Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 331-339)


1 APRIL 2008

  Chairman: We now move on the second part of this session and I should like to welcome Dr Tanya Byron. Thank you for your patience for the previous session. Adrian Sanders is going to start.

  Q331  Mr Sanders: How would you say your professional background has helped shape the review?

  Dr Byron: That is an interesting question. The review was an extremely challenging six months. If I knew then what I know now I wonder whether I would have said yes, but I think I would have done, I have really enjoyed it; it has been a fascinating experience. I can answer the question by talking about the skills I think it has really drawn on. I suppose primarily I am an academic with a background in child development, so my academic background is in the understanding of models of child development and how children develop, how children think and how children behave. In addition to that, I have a clinical career of almost 20 years working mostly with children, young people and families, and specifically as a consultant I have worked with vulnerable children and young people in secure units, medium secure units or in open units with children who had to be detained under the Mental Health Act. I am a writer and broadcaster, which I think was useful in terms of the writing of the report, and also thinking about ways in which quite complex arguments could be understandable to many people and useable so that there was take-out information from the report particularly for parents and teachers. I am a mother, I have two children, my son is ten, my daughter is almost 13, and they use these technologies. When I was asked to do the review, another reason I said yes is because I realised how little I knew and felt it would be useful in my own home to know what I know now. That is probably the combination of skills that I brought to this.

  Q332  Mr Sanders: Is there anything specifically that you have learned through conducting this review that has changed how you communicate with your children in the home and what boundaries you set for them?

  Dr Byron: I promised my son particularly that I would not talk about him directly in this Committee, but yes it has.

  Q333  Mr Sanders: He will never forgive you!

  Dr Byron: No, he will never forgive me.

  Q334  Chairman: My son is not speaking to me.

  Dr Byron: And I remember, John, because I was there and I think I had a word with you afterwards actually but there we go; we all live and learn and we all move on! I have always had an understanding around parental filters and they have been an important part of the way I have parented my children with technology. My children do not have computers in their bedrooms and never have done and I feel that is very important. As a broadcaster and a writer on child development generally, I have a real issue about young children's bedrooms particularly becoming multimedia stations in homes, and certainly when I write about things like literacy and so on I do have concerns around that and family time. The dialogues with both my children are very different. My daughter is older and we have a different relationship. She is female and, not wishing to be sexist, in terms of the way that she thinks about the world at her age, in the way that I do not read her diary, there are times when she is on-line and I respect that but I also respect that we have a relationship where we can discuss things. With my son it is much more monitored and supervised. When he is gaming, we know where he is, there are times around when he plays, there are rules in the house around when he plays such as "do your homework first" and no-one plays games when they are eating meals, things like that. I am not saying I am a model parent, I make mistakes like everybody else does, but this is a big challenge for parents and my review was about challenging government and challenging industry, and I feel I have done that robustly as much as I could, but it was also about empowering parents, I suppose, to span this generational technological divide which is so prevalent at the moment.

  Q335  Mr Sanders: Is it just a generational divide? Is there not actually a real divide between somebody who is informed and technologically aware above average and a lot of parents who are not, and how will this review reach those parents who at the moment are not adopting the sensible attitude towards the technology that you are in your own home?

  Dr Byron: That is a good point that you make and in the report I set out a grid where it was really interesting for us, particularly when we were doing the focus group research, where we found that there was a variety of ways that parents chose to parent their children around their Internet use or their gaming, and some parents are very controlling, some parents are very liberal, some parents use lots of filters, and some parents monitor less, and so on. What was interesting was that parents who felt they could parent their children in whatever way they chose were those who had an understanding of the technology so at least they were "web 1.0 parents" even if their children were "web 2.0". I considered myself a web 1.0 parent before I did this review. I did not understand the notion of user-generated content and so on, as I do now. I am excited by it and it has not frightened me for my children but it has made me more aware. As you know, I have recommended quite substantial things to government, quite big challenges, and I have recommended investment in a huge marketing campaign; I have called it a "social marketing" campaign. As a child, I remember the "clunk-click" campaigns and I am thinking we need "think-click" campaigns. We need campaigns to reach people in their homes through public broadcasting, through newspapers, through magazines, in schools, through HR departments and so on. That is what I am recommending; I hope it is robustly taken up.

  Q336  Mr Sanders: What part may you play in developing and putting into practice the action plan that you have recommended for Government?

  Dr Byron: Can I say I am going on holiday first! I have no plans to be actively involved in the implementation of this review. I have to say I feel very passionately about the review now and I am really pleased at how vigorously it was taken up on the day that I published. The Prime Minister asked me if I would come back and re-review, as I have recommended, in 2011, to make sure that what I have recommended has been implemented and within the time lines that I have recommended, because I do not want things to be set up in a nice thought about way that takes a bit of time; I want things to get going now. I am considering at the moment whether I will do that.

  Q337  Rosemary McKenna: Can I just say how welcome the report was. I think it is a fantastic report and it is timeous and it has to be implemented within the time lines because we have been aware of the issue for some time. I am also talking as a user and a grandparent so I want to get these things in place as quickly as possible. We have just heard how inadequately some of the social networking sites are monitored. Just how dangerous is the Internet for children?

  Dr Byron: I think the dangers of the Internet correlate strongly with the benefits of the Internet and I think that is something that we need to think about really carefully. The Internet can help you make new friends but it can also mean people who you do not want to know who you are or where you are or what you look like can get information about you. For me, if we start at the very basic parenting level, we feel empowered to say to our children "don't talk to strangers," or "don't give your details out to people who you do not know" and so on, but what really struck me is how people are not engaging in that conversation at all with their children because they do not even know that is what they are doing. A lot of parents think when their kids are going on-line 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," and we do not want our children to go and play unsupervised until we are clear that they are independent. There are very clear dangers which are defined by law. I commend CEOP and the Internet Watch Foundation, I think you have heard from both of them, and the work that they do there is extraordinary and important and must be well-resourced to continue. I have made recommendations about how the law needs to further clarify illegal content, contact and conduct on-line and I think it is important that we think across those three different domains. The big debate we are having at the moment is about suicide websites and I think dangers when it comes to an individual child are very much located within the child, to do with risk and protective factors, so protective factors exist within the home, within family relationships and within how much their parents understand technology. Risk factors make vulnerable children more vulnerable but that is both off-line and on-line, and I think there is a blurring of the off-line and the virtual worlds and, definitely, children do not see these worlds as different. When they are being bullied at school and it then happens on-line it is a blur across the two worlds.

  Q338  Rosemary McKenna: I think that is true and what I am concerned about is that those children who are already vulnerable are likely to be the ones who are most vulnerable when they go on-line because they will not have the relationship with their parents nor will their parents have the understanding of the dangers. Is it possible to run a campaign which would alert those parents and would really let them understand exactly without scaring them off the Internet?

  Dr Byron: I think the campaign has to be thought about really carefully and I think that targeted marketing of different kinds of ideas to different families and so on has to be thought about carefully, as you say. With my child protection hat on, with the background that I have in child protection, I also know that there are some extremely vulnerable children and young people who have parents who will probably not respond to any kind of messaging which is distressing and disturbing and something which we have to think about often as a society. Those children sometimes are in schools and so I have also made a number of recommendations about how we can support schools in terms of thinking about e-safety. We know that boys are particularly vulnerable if they have no permanent and strong male role model in their lives. Often these boys do make attachments to male role models in schools so it is also about looking at how schools and staff within schools can support these children. What is really interesting is on-line there are also ways in which vulnerable children can be supported and detected and, for me, it is also thinking about that and resourcing that as much as we can.

  Q339  Rosemary McKenna: I also think it is quite important that we do not over-protect children and there is an issue about that anyway in the non-virtual world, if you like, with children being escorted to and from school, et cetera, all the kind of things that I think tend to not prepare children to face risk or to understand risk. Can we do that, can we manage that balance?

  Dr Byron: I am really glad you have made that point because I have made the point several times in the report and I make it often when I write in my column for The Times. I have real concerns generally that we are living in a risk-averse culture and we have a zero-risk approach to parenting. It is very difficult to say that without people thinking that what I am implying is that children should just be left to roam free and face all the dangers of the world. That is not what I am saying but, ironically, what we did find from the focus groups and from talking to children—and you know that most of the respondents to my report have been children, more than all industry, all adults and everybody it was kids who were writing to me, blogging with me and so on—is that as we become more anxious about the off-line world, the real world, so we are restricting our children access to play outside and all the things that we all did as kids, children who, because of the developmental imperative to take risks and to socialise, and this is how you develop, you take risks and you socialise, it is what development is about, and because they are inside the home they are going on-line and they are doing exactly the same things, and I would argue they are almost more at risk because they are doing exactly what they want to do, socialising and taking risks, but they are doing it in a space where the grown-ups under whose care and control they are, have no real understanding or idea. For me the irony is that as we try and protect our children in the off-line world in an overprotective way we might be pushing them into risk in the on-line world without them really knowing that.

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