My debate on social networking has just ended.
In my opening speech, I set the context by citing the OFCOM research that found that virtually all (99%) of children and young people aged 8 to 17 use the internet. In 2005 the average time spent on line by children was 7.1 hours per week. By 2007, this had almost doubled to 13.8 hours per week. And virtually half (49%) of those aged 8 to 17 have set up their own profile on a social networking site.
My thesis was that social networking and video sharing sites, online games, iPods and internet-enabled mobile phones are now an integral part of youth culture. While many adults worry that their offspring are wasting precious hours online, children and young people themselves see online media as the means to extend friendships, explore interests, experiment with self-expression and develop their knowledge and skills.
However, in the same way that young children are taught how to cross the road and at the same time safety features are built into cars and traffic laws regulate unsafe driving, we need to make sure that our children and young people are protected when they make their way on the internet.
As we know, there are real perils for the unwary. Children and young people have been the victims of sexual predators as a result of the information they have revealed about themselves on social networking sites; there are increasing problems of cyber-bullying; security weaknesses on sites have led to serious privacy infringements; and young people have discovered the hard way that the permanence of information posted in public cyber-space may not only be embarrassing in later life but may also mean that employment offers (or university places) are not forthcoming.
I went on to argue that:
· Children throughout their education should be taught digital citizenship so that they can both make the most of the internet but also recognise and deal with any dangers they may encounter. As most parents acknowledge that their children are more internet literate than they are, there should also be a serious effort in parallel to help parents (and indeed all adults) to keep up with the rapid development of the internet and social digital media.
· At the same time, privacy laws ought to be strengthened with an age-related component, specifically giving enhanced protection to the data relating to or provided by children and young people. The US Children Online Privacy Protection Act, whilst not perfect, provides a model that has required a number of US-based companies operating on the internet to improve their standards significantly.
· There should also be higher expectations on those responsible for social networking sites – particularly those aimed at children or where there are a significant number of users who are children and young people. These higher expectations should include:
o Prominent and clear safety information, warning about potential dangers;
o Simple systems for reporting abuse or inappropriate/threatening behaviour with appropriate links to the police and law enforcement;
o Increased numbers of suitably-vetted moderators patrolling areas of sites frequented by young people;
o User-friendly systems enabling people to ignore and erase unwanted comments and to erase permanently their own profiles; and
o Increased server security to prevent hacking and unauthorised access to personal information.
· Finally, there should be urgent work undertaken by internet and technology companies to find and agree a simple, efficient and cost-effective means of achieving age-verification on the internet, so as to prevent under-age people accessing inappropriate sites and older people passing themselves off as under-18.
In addition, other peers made a range of interesting points.
There was a notable contribution from Baroness Susan Greenfield approaching the topic from the stand-point of neuro-physiology.
Baroness Doreen Massey told the House about the Bill she is introducing on internet age verification and the Minister replying, Lord Bill Brett, almost gave a commitment on behalf of the Government to support it – although when I pressed him on it he entered the most enormous health warning about what he had said. Nevertheless, it was clear that there was a lot of support in the House for the principle of such legislation.