The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con)
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for curtailing his remarks—I sometimes feel that he could go on for a lot longer. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for convening a debate on this important subject and for discussing it with me beforehand. Finally, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I will race through my response because I want to leave a minute or two for the noble Baroness to respond.
We all agree that the internet offers a huge range of opportunities and benefits. However, as we heard today, there are legitimate concerns about the relationship that young people have with digital technology and the impact it can have on their health and well-being. A great deal of work is taking place across government, and I will come to some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on that. Work is also ongoing in the tech sector, health services and the education sector to ensure that young people can access the benefits of the internet safely. However, we recognise that more research is required to better understand the impact that the digital world can have on health and well-being. This is new technology, changing before our eyes, so it is not surprising that we are experiencing unintended consequences, nor that the evidence is incomplete and sometimes contradictory, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned in his excellent speech.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, was a bit dismissive of the digital charter. However, through the charter we have already seen age verification, age-appropriate design, data ethics and innovation bodies set up, the Green Paper and hours of interaction within the sector. There is of course more to do, and I will come to that in a minute, but we have not been doing nothing in the meantime. The principle is ambitious—to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online—and we want to achieve it. That will include taking specific steps to support children and young people.
The forthcoming joint DCMS and Home Office online harms White Paper will be published this winter. It will set out a range of non-legislative and—I say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin—legislative measures detailing how we will tackle online harms. It will set clear responsibilities for technology companies to keep all UK citizens safe, particularly children and other vulnerable users. There are, however, difficult lines to be drawn between liberties, freedom of speech, the freedom of the internet and protecting the public. We will therefore continue to encourage participation as we further develop our proposals. As has been mentioned, the Secretary of State had a useful first meeting open to all Peers on Tuesday this week, and we will encourage further discussion with Peers as the process goes on. I will say more about the White Paper in a minute.
We spend a lot of time in this House and at the DCMS talking about harms, especially to children, but it is important that we acknowledge the benefits of digital technology and social media. As my noble friend Lady Redfern said, it is about balance. The technology enables young people to access educational resources, make social connections, build relationships and demonstrate their creativity. It has impacted every area of our lives: the genie is out of the bottle and we cannot put it back. We therefore need to find solutions.
While we recognise the benefits, we also understand the concerns about the impact that digital technology may have on young people’s physical and mental well-being. The impact may relate to the device itself or to the content being accessed. For example, we know that parents and professionals are concerned that digital technology can lead to a lack of sleep and a lack of exercise, both of which are well documented as playing an important role in maintaining good health and well-being. There are also concerns about the impact of specific online harms which may not be illegal, such as cyberbullying, the encouragement of self-harm and online grooming. More generally, there are concerns about the impact of celebrity culture, disinformation and the pressure to live up to unrealistic portrayals of other people’s lives.
We have seen in recent years that the technology industry can deal with some of those harmful impacts through technical solutions and guidance—for example, filters and new well-being tools—and parents can use apps to set controls to limit their children’s access. Some of the big technology companies have provided resources for teachers and parents, so they are doing something. However, I am not suggesting that this will get them off the hook.
We recognise that companies can do more and, in particular, our internet safety strategy consultation highlighted that users, civil society organisations and professionals working with children felt that platforms needed to do more to manage the content and behaviour on their platforms. In addition, more can be done to make technical tools more effective and guidance more accessible.
The online harms White Paper I have mentioned will concentrate on supporting everyone’s ability to access the benefits of the internet while staying safe. In answer partly to the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, it will consider how we will protect children and vulnerable people in particular, and outline measures targeted at improving children’s safety online specifically.
Although we have had some success working with companies at a voluntary level, legislation is necessary to ensure that progress is extended across a greater range of platforms—we are not talking about only social media—and replicated in countering a wider range of online harms, and to give confidence to the public, which is important, that standards apply to and are enforceable on all platforms.
The White Paper will establish a government-wide approach to online safety, delivering the digital charter’s ambitions of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, while leading the world in innovation-friendly regulation that supports the growth of the tech sector. It is a complex area and we are taking a thorough and traditional policy approach. We had the publication of the Green Paper, a consultation and the Government’s response, and now the White Paper which will precede legislation.
The noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones, Lord Bichard and Lord Storey, implied that progress was slow. However, this is a complex area so we are taking it at a reasonable measure. We expect and earnestly hope that we will be able to legislate, I have been asked to say “imminently” rather than “shortly”, but I have been around long enough not to get involved in that game. At least I did not say “in due course”. We wish to proceed and get to legislation once the White Paper has been discussed.
We are also engaging with industry, civil society, peers and academia, who sit at the heart of our operation, which we hope will enable us to develop world-leading law that is future-proof. As well as setting out the expectations for the tech industry, it will highlight the role of education and technical solutions in supporting young people online, and will build on the important work which the Department for Education has already taken forward in relation to ensuring that children are taught about online safety in schools.
Let me turn to what we know about these problems. There are, rightly, concerns about the impact of digital technology on young people’s health and well-being. We realise the need to build evidence about specific harms and to ensure that consistent advice is available. As has been mentioned, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has commissioned a systematic evidence review of the impact of social media use on children’s and young people’s mental health. This review covers cyberbullying, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, and we understand the issues around safeguarding in this respect. It covers online gaming, sleep problems and problematic internet use—also known as internet addiction—where there is a social impact.
I have found the evidence, particularly as described in the media, confusing and sometimes contradictory. The only overwhelming view seems to be that we should not look at a screen before we go to bed—which, incidentally, most people should do earlier for optimal health. We are continuing to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Secretary of State there, a former DCMS Secretary of State, knows about the issues concerning digital.
I shall try to deal with a few questions quickly as I have not got much time. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned education. I reassure them that we think that the arts are very important in that. In fact, quite a lot of work is being done in the Department of Health about arts for health. Although we are behind this and are making the case in government, we hope we have the Department of Health with us on that.
Perhaps I should start on the questions asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans about gambling as this is the third day running I have been talking about this. I shall be very brief because I have a lot to get through. In 2017, the Gambling Commission set out its continued commitment to tackle issues arising from a potential convergence between gaming and gambling, and to look at developments such as skins betting and social casino gambling. In September 2018, the Gambling Commission, along with 16 other regulators from Europe and the USA, signed a declaration which outlined common concerns about gaming and gambling. It is also seeking to work with the video games industry to raise awareness of this.
The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, asked about online gaming and addiction. The response to the Internet Safety Strategy outlined how we will work with online platforms and agencies, such as the Video Standards Council Rating Board, trade bodies and others, to continue to improve. He can look at that. I am not going to go through it in detail now.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked what we are going with regard to loot boxes. The Gambling Commission has strong powers. We are aware of the concerns that entertainment products such as video games could encourage gambling-like behaviour, so we will look at evidence around that very carefully. The Gambling Commission is aware of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the importance of communication, and my noble friend Lord Lucas talked about parents. It is important that we do a lot to help parents because they may not have the skills needed to supervise what their children are doing. That was certainly highlighted in the Internet Safety Strategy consultation. We were keen to receive more information on data protection, mental health impacts, et cetera. The new UK Council for Internet Safety will be tasked by the Government to review current online safety materials and to identify any gaps. One problem is that parents frequently express an interest but do not turn up to schools, for example, when these things are discussed, so we will have to be imaginative in looking at how we can help parents. The Chief Medical Officer is going to consider providing advice for parents in spring 2019, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned. Also, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recently published The Health Impacts of Screen Time: A Guide for Clinicians and Parents, which the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked about.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, asked whether we were dealing with disinformation in the online harms White Paper or in another way. The UK Government take the issue of online manipulation very seriously, and tackling disinformation is already a key pillar of the digital charter. We will explore how we can use measures in the White Paper to address its harmful impact on society. I can also tell the noble Baroness that, as I mentioned before, we are not confining the online harms White Paper to social media.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford talked about safety by design. That is absolutely critical and we agree with it. We will get updates from tech companies that are developing new products to ensure that internet safety, cybersecurity and data protection are all part of the design process.
I am afraid that I have to stop. I have a lot more to say and will write to noble Lords, but I want to leave a couple of minutes for the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I thank noble Lords for all their questions, and I realise that we have more to do. I finish by saying that we are committed to ensuring that the UK is the safest place to be online and we will work with a wide range of partners, including the tech industry, civil society and online safety experts, to ensure that young people can fully access the benefits that the digital world can bring safely and with confidence that tech companies and platforms will act in a responsible manner.