Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 383-399)


29 APRIL 2008

  Chairman: Welcome to this further session of the Committee's inquiry into harmful content online and in electronic games. This morning we are focusing on two phenomena which have really taken off in the past two years: social networking sites and electronic games. For the first part of the session I should like to welcome Dr Rachel O'Connell, Chief Safety Officer of Bebo, and Mike Angus, Executive Vice President of Fox Interactive Media.

  Q383  Mr Evans: It seems that just a couple of years ago nobody had ever heard of MySpace, Bebo or Facebook and now people talk of little else. Can you tell us how important are these sites, how many members you have, the growth rate and why you think that young people are so attracted to them?

  Mr Angus: We worked with Danah Boyd who conducted a survey and did her PhD thesis with the University of California Berkeley on social networking and this phenomenon. Her conclusion, which I believe is consistent with Dr Byron's, is that social networking at the age of the youth able to use our site, which begins at 14, performs an important function in their sociological development, namely that is when they start to form their adult identity and find their voice means of expressing themselves. Often teenagers in classroom settings are a bit more reserved and this gives them the opportunity to express those sentiments. The other aspect is that at around the age of 14 teenagers start to look more to peer groups for their values and identities and, as many parents of teenagers know, start to look away from their parents for those values. In the past when teenagers were freer to congregate without adult supervision, whether it be in coffee shops, soda houses and such, it was easier for them to do that. Today with the valid concerns of parents about teenagers being out unsupervised much of that activity takes place on the Internet. This performs a really important function in their development.

  Dr O'Connell: I would echo and add to that. If we look at the wider social context and ministries of education and our own DCFS documentation on the harnessing of technologies, we are educating young people to become proficient members of the knowledge economy. Therefore, with the skills they acquire when using collaborative spaces like Moodle, which is the educational space that very much mirrors Bebo, we are educating young people to become proficient in using these kinds of collaborative spaces in an educational context. In the past few years there has been an information revolution where they are able to create, generate, disseminate, moderate and police content online as never before. In addition to the points Mr Angus has raised we also have to think about it in terms of government strategies, the promotion of the knowledge economy and how to equip young people to become proficient members of that economy.

  Q384  Mr Evans: How we survived without them we will never know! I looked at Facebook last night. It has now added a chat function. Where do you think the next step in social networking will take place? Is there something on which you are working at the moment about which we do not know?

  Mr Angus: How quickly different applications develop is unreal. Recently, we have opened up our development platform to third-party developers as has Facebook, so many of the applications that tend to take root and become popular are not even ones that we develop ourselves. This caters to user behaviour and activities change daily. Our site evolves and we have to stay vigilant about it in order to make sure we continue to provide a safe environment.

  Dr O'Connell: This is also an issue from our perspective. We have also opened up our platforms and work very closely with our partners to make sure they adhere to the codes of practice. For example, recently the Home Office internet task force was launched with guidance and recommendations for social networking and user interactive services, so there is an onus upon us as companies when working with partners to make sure we lay down and include in terms of service as far as possible that they must also adhere to these codes of practice.

  Q385  Mr Evans: Is there a typical MySpace or Bebo user? What is the average age of the user? Is one younger than the other?

  Mr Angus: For us, approximately 15% are under the age of 18. There is not a general demographic. On a global basis we have 110 million unique users per month and for the UK it is nine million. There is not a typical profile. We have adults, seniors, teenagers and musicians. We have the impact channel which provides an opportunity for individuals to interact around philanthropic activities, charities and political activism, so people find different areas of the site for different purposes and all have their own unique ways to use the site and its functionality. It is really growing beyond what it started out to be three or four years ago.

  Q386  Mr Evans: Do Bebo users tend to be a bit younger?

  Dr O'Connell: We have 40 million users worldwide and, if you read the media, yes. The media report that our core market is 15 to 24. We have some younger users and on MySpace there are lots of older users and those interested in music, movies and different areas in relation to media. The whole idea of Bebo is about self-expression, bringing together and curating those things that are of interest to you and sharing them with other people.

  Q387  Mr Evans: You have a lot of young people using the Internet and these social sites. We have talked about the benefits and advantages of them. Clearly, that is so; otherwise, people would not be going to those sites. I agree with everything you have said, but there are now dangers associated with it. Growing up is clearly a dangerous activity in any event, but do you think youngsters may not be aware that some of the things they are putting up on their sites, particularly about themselves, can be accessed by other people and perhaps unwittingly they just do not know they can use privacy controls to greater effect, or are they just being idealistic in believing that no one out there will try to do any damage to them? What more do you think you ought to be doing to try to advise users at least to protect themselves better?

  Mr Angus: I think the most important thing, which is echoed in Dr Byron's report, is education. We do quite a bit. We have safety tips available on every page, but we feel it is very important for those under 18 who sign up to see them in a very condensed version in a way that resonates. People are not always who they say they are and they should make sure they know who they are talking to; they should not meet strangers offline. If they absolutely have to do so, they should take along someone else or an adult. They should be careful about the information they post. First, they do not want to post any personally identifiable information, not just the name and address but anything that can help someone identify them. They should be careful about photos and other information that they put up on the Internet. The Internet is a wonderful thing but it is also permanent. Once it is out there it is pretty much out there for good. Teenagers tend to think they are invincible and often do not think about what is ahead of them. We try to make sure we really inform them about the significance of what they are doing online.

  Q388  Mr Evans: When I was a youngster in school I was taught the Green Cross Code and how to cross the road safely. Do you think consideration should be given to teaching in schools how better to protect yourself when online? Clearly, they did not do it when I was a kid because we did not have such a thing as online.

  Dr O'Connell: We should think about making internet safety and the whole concept of wellbeing online a mandatory part of the school curriculum. I think we will look back on that in time. That echoes Dr Tanya Byron's thoughts on this as well as thoughts in different countries across Europe. We should equip young people with the skills to think about these things. We also need to redress the balance in terms of teachers. We cannot expect teachers automatically to know or understand how to educate young people. We have mirrored the initiatives of MySpace which has also been involved in the European project Teach Today. We have worked with the European Schoolnet and the Department for Education here to pull together resources designed specifically for teachers so we educate them and give them the information they need. That was launched about two weeks ago in Brussels. Commissioner Viviane Reding attended that and commended the industry for pulling together these sorts of resources. I think there is a challenge here for governments to consider how best to implement education for teachers through continuing professional development, obviously through teacher training, so that teachers are now equipped with the information they need. They are then best placed to cascade that information down to young people. We also need to consider how to address parents and their needs. I and a lot of my friends are mums. I see a difference in terms of my understanding, because obviously I work in the industry, and their level of understanding. Therefore, there is an onus on us as an industry to play a part in filling that gap. One of the strategies we have employed is to go out and work with parents and ask how they would like the information presented. Do they want it in a booklet, on a DVD or do they want condensed text, animations or videos? As a result of that work we have put together animations and videos—my colleague has brought along an information pack—for parents. They want to sit down with their children, watch them and then engage in dialogue with them. I think that is the single most important message to put to a parent with open lines of communication. You do not want a situation where your teenager comes across something untoward and is so afraid you will terminate internet access that that is not communicated to you. We need to engage with a lot of stakeholders. One of the other strategies we have been looking at is how to engage them. As you say, teenage years can be quite challenging.

  Q389  Mr Evans: At what age in schools would you start to teach youngsters about being safe online?

  Dr O'Connell: I would start from the day they commence school.

  Q390  Chairman: What do you say is the minimum age at which it is appropriate to join Bebo?

  Dr O'Connell: Under COPA legislation in the US you must be 13 years of age to join Bebo.

  Q391  Chairman: My daughter is 12 and she has been on Bebo for at least 18 months. I believe that every one of her friends is in the same position. She spends hours on it. It is universal. The age is well below 13. Do you think that is inappropriate?

  Dr O'Connell: When parents report to us that their child is under age we will delete that account.

  Q392  Chairman: You said that in the US it is 13. There is no such thing here.

  Dr O'Connell: That applies to our whole service.

  Q393  Chairman: So, my daughter should not be on Bebo even though she is 12?

  Dr O'Connell: That is true.

  Q394  Chairman: Every one of her friends is on Bebo and, as far as I am aware, that is very widespread. One has literally thousands and thousands of children in this country under 13 are registered on your site?

  Dr O'Connell: That is one of the challenges facing social networking service providers. For Bebo in particular, when somebody registers with a date of birth that indicates he or she is under 13 we draw up a cookie drop which is a piece of script that does not allow that person to go any further in the registration process. If they are clever enough to remove that cookie—we prevent them from using the back button—we then do word string searches. They are quite clever. They will put in "I am 11 candles", or, "I am 12 candles" which means "I am 12 years old." Therefore, we have to search actively for those word strings and when we find them delete those accounts. There are companies like Neopets and other social networking companies. There is a duty to educate people about the age appropriateness of particular sites. Nonetheless, we still need to educate parents and young people about using the Internet safety.

  Q395  Helen Southworth: What is the annual budget that MySpace and Bebo allocate to child protection work in the UK that you have been describing to us?

  Mr Angus: We do not break it down by country. Our safety efforts are on a global basis.

  Q396  Helen Southworth: What is the budget internationally?

  Mr Angus: It is a really difficult question because there is no pure safety budget. I promise that I am not trying to be evasive.

  Q397  Helen Southworth: Therefore, you do not have an allocated budget?

  Mr Angus: It is millions of dollars.

  Q398  Helen Southworth: Can you write to us with the figure?

  Mr Angus: Safety is really incorporated in every aspect of our business. It is not a discrete group of people or effort that looks at the website. The CEO will email me to say that a particular service is to be launched; he has some developers with him and he will ask me to talk to them because they want to start thinking about how to make sure it is safe. It is part of every development aspect of our business. I think it would be irresponsible of me to try to estimate some discrete amount that is dedicated to safety overall. There are educational components. We spend amounts on education. We make public service announcements and some of those run on other Fox properties.

  Q399  Helen Southworth: So, you would not be able to identify it through budgetary methods; you would not be able to audit it?

  Mr Angus: Correct.

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