Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)


1 APRIL 2008

  Q340  Adam Price: Looking at risk in the on-line world, I think your categorisation of content, contact and conduct is a very useful way of being a bit more specific because I think that is part of how we avoid a risk-averse culture by being clear about the nature and scale of the risk. Could you just say a little bit about the principal risks that you see to child development? We understand those associated with inappropriate contact but could you say a little bit about what the risks are related to exposure to inappropriate content to children on-line?

  Dr Byron: I suppose a useful way of thinking about this is to think about the development of the frontal cortex, if I could have that conversation with you. This is quite a useful way of thinking in how we can help children manage risk anyway, whether it is on-line or off-line. We need to think about the ability of the individual child at a neural level. Neural networks in the brain are still developing throughout childhood into early adulthood. In the frontal cortex of the brain the neural networks are very underdeveloped at birth and they take time to develop. It is not really until adolescence that the neural networks at the front of the brain are linking back to other bits of the brain. This part of the brain is very involved in the kinds of skills that children, young people and adults need in order to evaluate and manage risk. Those would be things like critically evaluating what it is I am seeing, having an ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and being able to manage my own impulsive urge to behave in a particular way, being able to regulate my emotion in terms of how it is going to impact on my behaviour. Clearly with very young children we see that we have to have a very high level of supervision and monitoring in the off-line world, and if you do not mind me saying, we have locks on doors so kids cannot just run out of houses, when they get older they play in gardens but there are gates, and so on and so on. For me it is about thinking about the age of the child in terms of developmental profiles and thinking about what is that child competent to be able to manage. For particular kinds of content I am stating very clearly not just in terms of the Internet but in terms of video games that adult content is not appropriate for young children, and we need to be very clear about that and we need to have the courage to say no to our children, to set up filters, to have a clear video game classification system where we are clearly saying: you do not buy that for your child because what they are going to be experiencing, they may not be able to think about in a way that is helpful for them."

  Q341  Adam Price: I think in the report you went into some detail looking at the research to date in this area and some people might be surprised that the research at this stage is mixed and possibly even equivocal that there does not seem to be substantial evidence in relation to the different categories of harmful content. Were you surprised by that? Is that a fair assessment of where we are at in terms of our understanding based on the research?

  Dr Byron: To be frank, initially I was quite disappointed because when I first started this review, what was really clear from the outset is the polarisation of debate and the emotion and the arguments: "Yes it does,", "No it does not," freedom of speech/censorship and the way that I suppose new media has always been met in society and there is moral panic. There are real things to be afraid of, absolutely, and I have written about them, but also the kind of fear that comes beyond that which is the fear of the unknown. For me as a social scientist I thought let us cut through that and go to the research and then I found that the polarisation of debate exists in almost the same way in the research. It depends who you are talking to. There are some researchers who will say, "I can show you unequivocal evidence of harm," but then there are others who can say, "Yes, but you know what, look at your methods, they are wrong," and when you look at the video games research for example, where you see a huge polarisation of debate, those researchers who claim violent video games make you violent, that is lab-based research that shows short-term effects which many people would say you cannot then generalise into the long term. So for me it was about stepping away from that and rather than just arguing and table-banging and continuing this polarisation of debate, while children are still merrily running along there and doing what they are doing, let us not get too hooked into looking for a simple causal model and let us look at one that talks about probability of risk and in locating probability of risk then you locate it within the child and you say let us think less about what the technology does to the child but what the child brings to the technology and how that is going to mediate benefit or risk for that child.

  Q342  Paul Farrelly: We are all parents or grandparents and if we waited for the child psychologists and scientists to prove causality as a human race we never would have adopted a moral code in the first place, would we, so there are boundaries that we as parents set without waiting for causality because we have taken a judgment, right or wrong, that something is inappropriate or wrong. Should we not have the same approach to the Internet?

  Dr Byron: I think we should and that is why I think most of my recommendations are very much about empowering the end consumer. For me it is a question of who do we want to make that decision. Do we want government to make that decision at a network level of blocking? Can I just be clear here, I am not talking about illegal material, I hope you are clear that I have very strong views about illegal material and I am very clear that that needs to be thought about very carefully and we should not be unequivocal about that at all, but harmful and inappropriate; what does that mean? One person's harm is another person's offence is another person's distress for their child is another person's, "I want my child to see this while they are with me because it is empowering for them." For example in the pro-ana debate there are parents who have said, "I find it useful to go to these websites to sit down with my daughter and say, "Look at this, this is where it could go." For me it is about having the ability to think about all of those views and embrace them in a way that empowers each individual to make the right decision for their child with all the caveats, as we have said earlier, for vulnerable children. I agree with what you are saying, that you do not want people like me saying, "Here is the evidence; now do it." It is about commonsense, it is about judgment, it is about good parenting. Given this technology digital divide, it is also about helping people feel competent and confident to make decisions about their children. As a parent you would know and as a parent I would know that when your kids know more than you about something it makes for an uncomfortable parenting dynamic, so for me it is also about actually saying to parents: have the courage to say, "I do not really understand this but I just do not like it and I think we need to talk about it." Also if I could say one further thing because your question was very useful, in terms of the research I think we always need to have a research base and an evidence base to really look back to, particularly if we are thinking about policy, and with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety I have made a very clear recommendation that research needs to be tied into the thinking of that Council, but we also need to accept that ethically from a methodological point of view to actually do the kind of experiment we would need to do to truly prove what harms would happen to what children through these new digital technologies it would be completely unethical and we could not do it. So I think we need to also, as you say, bite down a bit and take a commonsense approach and empower the end user to really use all the tools available to challenge industry to step up to sign up to codes, to self-certify against safety principles, and to be independently evaluated and monitored, which then gives parents and consumers the opportunity to make an informed decision on behalf of their children.

  Q343  Mr Evans: You sat patiently through the last evidence session. It would be remiss of us not to ask you: do you think that YouTube and Google should be doing more to protect youngsters?

  Dr Byron: It is remiss of you to ask me this. I sat patiently through that and I got quite terrified towards the end, I have to say, waiting for my go! I know Kent Walker and I know Patricia Moll and I worked with them and their teams very much during this review, and I have found them, as much as all the stakeholders who have engaged very positively with me during this review, to be people who have genuine and real concern and care around these issues. I agree there are commercial imperatives and so on, but I tend to take a less sceptical view because I also think otherwise we do go down this road of polarisation of debate where it becomes an argument that does not actually get us anywhere. In terms of me making evaluations of different companies or different sites, forgive me, I am not going to give you that opinion because that is outside the remit of my review and I actually think that it would muddy the recommendations I made if I start now giving you a breakdown of who I think does what better. I think a lot of them do some things well. There is a lot more that can be done and I have set a real challenge and I am really pleased to see how much this has been welcomed by industry. For me it is about now everybody doing what they are saying they are going to do.

  Q344  Mr Evans: And if they do not, there should be a time—because we have done this before—for whistle-blowing and exposing the companies?

  Dr Byron: But also the Government, if you would forgive me for saying that since you are they. There has been a great fanfare and a big jump up and down, and on Thursday the Prime Minister and I were on GMTV—that was an interesting moment in my life—but that was great and he was very supportive, and the two Secretaries of State were really supportive, and that is good and this is a positive thing for Government, it is a positive thing for industry, it makes everybody look good because everybody is saying, "Yes, we are going to fly the flag for child safety"; so do it. I have put time lines in and I will decide whether to come back and be the person to say yes you have or no you have not.

  Q345  Mr Evans: Even at the risk of straining relationships between parents and youngsters, you would say to parents that that computer should come out of the bedroom and it should be in a communal place?

  Dr Byron: I think that is a very good first start, particularly with younger children, in the same way as you would not let your younger children have any other experience without you being around, to "shoulder surf" is the new term, to have a look and just check. With older kids it gets more complicated, and I have said from my own experience with my daughter there are times when she is on-line and she is doing what she is doing and that is because I know her and I trust her. That is how we parent our children in the off-line world. We increase their independence. We have to accept that for children to be able to manage the world they need to understand risk. If we take an over-protectionist view we have very vulnerable children who are vulnerable to exploitation in both the on-line and the off-line worlds, so for me it is a balance in terms of how we actually parent children and we have a combination of supervision, monitoring, filtering, discussion, boundaries, timers, and all the other things that I have talked about in my report,

  Q346  Mr Evans: It is really complicated when you are talking about the causation of people playing violent video games and then going out and being violent. Should parents really be taking more proactive decisions and indeed learning a little bit more about the Internet and video gaming as well in order to properly supervise or indeed censor what their youngsters are playing?

  Dr Byron: We do it for films, we do it for pornography that is on the top shelf. We do not allow or encourage our children to read it or buy the magazine for them. Interestingly, I was buying a video game with my children on the weekend and there were three little boys trying to buy a very well-known and popular video game in the shop and the retailer said no, and then they brought granddad along and he said, "Oh, it's a game, it's fine," and I sort of twitched and my daughter said to me, "Mum, you really aren't supposed to be doing it in shops. It is okay through your report," but I think that is the case. The word "game" in itself often gives people a false sense. Do we want to get hung up on the "video games turn people into psychopaths" argument again when we get into the polarisation of debate? My view is that vulnerable people who do dangerous things, it is usually a combination of factors that push them from that underlying predisposition towards violence into violence. It may be what they experience in terms of content in a variety of ways as well as what they experience in the home, how violence is validated and normalised in their early childhoods, and so on. Having said all that though, children should not be playing games that are designed for adults. The video games industry are not designing these games for children. I have recommended a much more robust classification system at the consumer-facing element side and I hope that will help people really understand about games. There are some brilliant games for kids which comprise 50% of the market; I play them with my kids, and that is what parents should be spending their money on.

  Q347  Chairman: Can we come on to your main recommendation for a UK Council for Child Internet Safety. It seems to be a development of the Home Secretary's Task Force. Can you tell us what the difference will be between the Council and the Task Force?

  Dr Byron: In my overall evaluation of the Home Secretary's Task Force I felt very positive about it. I think it is a model of good practice and I think that is where I feel that the UK does take a responsible lead in thinking about these issues and can continue to do so. The problem with the Home Secretary's Task Force was to do with how it was set up, how it was resourced, who was part of it and also the length of time it took to produce really lengthy documents, which were guidance documents for good practice which in and of themselves are really good documents, but I could not see what they actually meant in terms of the end user, the consumer, whether that is a parent making a decision on behalf of their child or for us to effectively monitor and evaluate that certain companies are doing what they say they want to do in terms of good practice. For me it was building on the relationships, building on the goodwill, building on the fact that we had big multi-national companies based outside the UK who were sitting and thinking together about issues that were UK-centric at the time, and also bearing in mind it was set up in the Home Office because it was set up originally to look at illegal content, particularly child abuse images, and there has been some very successful work that has come out of that. I felt it needed to move on, I felt it needed to be properly resourced, I felt that there needed to be much more of a cross-governmental feel to it because what I also found was that industry were very fatigued at the many different government departments all of whom have a different role to play in this arena and who were having several sometimes contradictory conversations with them, so for me it was about having one government departmental voice if you like with all departments working together. I identified the Home Office as one chair because I believe there is lot of work still to be done on illegal content, and DCFS as the second because of the issues particularly around education and children and families. I have recommended a parent and child advisory panel. Children have really helped shape this review, their voice is very important, so we need parents and children telling us what they think. We need child development experts but we also need technology experts that can challenge companies to think outside the box sometimes. I do think, as you were discussing previously, that technology is moving very much towards better ways of dealing with these issues. We need to have two very clear arms, we need one around thinking about policy and thinking about systems, but we also need one around delivery, and I recommend that we need an independent person to drive the delivery arm so that we do not spend a lot of time talking about it but not actually delivering.

  Q348  Chairman: As you know, the Committee recently visited CEOP and we met one of the children who sit on the advisory panel. CEOP is doing a lot of the things which you have called for, not just to seek out and prosecute potential offenders but also in the field of education. Is there a danger that by creating this body you are going to undermine or diminish the work that CEOP is doing?

  Dr Byron: It is not my intention to undermine or diminish the work that anybody is doing. There are a lot of organisations that are doing a lot of good things and for me it was about a co-ordinated and strategic approach that was driven by a national strategy. I absolutely echo and agree with your comments about CEOP, and CEOP would have a very key role to play in the Council definitely around illegal content and definitely in the conversation around enforcement. When it comes to education of children, CEOP do a great job, they are going into schools a lot and I know they have their child panel. In fact, we borrowed their child panel for our purposes as well in the review, but there are many others as well and for me it is about pulling together all the information out there in a way that is accessible. I found that about 57-60% of parents said to me, "The problem is we know there is a lot of information out there but we do not know where to go to find it," so people are almost overwhelmed by it. Also what one person finds useful somebody else might not, so it is also about writing and producing and supplying information in a way that meets the needs of everybody who is looking to have their questions answered.

  Q349  Rosemary McKenna: Is it right to interpret the review as proposing a move away from self-regulation according to good practice guidelines and towards a more co-regulatory approach, with more accountability to bodies such as the Council or Ofcom?

  Dr Byron: I spent an awful lot of time asking members of my team and members in various departments to help me understand the distinction between these models, and I have to say I think it becomes rather semantic after a while, if you will forgive me. For me it is about self-regulation. It is about industry setting out very clear safety codes and general good practice principles that can then be independently monitored and evaluated. Some people might interpret that as co-regulation; some people might interpret that as self-regulation. I have talked about it from a self-regulatory standpoint in this report.

  Q350  Rosemary McKenna: And therefore you would not be in favour of a more naming and shaming culture for those businesses and firms who are not complying or do not match the same standards as others?

  Dr Byron: I think to some degree this is sort of implicit in what I am recommending in the fact that here we have a UK Council that reports yearly to the Prime Minister. Transparency for me is the key, that is the issue, that consumers really understand what these codes are and that these are monitored and that they understand who is adhering to those codes and who is not, and for me implicit in that then would be a public acknowledgement of good practice. We have to balance this now and move away from a blame, name and shame; there is a lot of good practice out there that needs to be acknowledged and industry needs to be supported as well as challenged, and I think for me it is about finding a balanced way of doing that that is proportionate to the risk that we are looking at.

  Q351  Chairman: A lot of the evidence that we have received from the industry has been firmly in support of the self-regulatory structure, and you have praised that, but you are also suggesting that the Council is going to be established to set industry standards, to monitor compliance and to publicly censure breaches. That is not self-regulation; that is co-regulation and I think it is not just semantics, there is a difference between the two, and I think some might feel that a move towards a co-regulatory system is not necessarily going to help. How would you respond?

  Dr Byron: Having spent many years working in many different areas of child protection, just to talk about my off-line world experience, I have worked with many dedicated staff teams who have worked extremely hard to protect the most vulnerable children, but a good staff team is as good as how they are evaluated, monitored and audited. My background in health has been around audit. It is about showing good practice and thinking about one's practice in order to push on practice and push the standards on, and so for me the self-regulatory bit of what I have recommended is around the codes and about the good practice guidelines and the safety principles so that different companies can also show how they measure up to these codes in different ways. We talk about user-generated content. That is a massive area so how do different companies measure up to codes in different ways that can be evaluated so that the end consumer can then make an informed choice about what they wish to engage with or their children to engage with.

  Q352  Chairman: But under your structure the Council stands behind the industry bodies and will express views as to the adequacy of what they are doing?

  Dr Byron: The industry bodies are also part of the Council, so the industry bodies are there. For me this is about collaborative, joined-up working, this is about thinking together, this is about sitting and thinking through some of these very difficult conversations in a way that moves away from the polarisation of debate and the entrenched positioning that often seems to occur when these conversations are had. To me it seems almost a nonsense to have codes if those codes are not independently monitored. That needs to be thought about alongside the development of codes.

  Q353  Paul Farrelly: Unless you give bodies some bite, the danger in setting up a quango is that it succumbs to what you might call "industry capture". Let me give you an example. The City regulators pleaded with government that naming and shaming on pensions mis-selling would do nothing, it would not incentivise and that the threat had more leverage over the industry. That was absolute nonsense. It was only after 1997 that the new Minister, Helen Liddell, who is now in Australia, said, "I am going to name and shame companies that mis-sold," that industry did take it seriously and got its act together, so I am not getting any sense of what bite your Council might have?

  Dr Byron: I do not think any company would want to tarnish its brand by not signing up to good practice codes or to ensure that when they have an independent evaluation of their practice that they can show that they are measuring up to those codes. I think the brand damage, apart from anything else, would be huge, and for me that is where I think the bite is. I think also the fact it is set up by and reports to the Prime Minister and it has a very public face to it and the fact that companies work together with a number of government departments so there is a sense of joined-upness in the conversations, because what I have found—and this is what has taken me the most time to get through—is the competing needs of different departments that are putting pressure on industry in different ways and there is no strategy or clear strategic way of moving forward in terms of thinking about child safety. I do believe that brand damage would be huge and brand reputation is very much for these companies what they want and not to be seen to be actually part of this, if one was to take the more sceptical view, I think would be very damaging for these brands.

  Q354  Paul Farrelly: As you have heard, we visited CEOP, and they submitted evidence to your inquiry, and at CEOP they feel very strongly that the balance is far too skewed towards self-regulation. We have just heard evidence from a major multi-national that they do not employ a single person to proactively filter out child pornography, and an as yet unspecified number of people checking flagged content were so overloaded they missed a gang rape, so you can understand CEOP's view in terms of the balance between who monitors and the industry co-operating on takedowns for inappropriate content, and you cannot just say, "They have got that view because they're coppers, aren't they?" In terms of their evidence to you, are there elements of their call for the balance to be shifted that you have ignored or have you accepted CEOP's evidence in its entirety in your findings?

  Dr Byron: As far as the illegal content goes, I have absolutely no argument with anything that CEOP says. I think that what they do, they do extraordinarily well, and it is not just in terms of the cases but it is in terms of the behavioural monitoring—as you know, you have been there—and the way that they actually do profiling around predators on-line. CEOP in terms of the bigger picture are part of a number of different organisations, including industry themselves, who have a role to play. I believe that is a role that needs to be collaborative. As I made the point earlier, when it comes to content that is not illegal, that is harmful or inappropriate, which is very much a subjective rating around content, for me it is not about a single organisation or a single government making the decision on behalf of society which is accessing that content as to what they can and cannot see or should or should not see. For me the subjective value of making a decision should be supported. CEOP have an incredibly important role in the Council. They are respected by many people and their position, I think, is a very useful challenge to the Council, to the Government and to industry and I think for them to sit amongst others and to work together in the way that I propose is the most useful way forward.

  Q355  Paul Farrelly: Just finally, Chairman, we do not want to over-egg the risks and we do not want to mollycoddle children, but we heard at CEOP about the difference between what publicity they are able to put out on that still-watched medium television and how Australia treats it rather differently, and that they do not have a budget really within the departmental priorities to put out factual stuff such as we see every day on keeping people to driving at 20 miles an hour rather than 30 miles per hour and the risks to children. How would your Council change that? Do you think it would be a force for shifting that sort of publicity up the departmental priorities. Again what clout is your Council going to have in that respect?

  Dr Byron: As you know, the major area of recommendation for me was what is called media literacy (although I think that is a really confusing term for many people) and an education campaign around e-safety, and all the issues to do with risk and risk management, and all the things that you have highlighted that is targeted across society, but also in specific places targeted to certain groups or individuals based on vulnerability as is assessed and understood and also very much through schools. For me that has been something that I have said very clearly needs to be resourced and I believe that commitment was made last week by government, so in terms of empowering the end consumer, there are tools, there are filters, there are products, and we need to push the standards in the development and we need to put them in front of people and we need to make them easy to understand. Fundamentally, it does get back to this issue that one of your colleagues raised earlier about confidence and competence and self-efficacy around using the technology. For me CEOP definitely has a role in that in terms of the education that they do, but there is a bigger education question which goes beyond risk and it is about what is this technology, what does it do and how can I understand it in order to help my child understand it.

  Q356  Chairman: Can I turn to the question of the criminal law and legislation. You have recommended that the Council should look to whether there should be some clarification of the law in particular areas. Can you just tell us where you think there is a case perhaps for introducing further legislation?

  Dr Byron: The tragic cases that were going on in Bridgend during the course of this review obviously brought the whole issue around suicide and suicide websites very much to the forefront of everyone's minds, and so alongside my call for evidence there was a huge amount of evidence and suggestions and concern coming into me for that. Obviously as you are aware as a Committee, having sat through so many hours of discussion, there are so many issues to think about. For me it was about sticking to my remit but also when there were particular areas of real concern listening to those and thinking about those. I did decide to write specifically about that in the report. I understand that the Law Commission review in 2006 talks about assisting someone to commit suicide as being a crime both on-line and off-line. I think we need to be really clear about that and we need to identify where that might be happening and then we need to take steps to enforce the law around those areas on-line as we would also off-line.

  Q357  Chairman: Can I just test you on two other areas which have been suggested to us. Jim Gamble specifically highlighted Second Life and the use of avatars to simulate child sex and he suggested to us that that should be covered by the law. Would you agree that is another area we need to look at?

  Dr Byron: I think it is an area that needs to be looked at but it is an area that needs to be researched and evaluated. I think there is less clarity around that in terms of the Law Commission giving quite a clear steer on the issue around assisted suicide both on and off-line. I think that needs to be thought about and that needs to be evaluated and that might be a priority for the Council in terms of the national strategy that they set out by early next spring.

  Q358  Paul Farrelly: That is sitting on the fence really, is it not?

  Dr Byron: I think it is sitting on the fence because I do not think we know enough about that yet. I come from a background of social science which is looking at risk, looking at concern but taking a balanced and proportionate view. What that means is understanding that there are many, many things that make people feel very anxious but having a very clear understanding and a basis for action before one acts.

  Q359  Paul Farrelly: Surely it is illegal to show this in real life? I think the Government was reviewing whether it might be illegal to show it in manga comics and there is a similar issue with respect to the Internet. It should be illegal, should it not?

  Dr Byron: If there is simulation around child sex and that simulation is deemed to be illegal, then absolutely it should be dealt with appropriately and expediently.

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