that they first "met" online. The data are not available at this stage, to quantify what—if any—are the actual harms caused by such meetings, although there are highly publicised negative events created by such contact.

  3.7.4  Similarly a Europe-wide study, the Mediappro study (2006), noted that while almost half (47%) of children surveyed say they never talk to people on the Internet that they do not know, it seems that 1 in 3 do.

  3.7.5  The research evidence (though scant, as yet) also shows that young people post material about themselves which otherwise would be considered "private". In many cases they do this knowing how to restrict stranger-access to such information on their sites, although there is some evidence suggesting that this may occur because of limitations primarily in the interface design of the sites used. They also post such information (including images) as part of the playful and risk-taking culture of adolescence, rendering wise advice to be careful ineffective in practice.

  3.7.6  Many of the concerns about the posting of such information relate to concerns about inappropriate contact, especially sexual predation, but there is some evidence to show that many young people have an imperfect understanding of the way in which the Internet works (the way in which data are cached) and they do not appreciate the potential long-term consequences of publishing such information, including for their future employment.

  3.7.7  The inquiry also refers to cyber-bullying (and harassment). Here it is primarily the issues of rapid dissemination and anonymity that are the concerns. A study by NCH (2005) had found that 20% of a sample of 11-19-year-olds had been bullied via text or the Internet or email. While such figures were lower in the MSN Cyber bullying Report (2006) at 11% of 12-15-year-olds, most of the sample (74%) had told no-one. As with bullying in general, it is this inability to report cyber bullying that raises concerns, children's fear being that their internet access may then be withdrawn, as well as the difficulty of removing such material once it is placed on the Internet.

  3.7.8  There is as yet, little research evidence about the harms created by user-generated content.


  4.1  We have argued, as a result of this research review, that to look for simple and direct causal effects of the media is not appropriate. The research evidence is too patchy—especially where the new media delivery platforms are concerned, where it is sometimes non-existent. However we do argue that the research evidence suggests that the media should be seen as one of a range of factors that directly, and indirectly through interactions with each other, combine to explain particular social phenomena. In our original work we say "In some cases, this may reduce the focus on the media—for example, by bringing into view the many factors that account for present levels of aggression in society. In other cases, it may increase the focus on the media—for example, in understanding the role played by the Internet in facilitating paedophiles' access to children".

  4.2  We recommend this is done by adopting a risk-based approach, which argues for the likelihood of risk rather than inevitable harm. The research shows that not all users of content and delivery platforms are affected equally and many, it appears, are not affected at all. However the research does suggest that there can be greater negative influences on those who are "vulnerable". While there is no standard definition of "vulnerability", the findings imply vulnerable audiences/users may include children and young people, especially boys, together with a range of other groups among the adult population (including psychologically disturbed individuals, people who are depressed, sexual offenders, young offenders, etc).

  4.3  Similarly, while we note mounting evidence that internet-based and mobile communication technologies are being incorporated into practices of bullying, harassment and other forms of malicious peer-to-peer communication, it is not yet clear that these technologies are responsible for an increase in the incidence of such practices. However, the research does suggest that the combination of convenience and ease of use with the highly personalised, private and often anonymous conditions under which these technologies are used may introduce new kinds of problems for users, as well as exacerbating old ones.

  4.4  We also argue against a premise of regulation that talks of technology-neutral content delivery, as the research shows that the public does not treat technology as equivalent and that the domestic and technological conditions of access vary; these and other factors differentially affect, at least at present, how people approach and respond to different media.

  4.5  Finally while we agree with, and are fully supportive of, the growing efforts to raise awareness among parents and children regarding the risks of media use, we note that there is as yet little evidence that such awareness-raising, or even parental mediation, is effective in reducing the extent or nature of risk or, indeed, in affecting how children respond to risk when encountered. This point may seem counter-intuitive and we note that, while it seems likely that awareness and increased media literacy have a positive role to play in the management of content-related risks, this strategy should not be relied upon, and more research in this area—and on what works best—is urgently needed.

January 2008

37   Millwood Hargrave, A, and Livingstone, S. (2006). Harm and Offence in Media Content. Intellect Press. Back

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