Children inhabit a world in which every aspect of their lives is mediated through technology: from health to education, from socialising to entertainment. Yet the recognition that children have different needs to those of adults has not yet been fully accepted in the online world.
There is well documented public concern about risks to children from the internet such as easy access to inappropriate content, loss of privacy, commercial exploitation and cyberbullying. Our inquiry sought to understand what issues and opportunities children face as they grow up surrounded by, and interacting with, internet technologies.
At the heart of our recommendations we call for sustained leadership from the Government at the highest level, an ambitious programme of digital literacy, minimum standards for those providing internet services and content (‘the internet value chain’), and a commitment to child-centred design. We also believe that children must be treated online with the same rights, respect and care that has been established through regulation in offline settings such as television and gambling.
Although there is widespread agreement that the internet should do more to promote children’s best interests, we found that Government responsibility for this was fragmented both between and within departments resulting in a lack of coordinated policy and joined-up action. We found a similar lack of coordination in the voluntary sector. In addition, self-regulation by industry is failing. And making progress is made still more difficult by public ignorance of how the internet works.
We noted that the current regime of self-regulation very often puts commercial considerations first. The Government has a duty to hold ‘the best interests of the child’ as a primary consideration in any action which concerns a child under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We note that the upcoming EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will give children more rights, including the right to erasure (the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’). We ask for a commitment from the Government that the rights provided to children by the GDPR will be enshrined as a minimum standard in UK law.
We call on industry to implement minimum standards of child-friendly design, filtering, privacy, data collection, and report and response mechanisms for complaints. The standards should encompass consideration of children’s rights and should be built early into the process of design so that the needs of children are considered preventatively rather than reactively.
We welcome the commitment by the four major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide child-friendly filters, and believe it is necessary for all ISPs do the same. We also recognise the work in this area by the major mobile operators. We recommend that there should be minimum standards for online filters, including a system to manage the over-blocking of websites, and crucially we recommend that filters be required to be ‘on’ by default.
Digital literacy, that is, the skills and knowledge to critically understand the internet, is vital for children to navigate the online world. It is also an essential requirement of the future workforce. It is no longer sufficient to teach digital skills in specialist computer science classes to only some pupils. We recommend that digital literacy sit alongside reading, writing and mathematics as the fourth pillar of a child’s education; and that no child should leave school without a well-rounded understanding of the digital world. Schools should teach online responsibilities, social norms and risks as part of mandatory, Ofsted-inspected Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, designed to look broadly at the issues that children face online.
We heard of a worrying rise in unhappy and anxious children emerging alongside the upward trend of childhood internet use. We call for more robust research in respect of the possible causal relationship in this regard, while also supporting immediate action to prevent children being adversely affected in the meantime.
Ensuring children’s online opportunities and wellbeing are optimised is a shared responsibility. Each group of stakeholders, the Government, the internet value chain, voluntary sector and civil society, schools, parents and children, are interdependent, and each has a vital role to play. Efforts to meet these responsibilities need to be continually assessed and sustained to respond to the fast-changing developments of the digital world. At each point of the internet value chain we support an approach that requires minimum standards that uphold the best interests of the child.
We support the recommendation of the Children’s Commissioner to extend her data gathering powers to include social media and internet services. We further recommend that there is an independent mechanism to arbitrate complaints from children who wish content about themselves to be taken down.
We welcome the recent announcement by the Government that round-table meetings with industry representatives are to be held and an Internet Safety Strategy is to be introduced. But there have been meetings and reviews in the past without sufficient progress on digital literacy, prevention of risks and child-centred design. We therefore make two central recommendations. First, we recommend that a permanent role of Children’s Digital Champion be established within the Cabinet Office with the power to seek coordinated and sustained action from Ministers across all departments, and to present robust advocacy on behalf of children to industry. We note the current role of the United Kingdom Council for Children’s Internet Safety (UKCCIS) and recommend that this is extended and overseen by the new Children’s Digital Champion.
Secondly, we recommend that in convening an industry summit, the Prime Minister should seek to establish minimum standards and a code of conduct based on the desires of children, teachers and parents as well as the commercial needs of the companies. The Government should apply existing legal measures rigorously and be prepared to propose new legislation in the face of non-compliance with the new code of conduct.
It is the Committee’s view that this is issue is of such critical importance for our children that the Government, civil society and all those in the internet value chain must work together to improve the opportunities and support where the end user is a child. Ultimately it is for the Government to ensure that this happens.