69.In this Chapter we investigate the main issues which affect how children interact with the internet. First, we look at the skills required for children to navigate the digital world, what sort of content children can access, and how they interact with it and other people. We then consider what impact time spent online can have on children’s development, wellbeing and mental health. Finally, we consider what rights children enjoy online, and what impediments there are to these.
70.There is no agreed definition of the term ‘digital literacy’ and it is sometimes taken to mean the minimum level of skills and knowledge needed for using computers and technology. However, in the 5Rights Framework the term encompasses “the skills to use, create and critique digital technologies” and the knowledge “to critically understand the structures and syntax of the digital world, and to be confident in managing new social norms”. We consider this usage to be particularly instructive and useful.
71.Learning digital skills, including but not exclusively the writing of computer code, will be crucial as technology continues to develop. Parent Zone cited a 2013 study which suggested that “47% of all jobs in the US are susceptible to automation”.
72.This view is in line with the conclusions of the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee, which advocated greater digital literacy in the UK to address “seismic changes brought about by changing technologies”. It found that the need for digital literacy is not only for careers in IT, but is also “an essential tool that underpins other subjects and almost all jobs”.
73.Digital skills and literacy are not only necessary for a child’s future career. Research by Parent Zone and the Oxford Internet Institute found that a child’s level of digital skills and confidence was one of two factors that were positively correlated to building online resilience. Such skills underpin a child’s ability to navigate the online world.
74.However, research by BT identified “behavioural barriers preventing children from developing tech literacy skills and considering tech careers.” These are set out in Box 2.
Children have mixed feelings about technology and are getting conflicting and confusing messages about its use. At school they are told they need strong computational thinking skills but at home told to spend less time on their devices.
The slicker the technology gets, the more it erodes children’s curiosity and, unlike analogue devices, it is not designed to be tinkered with.
The language used and emphasis on coding makes it appear dull and ‘nerdy’ instead of dynamic.
75.In BT’s view it was essential for these barriers to be overcome:
“It is important that children grow up as knowledgeable, practical and empowered digital citizens so that they understand social norms in a digital world and can manage risks for themselves … For young people to be empowered, they need to understand how technology impacts their lives. With digital technology developing at such a fast rate and many adults not keeping pace or being tech literate, children need to learn about the realities of the digital world and be confident in managing the new social norms and their reputation online.”
76.‘Critical understanding’ is a key aspect of digital literacy. It was defined by Ofcom as a “way of describing the skills and knowledge children need to understand, question and manage their media environment.” These are essential skills for children to develop as they enable them to “get the benefits it [the internet] has to offer, and avoid the risks.”
77.However Ofcom noted that the “complexity of the online environment makes it more difficult for children to develop critical understanding.”
78.Vicki Shotbolt of Parent Zone told us that children “are on the receiving end of a tsunami of information—there is a vast amount of information—and helping them to navigate their way through it and develop critical reasoning skills is really challenging.” She added:
“There is a real gap in the area of more reliable information. You used to be able to watch the BBC and would pretty much know that what you saw was true. Now, they are getting their newsfeeds from Facebook, and they have no skilled editors to make sure that what they receive is truthful.”
79.The Personal, Social, Health and Education Association believed that it is imperative that “children are taught skills to think critically about the information that they encounter online.” YouthLink Scotland suggested that “Digital literacy education should also include teaching children and young people to be critical consumers in order to understand how and why content is created.”
80.The BBC told the Committee that “Children’s levels of critical awareness–about advertising messages, about how services are funded (and therefore whether they are being sold to) and about the extent to which they can trust information–are relatively low, given the ubiquity of internet use.” Ofcom research demonstrated that less than half of 12-15s who go online in 2015 were aware of paid endorsements by vloggers (47%) or personalised advertising (45%).
81.A small but significant proportion of children believe that certain kinds of online information are “always true”, according to Ofcom. However, this proportion grew between 2014 and 2015. The proportion of 8-11s and 12-15s who visit news websites or apps and who answered that all the information on these sites is true increased (23% vs. 12% for 8-11s and 14% vs. 8% for 12-15s). There was also an increase in the proportion of 8-11s who say this for sites used for school work or homework (28% vs. 20%) and among 12-15s, who say this for social media sites or apps (9% vs. 4%). Ofcom links this poor critical understanding to a failure to understand the reasons behind online safety messages.
82.The question of critical understanding became topical in the light of the large numbers of fake news stories during and after the US presidential elections.
83.Simon Milner of Facebook assured us that “much less than 1% of the content on Facebook may be inauthentic, a hoax, fake or whatever words you use”. However, it was not clear from this what proportion of content which appeared to be news was fake. At any rate, he argued that there was “no evidence to suggest that the sharing of fake news in relation to the US election made a significant difference to the outcome of it”, but conceded that this had not provided a “good user experience”.
84.Fake news presented an additional problem for children as a result of their necessarily limited life experience. The problem was compounded by search engines and social media platforms using algorithms to prioritise stories according to a user’s past online activity. This created a loop of similar information, often referred to as a ‘filter bubble’.
85.The lack of transparency with regard to these algorithms compounds the problem further. According to Horizon Digital Economy Research, based at the University of Nottingham, “Without transparency it is very difficult to identify what kind of bias these systems put on the information flows that children are exposed to.”
86.Witnesses stated that there were varied outcomes to children’s wellbeing from the time they spend online. The findings of a study by the Chief Medical Officer in 2013 were “increased physiological arousal, decreased attention, hyperactivity, aggression, antisocial or fearful behaviour, social isolation and excessive use or ‘technological addiction”. YouthLink Scotland members raised concerns about excessive use which could “manifest as social isolation, sleep deprivation and dependency.”
87.Young Scot observed that the “impact of increased internet use on emotional development is different for each young person and depends entirely on their experience and circumstances.” A report conducted by Parent Zone found that young people did not regard the internet as ‘separate’ or even ‘a thing’. Rather it was woven through their lives as a utility and its impact linked to mood, resilience and maturity.” Therefore it is difficult to isolate use of the internet as a cause.
88.Young Scot remarked that some found the internet a good source of support:
“For some, the internet is comforting, as they realise that they are not alone in their problems and can talk to others going through the same. For others, they feel that the internet gives them confidence, as they can show and express parts of themselves they may have to conceal at school or home through an anonymous web profile.”
89.Barnardo’s stated that the “positive impact of the internet cannot be [overstated] in relation to children being able to have access to information, learn and socialise with friends. However, we are still grasping to fully understand what some of the negative impacts might be.” Public Health England’s report, How Healthy Behaviour Supports Children’s Wellbeing, suggests that “specific types of internet activity (social networking sites, multi-player online games) have been associated with lower levels of wellbeing among children.”
90.Because the internet has grown to include so many aspects of children lives, it cannot be considered in isolation but it is essential to understand how interactions with internet services affect children’s wider experiences. The House of Commons Health Committee’s report ‘Children’s and adolescents’ mental health and CAMHS’ concluded that:
“In our view sufficient concern has been raised to warrant a more detailed consideration of the impact of the internet on children’s and young people’s mental health, and in particular the use of social media and impact of pro-anorexia, self-harm and other inappropriate websites.”
91.Dr Bevington told the Committee, “we are absolutely clear, and have been for a long time, that it is what you are missing out by spending time on the internet that might be the more important bit.”
92.Others shared this concern that time spent on the internet could be having a detrimental impact on children’s ability to socialise ‘in the real world’. Young Scot warned that “children and young people often stay indoors and choose to interact online, rather than interacting with their peers face to face.” The submission from the Wild Network, a non-profit organisation, focused on the impact of the internet on so-called Wild Time–“the time that children spend roaming free and playing wild”. They emphasised the importance of this time in “support[ing] countless aspects of their physical, mental, cognitive, and social wellbeing as well as the development of personal and community resilience.” It was primarily concerned about the “indirect impact … screen-based entertainment (including the Internet) has in terms of displacing children’s opportunities for Wild Time.” BT agreed, saying that “Some children, particularly those who are unsupervised for long periods of time, can spend too much time online potentially denying them real world experiences, physical activity and social interaction.”
93.YouthLink Scotland members felt that internet use and outdoor activities were not mutually exclusive. They argued that it was more helpful to “find ways to combine digital learning with outdoor environmental engagement. It is possible to use technology designed to enhance rather than distract from time spent outdoors and engage with technology collectively (with real people in real time) rather than singularly.”
94.Guidelines published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 1999 stated that screen time should be banned for children under the age of two. However these guidelines were updated in October 2016 and now state that for children younger than 18 months, use of screen media other than video-chatting should be discouraged. For those under 2 the new guidelines have changed from “avoid all screens under age 2” to “avoid solo media use in this age group.” For those aged 2 to 5 the AAP “recommends no more than an hour a day of screen use. And it wants caregivers to take part in screen time”.
95.Adam Kinsley from Sky said:
“We are seeing an 80% year-on-year increase in downloads and streams of up to 10 million per week of children’s content and we have 4,500 hours of children’s content on here, which may bring us to another concern about screen time—how much you want them to see. … The always-on culture and the amount of screen time is a fascinating area, and I have changed my mind on it—from thinking that it was a problem to recognising that screen time means all sorts of different things. Sometimes it will be educational, sometimes it will be relaxation, sometimes it will be interactive and social and it is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly restricting it could be quite dangerous.”
96.A recent report by the LSE Media Policy Project stated that an emphasis on screen time was misleading and that “parents should instead ask themselves and their children questions about screen context (where, when and how digital media are accessed), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded).”
97.However the Government told the Committee: “we know that children and young people can feel unable to switch off from their online lives, which can be a source of stress.”
98.Dr Krause defines this as “a different type of compulsive behaviour [to addiction]; it is almost like an obsessive behaviour, because often it is fear of being left out.” She explained “If there is a social invite going on, they do not want to be the one who does not get it in time. If there is an image shown for a very short time, they want to be up to see it; otherwise, they will miss it and they will be the one person who does not see it. There are some reports that that sort of constantly switched-on nature reduces intimacy and creates an increase in anxiety and checking.”
99.Many witnesses specified the detrimental impact on sleep. The AAP states that all “children and teens need adequate sleep (8-12 hours, depending on age), physical activity (1 hour), and time away from media.” Dr Bush remarked that “Sleep is a really important part of self-care, and neglecting it through the online world is yet another addition to a whole range of ways of not caring for yourself.”
100.Analysis by Glasgow University showed that overall and night-time specific social media use along with emotional investment in social media were related to poorer sleep quality and lower self-esteem as well as higher anxiety and depression levels. “While overall social media use impacts on sleep quality, those who log on at night appear to be particularly affected. This may be mostly true of individuals who are highly emotionally invested. This means we have to think about how our kids use social media, in relation to time for switching off.”
101.The Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, in partnership with online safety organisation Digital Awareness UK, conducted a survey of 2,750 pupils aged 11-18, looking into teenage use of mobile devices overnight and the impact this is having on their health and wellbeing. The results can be found in Box 3.
102.The question of compulsive internet use was picked up by many. The 5Rights framework states: “We have allowed a system to develop where young people are looped into a technology designed [to] keep them attached. Based on the same principle as a casino slot machine. They are being trained to click. “ Dr Slavtcheva-Petkova observed that out of 63 academic articles concerning internet-related harm, 7 presented evidence of internet addiction or problematic internet use.
103.One 12-year-old girl reportedly stated that: “The internet nearly always controls my actions. I have been told that I am addicted to the internet, and prefer its company rather than being with other people. I feel lost without the internet.”
104.Dr Krause told the Committee that “Research is a little divided at the moment and is developing. If you look at the traditional ways of diagnosing an addiction, both DSM-5 and ICD-10, which are the diagnostic manuals to classify internet gaming disorder, are still unclear. They are waiting, pending further research, to see whether this is primarily a disorder.”
105.Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones suggested that “harmful use” might be a useful term.
106.Dr Krause explained: “a lot of young people who are vulnerable to compulsive misuse will use whatever the substance might be. In this case, it might be the internet or gaming.”
107.In respect of the effects of children becoming addicted to online gaming, Dr Bowden-Jones said that:
“They have now fragmented away from the nuclear family. They have lost weight. They are not exercising. Their mood is very low. They spend time being excited online and often then jump from gaming to porn to other types of sites that are very dark, and they have lost sight of who they are.”… This gaming and this internet addiction as a whole is an issue that we not know enough about. We are not investing enough focus in terms of research and we are certainly not treating them in an evidence-based way, which therefore does not give us the understanding that we could have.”
108.Dr Bevington observed that “we are commissioned to work with substances and not with the internet. I happen to think that, if you do not ask a young person about their online life, you are not taking a proper mental state history”. This was explained in terms of development by Dr Angharad Rudkin:
“Parents have to deal with young people who love the immediate gratification that they get from getting through a different level on a game or from watching a “Peppa Pig” film … and [not] being able to realise that, if you do this all day long, this may impair your development. We are not quite sure yet, but it may have an impact on it [development]. It is very hard for young people to appreciate that” … “they say, ‘I just cannot turn my phone off. I just cannot stop playing these games’ … they do not yet have the capacity to think, ‘If I do this now, then in five years’ time I am not going to be very pleased that I did it’.”
109.Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones cited the work of Professor Jeff Derevensky at McGill University, who had investigated how games played by children from an early age might “prime” children’s brains and “how that might feed into the impulsivity that they already experience because of the late maturation of the frontal lobes.” According to Dr Bowden-Jones, playing computer games:
“might also make [children] into human beings who are much more sensitive to a dysregulation of the reward pathways and more vulnerable to things such as pathological gambling, for example. Although no money is exchanged, there are continuous dopaminergic rushes in the brain as these children are constantly moved from one activity to the other with small rewards that are not monetary but are still relevant within the game.”
110.The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF) on the other hand cited studies which had pointed to the benefits for children of appropriate digital platforms:
“Better hand eye coordination, dynamic spatial skills, improved language skills, self-discovery, and greater understanding [of] the world around them are a few of the positives. Accessing content on the internet–just like reading–is extremely empowering.”
111.A number of witnesses advocated the design of a time-out or time-limiting function. Katie O’Donovan of Google said that when it “launched YouTube for Kids, we developed a time limit so parents can choose how long they would like their children to use that for.” Other providers have also designed in ‘time out or switching off’. Sky Kids designed a Sleep Mode into its new App so that parents and children can be introduced to the idea of the App going to sleep—rather than depending on discipline from a child.
112.Dr Krause thought that a time limit would be a “very helpful feature.” She said that ultimately “we want young people to learn how to implement that control themselves and regulate their behaviour, but if there was a general rule that all that stuff went off at the same time for everyone and no one was communicating, there would not be so much anxiety about being left out.”
113.Samsung agreed but they were focused on parents by offering, “tools on our devices which give parents greater control over their children’s internet use. Our free ‘Kids Mode’ app for smartphones and tablets lets parents control the apps that their children can use, the videos, music and other content they can access, and how long they can use a device.”
114.Concerns were raised about the way in which games and content moved to the next level or video automatically. Katie O’ Donovan of Google explained that “On YouTube, we are trying to serve content that is relevant to the viewer. If they have watched a video and we offer one that is similar and they do not want to watch it, they can very easily click pause or come out of the app and stop watching.”
115.Dr Bowden-Jones however felt that children had the need to pause: “Timeout is essential. I think timeout allows people a moment to get out of that tunnel and say, “Hang on a minute. I have just spent all my birthday money on eBay. Was that a good thing? Do I want to carry on?” She compared it to gambling: “When your mind is so completely wrapped up with winning or losing and you are chasing losses, you have lost your critical faculties”. However she pointed to a limitation in that if “you establish it on your own device, then in the heat of the moment you are only going to move to a different tablet or a different mobile phone. I do not have the answer, but, neurobiologically, I know that we could save a lot of people a lot of problems if we asked them to take a moment of rest before they question whether they really do want to continue with an activity.”
116.According to Will Gardner of Childnet, children consider bullying to be the most concerning aspect of the internet. Many witnesses pointed to aggravating factors of bullying online. While it used to be the case that school bullying stopped when a child went home for the day, online bullying can go on ceaselessly. It can follow a child from one school to another. It also lacks face to face interaction, so a child may not see the harmful impact of what they are saying or doing upon another child.
117.Bullying does not have to be targeted at individual children to have a negative effect. A 2014 Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that “45% of those aged 13 to 21 say that they have heard about sexist abuse of women in the media on social media channels and 49% say that this restricts what they do or aspire to in some way”.
118.The ‘always on’ culture also has an impact on those children who may be victims of bullying. Nicola Blackwood MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health and Innovation at the Department for Health, told the Committee: “It used to be that if you were bullied in one school you could leave, go to another school and leave it behind. You cannot really do that now.” This inability to “shut out” their harassers can have an extremely detrimental impact on a young person’s mental health and wellbeing. Dr Bush told the Committee:
“We have talked to young people who describe the distress they face in the playground because people are calling them names. That distress follows them on to their Facebook page, and it follows them on to their WhatsApp group among all their friends. Suddenly, it is as if they are always being seen; they cannot hide from that abuse. It is important to recognise that, because the constant surveillance means they feel that they are constantly under threat.”
119.The majority of witnesses felt that further steps were necessary from platforms themselves. His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge said at the launch of The Royal Taskforce on Cyberbullying, “I think we have a chance to show that on this issue of bullying, technology can do more than create a patch for a problem it has presented; let’s instead create an enduring, positive shift in our culture that could not have happened without technological advancement.”
120.Ofcom noted that parents were especially concerned by content that contained “violence; sexually explicit content; swearing; horror films and other ‘scary’ content; content that presented ideas and topics they didn’t want their children to know about yet, for instance war or death; and content which might encourage emulation of risky behaviour.”
121.The NSPCC confirmed that children equally are adversely affected by inappropriate content, including: “content that they felt incited them to self-harm; to compete to lose weight; and that allowed them to access violent and degrading portrayals of sex. Young people tell us that they feel anxious, shocked, and guilty as a result of what they have seen online.”
122.Dr Julia Fossi of the NSPCC also noted the “inadvertent popping up” of such content. She explained, “They use a social-networking site to chat to friends, then on the side-lines there is a news article, an image, or an advert for pornography that pops up that they are not expecting but have to deal with there and then, with no context or anybody around them to help them understand where that has come from.”
123.Indeed in their written evidence the NSPCC emphasised that “children are as likely to accidentally stumble upon pornographic content online as they are to actively search for it”. According to the NSPCC this problem is in part the result of the fact that “Sites are often rated as 13+ for ease, when they are actually designed for adults and expose young people to harmful content or contact”. This is because “categorisation for sites is not based on the content or nature of the platform but relates to privacy laws.”
124.South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), a non-profit organisation, brought up the content within games. Games have PEGI (age) ratings but these are “either ignored by them as players or not understood by parents”. SWGfL gives the example of ‘Grand Theft Auto’: “This is clearly rated as 18 with warnings on graphic content, sexual material, alcohol & drugs. However when we talk to children it is clear that nearly all year 4 [aged 8 or 9 years old] plus children know the game and can tell you about the characters.”
125.Online pornography has emerged as a particular concern for policy makers, children, parents and carers. Barnardo’s cautioned that in some cases “the internet is where children first ‘learn’ about sex, meaning they can attempt to imitate what they have viewed online, which may be extreme and violent.”
126.John Carr, of the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety, emphasised that the pornography which is now readily available through the internet is of a different kind altogether from what has previously been available in print. He explained, “Overwhelmingly, it is anti-women violence, although there are other aspects to it, and the idea that any child or young person could ever learn anything of any value or use about sex, relationships or anything of the kind from some of the sites that I have had to look at from time to time is completely absurd.”
127.Evidence from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) supported the idea that online pornography is of a different kind to what is available offline:
“A significant proportion of [online pornography] would not be classifiable by the BBFC (because for example it features content that would be deemed obscene under CPS guidelines; involves violence and/or implied lack of consent; involves the infliction of pain or acts which may cause lasting physical harm; or features material likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity).”
128.The National Council for Women cited research indicating that viewing this kind of pornography causes children to develop dysfunctional attitudes towards sex:
“Viewing pornography can lead to an acceptance of violent and unhealthy notions of sex and relationships, where women are treated as sex objects and aggressive and violent sexual behaviour is regarded as the norm. Learning about sex without any relationship connections - pornography is a poor sex educator. Exposure to pornography helps to sustain young people’s adherence to sexist and unhealthy notions of sex and relationships.”
129.Evidence from Girlguiding supported this view:
“The 2015 Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that 53% of young women aged 17 to 21 think that girls are coerced into sex acts because boys are copying what they see in pornography and 71% of those aged 17 to 21 think that pornography gives out confusing messages about sexual consent.”
130.According to the BBFC, “This has led to the normalisation of largely unfettered access to the strongest, sometimes unlawful, pornography by children online.” Baroness Howe of Idlicote cited a report from the Children’s Commissioner which stated that, as a result of routine access to such extreme and violent images: “too many boys believe that they have an absolute entitlement to sex at any time, in any place, in any way and with whomever they wish … too often girls feel they have no alternative but to submit to boys’ demands, regardless of their own wishes.”
131.The connected nature of internet technology has the potential to be exploited by child abusers. The National Crime Agency (NCA) explained the different ways in which this may happen: “Online child sexual exploitation includes indecent images of children (IIOC), online grooming, sexual extortion of children and live streaming of child sexual abuse.” The NCA notes that, while the extent of online child sexual exploitation is difficult to quantify, law enforcement is seeing more reports of child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) than ever before.
132.With regard to grooming, the NCA explained that the internet can be used to achieve two objectives:
“(a) to lure the child into a physical meeting with the offender for the purposes of contact sexual abuse and/or;
“(b) to manipulate victims into abusing themselves in view of the offender via webcam and generate indecent images (and video) of themselves for the offender.”
“While many of the children are still from backgrounds where they are vulnerable to abuse due to being disadvantaged, abused or neglected, children are also now presenting from homes where they have secure attachments to their parents and a protective environment around them … Increased access to the internet–particularly via smartphones–and, commonly, a lack of awareness among parents about their children’s online activities, is leaving more young people at risk of forming relationships with abusers online”.
134.Broadcasting images of child sexual abuse through the internet is a separate, but related, form of online harm: “The victim is condemned to repeated re-victimisation, violation and degradation each time the image or video is accessed. Fear of people viewing the content, can prevent the victim from speaking out about their experiences and seeking help.”
135.The NSPCC told us that there is a particular risk that children may feel complicit if they have sent the groomer images or videos: “They may be less inclined to disclose their abuse due to the perception that they will be judged by others for their actions and that they are somehow to blame, meaning that they may not receive the support that they desperately need.”
136.Issues of body image and self-esteem have been raised as one particularly negative aspect of greater internet use, often relating to social media. The rise of the ‘selfie’ and the sharing of photos through popular apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are all believed to contribute, in some users, to unrealistic expectations of body image.
137.Karl Hopwood told the Committee “What worries me the most is what mainly, but not exclusively, girls, say about the pressure that they feel to look a certain way and to behave in a certain way when they go online.” He referenced a Children’s Society report produced in September 2016 which found that “34% of 10 to 15 year-old girls are unhappy with their appearance, and a lot of that was put down to pressure by social media. That is something that is quietly causing real concerns.”
138.It was noted by some witnesses that these types of behaviour are not a new development but that the internet has provided new tools to enable them in a more immediate way. Dr Bush told the Committee:
“Behaviours that perhaps were there before are becoming more prominent. A lot of the work that has been done on early teenage sexuality has shown that a disproportionate number of early teenagers are shaving body parts to reflect the kind of bodies they are exposed to online. There are different forms of augmentation.”
139.He observed that:
“The digital world allows you to do that [augment] in the most creative and beautiful ways, but also in ways that create a lot of distress. Most of the surveys, to summarise them, say that most children and young people have augmented their face or body on social media to make themselves look more like the images they see on their Facebook feed, for instance.”
140.Dr Nihara Krause noted, “There is an interaction between the person and their vulnerabilities and issues, together with what is outside. That is true of anything. We are all subjected to, say, social media or body images, but not all of us will go on to develop an eating disorder.”
141.Will Gardner referenced the findings of the recent study Net Children Go Mobile:
“Girls … have a worse time online in relation to this area, and that is really important to flag up. It is not exclusive; it is not just about girls; but I think that is very much worth taking into account. Therefore, we need to think about issues relating to body image, peer pressure and other such things,”
142.Dr Bush told the Committee that:
“We know that the promotion of different kinds of augmented and enhanced bodies online is affecting young men. Lots of men are starting to become obsessed with exercise; they are exercising on injury or to injury; they are ingesting things that damage their physical as well as mental health … it is effectively a form of eating disorder—self-harm through ingestion and body dysmorphia.”
143.Several witnesses stressed the importance of the internet as a support network to those children who felt isolated or disenfranchised. Parent Zone informed the Committee that “This generation of digital natives prefer to access support from their friends and from anonymous online communities.” Dr Powell said “Our results suggest that spending more time on social networks reduces the satisfaction that young people feel with all aspects of their lives, except for their friendships, where the effect is positive.”
144.Facebook told us that:
“When they are mentally challenged, it helps to bring people together who are suffering from the same condition, if you like. Not all young people have happy home lives. Unfortunately, we hear all the time about young people who are in the most stressful situations at home, not when at school. Therefore, having the ability to access secret groups on Facebook, where their parents do not see what they are doing, can be very important for those young people.”
145.Dr Powell observed that:
“An important methodological issue relates to the direction of causality of the relationship between wellbeing and social media use. We have stated here that social media use is an input and wellbeing is an output, but it can also be argued that causality may go in the opposite direction because children with lower levels of psychological wellbeing may choose to spend more time on social media.”
Dr Powell noted that there may be additional factors “(for example loneliness or introversion) that drive both social media use and wellbeing. Failing to account for these factors may result in misleading estimates of the effect of social media use on wellbeing.”
146.A recent study by the Varkey Foundation into those born between 1995 and 2001 looked at wellbeing, hopes and values. The study drew on attitudes, behaviours and experiences across 20 countries. In regard to the UK it found that although the net happiness score was 57%, the second lowest score out of the 20 countries, the largest cause for hope was technological advancements. The survey found that the pressures of social media were seen by ten per cent of young people, across all countries, as one of their main sources of anxiety. The survey stated that “young people everywhere placed great faith in both technological advance and increased communication - which they hope will promote greater cooperation between peoples over the longer term.”
147.There was a general consensus that more research was needed into this area. Barnardo’s told the Committee that there was “minimal concrete evidence about how the internet–and social media in particular–may be affecting social development in areas such as attention span, empathy or self-esteem.” YouthLink Scotland were “concerned” about the lack of sufficient research on the “impact of increased internet usage alongside increased usage of digital devices on children and young people’s development and mental health.”
148. The Government told us that:
“As a response to the recommendation of the Health Select Committee on Children’s Mental Health on the impact of the online world on children and young people, the Department of Health has also created a specific training package in partnership with MindEd and Xenzone … aimed at improving the knowledge of children and young people’s mental health among professionals who work with children.”
149.The Children’s Society recommended that “The Department for Culture, Media and Sport should commission research to explore the links between young people’s mental health and well-being, girls in particular, and social media usage.”
150.Nicola Blackwood MP told us that in her annual report the Chief Medical Officer had found that “while there are a lot of positive influences … bullying and repeated exposure to negative influences are also there.” However she noted that there was a “weakness of evidence” in this area and as a result of this the Department has commissioned a prevalence study which “will estimate the extent of mental ill health in the two to 19 year-old population”. This is due to be published in 2018.
151.Recent policy and research developments have led to the use of the term ‘digital resilience’. Young Minds defined it as “the social and emotional literacy and digital competency to positively respond to and deal with any risks they might be exposed to when they are using social media or going online.” Vodafone informed the Committee that they were working with the “Diana Award to help build teens’ emotional resilience across various areas of online safety, starting with cyberbullying to help them develop the ability to cope with anything that comes up in their digital lives.”
152.Baroness Shields explained that digital resilience could help in protecting children in relation to user generated content:
“A young person may upload an explicit photo of themselves. That photo becomes part of the internet, and there is no way to recall it. It is much easier to take down a piece of content that is developed by a publishing company or an organisation than to take down something that is user generated. The best way in which to deal with the second scenario is to develop digital resilience … building digital resilience into the curriculum and helping young people to become digitally independent and confident in their choices, so that they do not make that mistake in the first place.”
153.A working group has been set up under the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to look at digital resilience. The aims of the group are:
“To develop and co-ordinate activity on a new digital resilience strategy to enable children and young people as well as their parents, carers and teachers, to have the digital skills and emotional understanding to feel empowered to take action when they encounter problems online.”
154.Edward Timpson MP told the Committee:
“Trying to build in the digital resilience of young people—from a much earlier age than we ever imagined—is one of the best defence mechanisms that we have available to us to ensure that, as we become more savvy as adults, we also have a generation of children coming through who are even better prepared for many of the risks, as well as the benefits, that the internet has to offer.”
155.Mr Timpson explained the Government’s role in promoting resilience in schools:
“Since September 2014 we have had the new computer curriculum, which sets out all four key stages, right the way through primary and secondary school. Children will acquire an escalating level of knowledge at those four key stages. Those are exactly the tools that they will need to cope with what the demands of e-safety will be for them.”
156.Karl Hopwood, an e-safety consultant and former head teacher, told us that this requirement to teach online safety was an important shift in policy. However, he urged that teaching in this area should be broader:
“Too often the focus is on risk and harm and perhaps not looking at some of those much more important skills, which they will be using for the rest of their lives, to be quite honest, when they are using this sort of communication. There are many opportunities to do that, but my worry is that a lot of colleagues in schools—not every school, clearly—do not feel that they can deal with this, because young people are talking about things that they are not familiar with or comfortable with; but that critical thinking comes back to basic pedagogy, in my view.”
157.As we saw in Chapter 1 the rights provided for under the UNCRC have not been well implemented with respect to the internet. These rights are sometimes divided into three groups:
158.Whilst there has been a concerted effort to prevent child sexual abuse perpetrated or facilitated through the internet other rights, such as rights to access, information, privacy and participation, have been neglected.
159.Wendy Grossman, a journalist, identified that implementing children’s rights online can be problematic because they often conflict:
“Children, like everyone else, have fundamental rights: access to information, freedom of expression, privacy. Filtering, blocking, age verification, monitoring, and imposing a duty of care all have consequences for these rights.”
She, along with other witnesses, was concerned that, when presented with such conflicts, too often schools, campaigners and policy makers privilege restrictive child protection policies at the expense of other rights.
160.The 5Rights Framework interprets the UNCRC for the digital sphere and suggests that children’s rights be implemented on and offline equally.
161.The Government has stated:
“Material published on the Internet, or by mobile phone, etc, is subject to the same restrictions as material published elsewhere: in other words, what is illegal offline is illegal online … The law does not differentiate between criminal offences committed on social media or anywhere else—it is the action that is illegal.”
162.As we saw in Chapter 2, the use of a consumer’s data to create advertising revenue is one of the key ways that much of the internet’s content and services are financed. It can also have some advantages for user experience. For example, ‘cookies’ retain information about a user so that the user can continue playing a game without having to restart each time. There is also a potential for the large databases of longitudinal data to be used for research.
163.However, the routine, commercial use of data presents particular privacy concerns for children. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) told us that, while the collection and analysis of personal data is not necessarily a negative phenomenon, individuals must be “given an appropriate degree of transparency, choice and control at appropriate points in their online activity.” In the case of children, however, this could be difficult or impossible. Moreover, “it may be impossible to differentiate between an adult or a child user”.
164.The internet enables content to be saved, stored and reproduced, and used in multiple ways. In the UK the Data Protection Act 1998, which derives from EU legislation, provides that individuals’ personal data should not be collected unless it is for a proper purpose and in compliance with certain rules. The EU has recently adopted new legislation in this area, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which seeks to consolidate and update data protection rights. There are concerns, however, that the EU’s high standards of data protection are not matched in other jurisdictions, including the USA where the most popular technology firms are based and to where data is often transferred.
165.Box 4 lists some of the key provisions which enhance the rights of children in respect of online data protection.
166.The Regulation requires Member States to transpose its provisions into domestic legislation by May 2018. It is likely therefore that this will come into effect in the UK before the UK leaves the EU. Nonetheless, once the UK has left, there may be pressure to lower these standards once again.
167.In the UK there is currently no specific age limit, or indeed any other provisions which specifically engage children’s rights to data protection. However, the ICO says that it would expect “a data controller to take into account the obligations associated with processing of a child’s data imposed by society and thus should have a high level of security and privacy by default.” Steve Wood of the ICO explained that this allowed for greater flexibility. But Girlguiding argued that greater clarity would be desirable.
168.The GDPR sets the limit at which a child can consent to have their data collected at 16, but allows individual Member States the discretion to lower this limit down to 13 when they transpose the Regulation into domestic law. This may prove difficult to enforce as many children under 16, and even under the existing US minimum age of 13, already use social media and other services. Some of our witnesses noted that the selection of the EU age limit appears to have been largely political. It is not clear that an assessment with children was carried out.
169.When individuals use internet services and platforms, they must normally consent for their personal data to be processed by the service provider, usually by agreeing to terms and conditions of use. Baroness Shields explained that people are not aware of their data protection rights although these can be found in the terms and conditions:
“[They are] buried inside the legalese and … very complicated and difficult for a parent to teach or for a child to understand. You often give consent without care, just by accepting the terms and conditions. The companies have reacted very well, by creating safety centres where they detail exactly what types of data they are collecting. They are very good about privacy notices and various other things, but you have to know that you are looking for that and where to find it.”
170.Many children lack the ability to understand how their data are being used. Horizon, a research programme at the University of Nottingham, hosted a series of ‘youth juries’, workshops in which children are invited to discuss hypothetical scenarios concerning internet use. One young person said, “The companies are really smart, because they know most young people don’t want to sit there reading, like, paragraphs and paragraphs about it. And even if you did the way it’s worded it’s complicated so they know people won’t understand it”.
171.Professor Derek McAuley, the Director of the Horizon, expanded upon this further in oral evidence:
“I fear that most adults do not understand their rights when it comes to online platforms. How many of you read the terms and conditions? The basis of informed consent as the basis for all data processing is somewhat flawed, to say the least. There is a fundamental problem in that certainly in terms and conditions—and you saw in some of our evidence children talking quite eloquently on terms and conditions—the reading age is often 21 or 22. It requires undergraduate if not postgraduate education to read the text—not to understand the law and the legal implications. I do not think the kids understand it.”
172.In other sectors businesses must “display prominently” the most important terms and conditions which affect the rights and responsibilities of consumers. Often there is a designated regulator to ensure that this is done properly and clearly.
173.The Children’s Commissioner’s Digital Taskforce commissioned Schillings, a law firm, to rewrite the terms and conditions of Instagram in language that would be more easily understood by children. These were published in a report in January 2017, an extract of which can be found in Box 5.
“Officially you own any original pictures and videos you post, but we are allowed to use them, and we can let others use them we well, anywhere around the world. Other people might pay us to use them and we will not pay you for that.”
“Although you are responsible for the information you put on Instagram, we may keep, use and share your personal information with companies connected with Instagram. This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram, and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).”
174.The rewritten terms and conditions were tested with a group of children, one of whom commented:
“I think they should show these terms and conditions to people who sign up because otherwise you don’t really know what you’re signing up to. I would use Direct Messaging a lot less if I knew they could read them.”
The Children’s Commissioner’s report concludes “that the current offering by websites and apps to their users is not acceptable.”
175.Indeed, according to Horizon, when children were told what their data were being used for, there was a sense of being manipulated and exploited. As one young person put it: “It’s the way it’s like marketised; it’s so friendly and appealing. It’s like, ‘Enable cookies’. It’s like, you wouldn’t reject a cookie because a cookie is … a nice thing to have.”
176.Some witnesses pointed out that it is not only the length and language of terms and conditions that are at fault, but the fact that they take huge data sets when in fact they could in the case of children under 18 take only what they need to provide services.
177.The accumulation of data which can be accessed online, whether individuals have actively uploaded images of themselves or have had their internet activities automatically tracked, is sometimes referred to as their ‘digital footprint’. Such information can be embarrassing and intrusive to children both immediately and in later life when they try to apply for university, work, insurance and credit. In 2014 the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that in certain circumstances Google, and other search engines, should be required to remove links to websites containing information about an individual which appear to be “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive in the light of the time that had elapsed.” This became known as the ‘right to be forgotten’. Steve Wood of ICO told us:
“People thought it was about censorship, deleting information; quite strong analogies were used about taking books out of libraries … The reality is that it is a proportionate tool for individuals to control their information. Equally, it is not a magic bullet in solving quite a difficult problem; if you have a mass of information about you on the internet, it is very difficult to get it removed.”
178.This right was explicitly reflected in Article 17 of the GDPR. Parent Zone welcomed these as “positive steps” but argued that they were not entirely satisfactory: “A more comprehensive review that includes updating the Data Protection Act is worth exploring”
179.There is increasingly a risk that data will not be secure. More devices are becoming ‘connected’, and more businesses are collecting data, leading to “hacks, mishaps or simple complacency”. Dr Victoria Nash told the Committee that:
“In an era where much-loved toys such as Barbie and Lego offer opportunities for online games and voice recording, where even very young children are encouraged to use toy cameras that allow their pictures to be uploaded to a hackable website, and where online banking is available to those aged 11 and up, the risks around misuse of children’s data are greatly expanded.”
180.The ICO told us, “in reality there may be little that can be done to prevent unscrupulous third parties from harvesting a child’s data and using it for inappropriate purposes.” Brass Horn argued, “The only way to truly prevent such leaks is to not collect the data in the first place.”
181.According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, an industry body, in the UK, “online and mobile has a higher share of the total advertising market (43% of a total £20.1bn) than in any other country in the world.” The Internet Advertising Bureau informed the Committee that advertisers use the data held by social media platforms about their users to ‘design’ an audience for their advertising campaign that matches their target demographic(s). Young Scot commented:
“These online profiles can (and have been) be sold to future employers and educators, so online habits are increasingly affecting young people’s future chances.”
182.The Internet Advertising Body told us, “EU advertising and media trade bodies have published good practice guidance for all EU and EEA markets to enhance transparency and user control for online behavioural advertising (OBA). The 7 Principles of this good practice are: notice, user choice, data security, sensitive segmentation, education, compliance and enforcement and review.” The advertising industry also supports MediaSmart, a children’s media literacy programme.
183.However, less than one in six 8-11s and a third of 12-15s in 2015 were able to correctly identify advertising displayed in online search results. In 2015, children aged 8-15 who used search engine websites were shown a picture of the results returned by Google for an online search for ‘trainers’. Their attention was drawn to the first two results at the top of the list, which were distinguished by an orange box with the word ‘Ad’ written in it. Despite this labelling, only a minority of 8-11s (16%) and 12-15s (31%) correctly identified these sponsored links as advertising.”
184.The term ‘internet piracy’ is generally associated with copyright infringement. The illegal sharing of music and audio-visual content online has been a serious concern for the entertainment industry over the last ten years, following the increases in internet capacity and device ownership.
185.11-15 year olds are the largest demographic who commit piracy. John Carr told the Committee that “children and young people who are attracted to or use piracy sites, quite apart from engaging in unlawful activity are also becoming immersed in highly unsavoury environments which are likely to be injurious to their health and personal development.”
186.A study by the Motion Picture Association (MPA) found that, amongst the top 250 unauthorised sites in Europe, advertising is the predominant revenue source. The chart below shows the categories of adverts found on the unauthorised sites:
Source: Incopro, ‘The revenue sources available to those providing copyright content without consent in the UK’ (March 2015)
187.The Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety cited Dr Watters of the University of Ballarat who analysed 500 pirate sites. He found that only 1 per cent of the advertising on the sites came from mainstream businesses. 20 percent were linked to sex, 46 per cent were classed as malware and 3 per cent associated with offshore, unregulated gambling. This demonstrates that a consumer accessing these sites has a high probability of exposure to harmful content such as malware, gambling and adult material.
65 5Rights, The right to digital literacy [accessed 2 March 2017]
66 Written evidence from Samsung Electronics UK ()
67 Written evidence from Parent Zone () citing Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, ‘The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?’ (17 September 2013):
68 Select Committee on Digital Skills, (Report of Session 2014–15, HL Paper 111)
70 Written evidence from Parent Zone (). The other factor is parenting.
71 (Dr Marc Bush and Dr Nihara Krause)
72 Written evidence from BT ()
73 Written evidence from BT ()
74 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2015) [accessed 24 January 2017]
75 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2015) [accessed 24 January 2017]
76 (Vicki Shotbolt)
77 (Vicki Shotbolt)
78 Written evidence from PSHE Association ()
79 Written evidence from YouthLink Scotland ()
80 Written evidence from the BBC ()
81 Ofcom, Children and parents media use and attitudes report (16 November 2015) [accessed 24 January 2017]
82 Written evidence from Ofcom ()
83 Written evidence from Alex Burchill ()
84 (Simon Milner)
86 Written evidence from Alex Burchill ()
87 Written evidence from Horizon Digital Economy Research, University of Nottingham ()
88 (Nicola Blackwood MP)
89 Written evidence from YouthLink Scotland ()
90 Written evidence from Young Scot ()
91 Written evidence from Parent Zone ()
92 Written evidence from Young Scot ()
93 Written evidence from Barnardo’s ()
94 Public Health England, How healthy behaviour supports children’s wellbeing (August 2013) [accessed 24 January2017]
95 House of Commons Health Committee, (Third Report, Session 2014–15, HC 342)
96 (Dr Dickon Bevington)
97 Written evidence from Young Scot ()
98 Written evidence from Wild Network ()
99 Written evidence from Wild Network ()
100 Written evidence from BT ()
101 Written evidence from YouthLink Scotland ()
102 NPR, American Academy of Pediatrics lifts ‘no screens under 2’ rule (21 October 2016): [accessed 2 March 2017]
103 (Adam Kinsley)
104 LSE Media Policy Project, Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research (July 2016): [accessed 2 March 2017]
105 Written evidence from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (), ()
106 (Dr Nihara Krause)
107 NPR, American Academy of Pediatrics lifts ‘no screens under 2’ rule (21 October 2016): [accessed 2 March 2017]
108 (Dr Marc Bush)
109 University of Glasgow, Pressure to be available 24/7 on social media causes teen anxiety and depression (11 September 2015): [accessed 2 March 2017]
110 5Rights, [accessed 24 January 2017]
111 Written evidence from Dr Vera Slavtcheva-Petkova ()
112 ‘The online generation: Four in 10 children are addicted to the internet’, Independent (8 May 2014) [accessed 2 March 2017]
113 (Dr Nihara Krause)
114 (Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones)
115 (Dr Nihara Krause)
116 (Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones)
117 (Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones)
118 (Dr Dickon Bevington)
119 (Dr Angharad Rudkin)
120 This term refers to an abnormality or impairment in the regulation of a metabolic, physiological, or psychological process.
121 (Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones)
122 Written evidence from the Children’s Media Foundation ()
123 (Katie O’Donovan)
124 Written evidence from Sky ()
125 (Dr Nihara Krause)
126 Written evidence from Samsung Electronics UK ()
127 (Katie O’Donovan)
128 (Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones)
129 (Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones)
130 (Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones)
131 (Will Gardner)
132 Written evidence from Girlguiding ()
133 (Nicola Blackwood MP)
134 (Dr Marc Bush)
135 BBC, Prince William forms cyber-bullying task force (16 June 2016): [accessed 2 March 2017]
136 Written evidence from Ofcom (), ()
137 Written evidence from the NSPCC ()
138 (Dr Julia Fossi)
139 Written evidence from the NSPCC ()
140 Written evidence from South West Grid for Learning ()
141 Written evidence from Barnardo’s ()
142 (John Carr OBE)
143 Written evidence from BBFC (), ()
144 Written evidence from the National Council of Women ()
145 Written evidence from Girlguiding ()
146 Written evidence from BBFC (), ()
147 Written evidence from Baroness Howe of Idlicote ()
148 Written evidence from National Crime Agency ()
149 Written evidence from Barnardo’s ()
150 Written evidence from the NSPCC ()
151 Written evidence from the NSPCC ()
152 (Karl Hopwood)
153 (Dr Marc Bush)
154 (Dr Nihara Krause)
155 (Will Gardner)
156 (Dr Marc Bush)
157 Written evidence from Parent Zone ()
158 Written evidence from Parent Zone ()
159 (Simon Milner)
160 Written evidence from Dr Philip Powell ()
161 Written evidence from Dr Philip Powell ()
162 Varkey Foundation, What the world’s young people think and feel (January 2017): [accessed 8 February 2017]
163 Written evidence from Barnardo’s ()
164 Written evidence from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (), ()
165 Written evidence from The Children’s Society ()
166 (Nicola Blackwood MP)
168 Young Minds, Resilience for the digital world (January 2016): [accessed 24 January 2017]
169 Written evidence from Vodafone UK ()
170 (Baroness Shields OBE)
171 UKCCIS, ‘Digital Resilience Group: Terms of Reference’ (October 2016): [accessed 2 March 2017]
172 (Edward Timpson MP)
173 (Edward Timpson MP)
174 (Karl Hopwood)
175 (Susie Hargreaves)
176 Livingstone, Carr and Byrne, ‘One in Three: Internet Governance and Children’s Rights’ [accessed 3 March 2017]
177 Written evidence from Wendy Grossman ()
178 For example, Professor Andy Phippen (), defenddigitalme ()
179 Written evidence from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (), ()
180 Written evidence from the Information Commissioner’s Office ()
181 lists possible grounds for the legal processing of personal data. Consent is normally required in relation to social media. ‘Processing’ includes the collecting, recording, organising, storing and otherwise using personal data.
183 Written evidence from the Information Commissioner’s Office ()
184 Written evidence from Girlguiding ()
185 (Simon Milner)
186 For example, written evidence from Dr Victoria Nash, Oxford Internet Institute ()
187 (Baroness Shields OBE)
188 Written evidence from Horizon Digital Economy Research, University of Nottingham ()
190 Children’s Commissioner, Growing Up Digital: A report of the Growing Up Digital Taskforce (January 2017): [accessed 23 February 2017]
191 Written evidence from Horizon Digital Economy Research, University of Nottingham (), citing Internet on Trial Youth Juries Report, section 3.1
192 (Prof Derek McAuley)
193 See, for example, written evidence from Parent Zone ().
194 Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González (13 May 2014) Case C131/12
195 (Steve Wood)
196 Written evidence from Parent Zone ()
197 Written evidence from the Children’s Media Foundation ()
198 Written evidence from Dr Victoria Nash, Oxford Internet Institute (). See also written evidence from Horizon Digital Economy Research, University of Nottingham ().
199 Written evidence from Brass Horn Communications ()
200 Written evidence from International Advertising Bureau UK ()
201 Written evidence from Young Scot ()
202 Written evidence from International Advertising Bureau UK ()
203 Written evidence from Ofcom (), ()
204 Written evidence from the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety (), ()
205 Incopro, The revenue sources available to those providing copyright content without consent in the UK (March 2015): [accessed 2 March 2017]
206 Written evidence from the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety (), ()