Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Stonewall

Introduction

1. Stonewall is pleased to respond to the Select Committee’s Inquiry into online safety. Stonewall is the leading organisation campaigning and lobbying for lesbian, gay and bisexual equality in Britain.

2. Stonewall’s Education for All campaign was established in 2005 to tackle homophobic bullying and create a safe and inclusive learning environment where all young people can focus on their education and fulfil their potential. We work closely with a range of key agencies including the Department for Education and Ofsted, over 60 local authorities and over 140 primary and secondary schools across Britain through the “Education Champions” and “School Champions” programmes to develop strategies for preventing and tackling homophobic bullying.

3. We also work with Government departments, the Crown Prosecution Service and other criminal justice agencies to tackle homophobic hate crime, including abuse perpetrated online. We support media and technology providers to respond to homophobic abuse posted on their websites and to share best practice.

Summary

4. Stonewall supports efforts to make sure that young people are protected from inappropriate material on the internet. Many gay young people don’t have access to information about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues elsewhere and rely on the internet for support. This can lead to them accessing inappropriate content such as adult dating websites and porn sites.

5. Internet filters to protect minors from adult content mustn’t however block content that is helpful for gay young people. It’s important that young people are able to access age-appropriate information and support on the internet about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, as well as peer support. Gay young people should also be able to access information and advice from their school and local authority.

6. Stonewall is concerned about the high prevalence of homophobic abuse posted on the internet. This can have a profound impact on gay young people as well as gay adults, leading to feelings of vulnerability as well as more severe mental health problems. Stonewall wishes to see criminal hate speech committed online effectively prosecuted. We also wish to see robust measures carried out by media websites and other technology providers to respond to and prevent homophobic content being posted on their sites.

Protecting Minors from Accessing Adult Content

7. The School Report survey of over 1,600 gay young people, conducted by the University of Cambridge for Stonewall, found that more than half of gay young people are never taught anything about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues at school and 85% of gay young people are never taught in school about biological or physical aspects of same-sex relationships. More than half of gay young people don’t feel there is an adult at school who they can talk to about being gay, and one in four don’t have an adult to talk to at school, home or elsewhere.

8. In many cases this will be because they don’t feel ready to disclose their sexual orientation, or worry about a negative reaction from doing so. However, even those young people who are open about their sexual orientation often struggle to get the advice that they need because parents and teachers lack an understanding of the issues affecting gay young people.

9. As a result, one in ten gay people aged under 18 use dating websites for gay adults to meet other gay people and learn about gay life, despite the significant risks this poses for young people. Many seek information from porn sites, which is likely to be inappropriate and inaccurate.

10. We believe access should be restricted to adult dating sites, as well as to adult dating apps, to make sure gay young people are protected from sites where they may be vulnerable to predatory behaviour or that may expose them to images unsuitable for children and young people. Restricting access to features such as webcams and cameras on phones and computers would also help protect young people from being exploited.

11. The internet is however an important source of information for gay young people who may be experiencing issues relating to their sexual orientation, including the 55% of British school pupils who experience homophobic bullying. There are also some educational sites that provide accurate information and advice about the biological and physical aspects of same-sex relationships, including about safer sex and STIs, which should be accessible to make sure young people can access information that keeps them safe.

12. The internet also connects gay young people with other young people who may be experiencing similar issues and feelings and who can offer peer support and friendship. The School Report found that, although over half of gay young people would like to go to a specific youth group for gay people, 72% do not have access to such a group or are not aware whether one exists in their area. As a consequence almost two thirds of gay young people use the internet to meet other lesbian, gay or bisexual people. Two in five lesbian, gay and bisexual young people use social media, such as Facebook, and more than one in three use websites for young people, such as dedicated online youth forums.

13. Stonewall is concerned that, from our experience of working with schools and local authorities which use filters, they very often block key words that relate to gay people such as “gay” and “sexuality”. The School Report found that one in three gay pupils say they can’t use school computers to access resources or information online about gay issues and a further 36% don’t know if they can. One respondent to the research reported pages about Oscar Wilde being blocked by a school’s internet service provider due to words relating to his sexuality.

14. It is important, therefore, that adult internet filters only restrict content which is harmful or inappropriate to young people. Filters should not block access to age-appropriate information and support, including peer support, for gay young people and those who experience homophobic bullying.

15. It’s also important that schools provide gay young people with information and support about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues so that they are not overly reliant on the internet as their only source of information. Schools should integrate sexual orientation issues across their teaching and should ensure that they stock books and resources that talk about gay issues and that reflect different families, and provide a list of safe websites that provide support and information for gay young people.

16. Local authorities also have a statutory duty to ensure young people have access to sufficient leisure-time activities, which are for the improvement of their wellbeing and personal and social development, and to ensure that such activities are publicised. Local authorities should have advice and support pages and information about services for gay young people available on their youth service’s website and staff should be aware of these so they can promote them to the schools and youth services they work with.

Preventing Abusive or Threatening Comments on Social Media

17. Stonewall has additional concerns about the deeply offensive homophobic language and abuse frequently posted online. The School Report found that almost one in four lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils experience cyberbullying on online message boards, blogs and social media sites such as Facebook. Forthcoming Stonewall research will reveal the extent of homophobic abuse experienced by lesbian, gay and bisexual adults online.

18. This high prevalence of homophobic insults is reflected on the website www.nohomophobes.com, which measures the usage of homophobic language on Twitter. This website has found that on average the word “faggot” is used on Twitter over 45,000 times daily and “dyke” is used over 4,000 times daily.

19. Stonewall believes the prevalence of such language online contributes to a climate in which lesbian, gay and bisexual people feel insecure and vulnerable. Homophobic comments have many victims since they target not only individuals but lesbian, gay and bisexual people in general—with the number of potential victims increasing with the size of the audience. Comments posted by high profile figures such as professional sports personalities are likely to be seen by many followers, including young followers, and corroborate the negative messages about gay people experienced elsewhere.

20. The consequences of this abuse can be severe. Lesbian, gay and bisexual young people who are bullied are at higher risk of suicide, self-harm and depression, with almost a quarter saying they have tried to take their own life. Homophobic Hate Crime: The Gay British Crime Survey 2008, based on YouGov polling commissioned by Stonewall of over 1,700 lesbian, gay and bisexual adults, found that homophobic hate crime has a significant impact on gay people’s feelings of vulnerability, with one in ten saying that being a victim of crime is their biggest worry. Stonewall is concerned that the ease with which people can post homophobic abuse online makes them far more likely to do so, particularly where they can do so anonymously.

21. For these reasons Stonewall welcomes the publication earlier this year of Crown Prosecution Service guidance on prosecuting cases involving social media. We believe that, while many homophobic communications posted online will not meet the threshold of criminal hate speech, the criminal justice system must respond to those communications that would warrant prosecution if committed “offline”. This includes language and behaviour that incites hatred of or violence towards gay people.

22. Stonewall also wishes to see media organisations and technology providers effectively moderate offensive content posted on their websites. Many already have policies in place for moderating offensive content that are more stringent than the law, which we welcome. In addition we wish to see better sharing of good practice between providers, as well as measures to restrict users from posting content anonymously. We also wish to see clear guidance made available to individuals on how to report online homophobic abuse and why it’s important for them to do so.

23. We believe it would be helpful for the Crown Prosecution Service and other criminal justice agencies, as well as relevant Government departments, to work collaboratively with service providers to encourage and support them to prevent homophobic abuse being published on their websites.

September 2013

Prepared 18th March 2014