Tuesday 14th May 2024

(1 week, 5 days ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Relevant document: e-petition 655473, Ban smartphones and camera phones for under 16s.]
09:30
Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of smartphones and social media on children.

In this country, we often take the physical safety of our children for granted, but imagine if our streets were so lawless that it was unsafe for children to leave their homes. Imagine if, on their daily walk to school, our children had to witness the beheading of strangers or the violent rape of women and girls. Imagine if, when hanging out in the local park, it was normal for hundreds of people to accost our child and encourage them to take their own life. Imagine if it was a daily occurrence for our children to be propositioned for sex or blackmailed into stripping for strangers. Imagine if every mistake that our child made was advertised on public billboards, so that everyone could laugh and mock until the shame made life not worth living. This is not a horror movie or some imaginary wild west; this is the digital world that our children occupy, often for hours a day.

Our kids are not okay. Since 2012, suicide rates for teenage boys in the UK have doubled. They have trebled for girls. Incidents of self-harm for 10 to 12-year-old girls have increased by 364%. Anxiety rates for the under-25s have trebled. Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, loneliness and despair are growing among our youngest citizens. In just 15 years, childhood has been turned on its head.

These trends are not unique to the UK; they are happening across the western world and particularly in Anglophone and Nordic countries. In the first decade of this century, life was generally improving for children across the developed world. Educational attainment was rising, and depression and anxiety were stable or falling. But something happened in 2010 to change the direction of travel, and then from 2014, the decline accelerated rapidly. Whether we look at data for suicide, self-harm, gender confusion or anxiety, or at education scores across the western world, all these trends showed an inflection point in 2010 and a sharp rise from 2014. So, what happened in 2010 and 2014 to so seriously undermine children’s welfare?

As the US psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt has charted in his recent book, “The Anxious Generation”, there is now overwhelming evidence that all these tragic trends have been caused by the rise of smartphones and social media. The iPhone with a front-facing camera was introduced in 2010, and by around 2014, smartphones and social media had become ubiquitous for children. These products were never tested on children or certified as safe for children, yet 97% of British teens now own a smartphone and half of nine-year-olds use social media. In the US, the average 11 to 14-year-old spends nine hours a day online.

Smartphones and social media affect boys and girls differently. Some platforms, such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, have particularly negative effects for girls. These apps exploit natural female tendencies for visual social comparison, but instead of just comparing themselves with classmates, girls are now judged by millions of others against often fake images of what the female body should look like. Where boys are more prone to physical aggression, girls are more likely to employ relational aggression. It is bad enough to be on the receiving end of bullying in the school playground, but when friends and strangers can send hate-filled messages at any hour of the day or night, it is unsurprising that the wellbeing of girls in particular has collapsed as a result of social media.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I congratulate my hon. Friend, and everybody who works with her, on the amazing work that she has done? It is a remarkable achievement, and I want to thank everybody who is associated with it. I am also grateful for what was done on the Bill that became the Online Safety Act 2023, which actually provides for imprisonment for tech bosses who wilfully make mistakes and deals with the situation in the way in which my hon. Friend and I have tried to solve the problem. I congratulate her.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I deeply thank my hon. Friend and I will come later in my speech to some of the improvements that he himself made to the Online Safety Bill.

As well as being more susceptible to visual social comparison, girls are more susceptible to sociogenic transmission or what we might call social contagion, which explains the acute impact of trans ideology on girls. We have seen a 5,000% rise in referrals of girls to gender clinics. Girls are also, of course, more subject to sexual predation and harassment, with younger and younger girls being coaxed or threatened into sending intimate images and even filming their own sexual abuse. In 2022 the Internet Watch Foundation found 141,000 child sexual abuse images of 11 to 13-year-olds, the vast majority of which were self-generated. The front-facing smartphone camera provides the world with an open door to our little girls in their bedrooms.

Boys are less affected by visual and social comparison, but where social media destroys the self-confidence of teenage girls, gaming and porn rewire the brains of adolescent boys. Having 24-hour access to pornography superficially satisfies the sexual desires of young men, but it leaves them isolated, lacking in relationship skills and, tragically, searching for more and more extreme material to become aroused. The average age for encountering online pornography, much of which is violent, degrading and deeply disturbing, is 13 years old, just when boys are forming their expectations about sex. Nearly half of young people now believe that girls expect sex to involve violence.

Multiplayer video games hack into boys’ competitiveness and physical aggression. Again, the games superficially fulfil natural male desires, but they leave boys lonely, withdrawn from the real world, lacking in real skills and unable to find enjoyment or stimulation away from the screen. For boys and girls, time spent on social media represents an enormous opportunity cost. Hours of doomscrolling are hours not spent gaining physical and relational experiences that will equip them with the resilience they need for real life. We have substituted a phone-based childhood for a play-based childhood with tragic consequences.

Even our schools do not provide a safe haven. Recent research by Policy Exchange found that only 11% of secondary schools have an effective phone ban, with the overwhelming majority of children still able to access their devices at school. Interestingly, the schools that had implemented an effective ban were significantly more likely to be rated outstanding by Ofsted and achieved on average one or two grades higher at GCSE, despite being more typically in deprived areas.

Forty-three per cent of older teenagers say social media has distracted them from school work enough to impact their grades. One child told a Parentkind survey:

“I can't focus on my school homework because every 5 minutes I get distracted and go back onto my phone. Occasionally, I’ll see triggering content on social media such as suicide or gory images.”

Social media offers constant, instant gratification, with a dopamine hit and a new distraction every few seconds. Is it any wonder that children are less and less able to concentrate and focus on the intellectually demanding task of academic learning? For the first time ever, IQ is falling across the western world. Programme for international student assessment data shows that maths, reading and science scores have all declined since 2014.

Some question the causal relationship between social media and smartphones and the decline in adolescent wellbeing. Many blame the financial crash in 2008. But why would those trends affect only the under-25s? Some blame the UK Conservative Government, but how can localised economic, political or social conditions account for the collapse in childhood wellbeing across the western world all at the same time?

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate and on the excellent speech that she is making. She talks about the scorching number of hours that children and young people are online and the very high percentage who engage in the virtual world rather than the physical world. But there is one group of children who are shielded or protected from the influences that she describes: the children of tech moguls and those who work in the industry. Does she think that that is very telling and, in equal measure, absolutely damning?

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is right. It is hugely significant that those who really know how these apps and algorithms work firmly believe that they are not safe for children. When asked if the iPad was addictive, Steve Jobs famously remarked that he assumed so because he had designed it to be so.

On the causal links between social media and smartphones and the decline in childhood wellbeing, Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge present compelling causative evidence of the harms of social media. On his Substack, Haidt describes six experiments that found that when social life moves rapidly online, mental health declines, especially for girls. Not one study failed to find a harmful effect. It is now impossible to deny the devastating impact that smartphones and social media have on our children. Some say that it is a parenting problem and that parents need to pay more attention to their children’s phone use. But in a survey of older teenagers, half said they had found ways to bypass parental controls.

It is not just screen time that is so difficult for parents or children to manage; it is all but impossible to control the content to which children are exposed. As whistleblowers Arturo Béjar and Frances Haugen have testified, social media companies knowingly use algorithms to feed children harmful and addictive content.

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes (Walsall North) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and bringing us together to discuss this important topic. Going back to the problems that parents have, if their child is the only kid in the class who does not have a smartphone, the parent will suffer the peer pressure we are trying to protect children from. Does she see a way round that?

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is right. There is a problem of collective action: the costs of being the only child or the only parent without that phone are too high—far too high for ordinary parents to resist. I will come to what I see as some of the solutions later, but he is absolutely right to highlight that issue.

Even if the material being viewed is benign, smartphones and social media are highly addictive and provide a constant off-ramp to our mental focus and erode our concentration. I wonder how many hon. Members in the past 11 minutes have thought about or looked at their phone; I certainly have. As I said, when Steve Jobs was asked in 2011 if the iPad might be addictive, he remarked that he had designed it to be so.

We know as adults how difficult it is to control our own phone use, but the average child gets 237 notifications a day. That is a concentration-busting, addiction-fuelling dopamine hit every four seconds of waking time. If there were no laws against the sale of tobacco, drugs or alcohol to children, we would not expect parents to be able to defend their children from the might of big pharma or big tobacco, yet somehow we do expect ordinary parents to be able to protect their children from the vested interests of the likes of Meta, TikTok, X and Apple, the wealthiest and most powerful countries—sorry, companies—the world has ever seen. In fact, they are more powerful than most countries. Apple has $3 trillion in the bank, which is as much as our GDP, so they are more powerful than many countries.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) remarked, parents could refuse to give their child a smartphone, but the fact that 97% of teens and half of nine-year-olds have one gives an indication of the extreme pressure and social isolation experienced by the only child in a school or class without a phone. We surely cannot believe that 97% of parents are bad parents.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent speech. Does she agree that we could do the following three things? We could ban smartphones in schools, ban social media up to the age of 16 and, as adults, take personal responsibility, which I believe Conservative MPs do better than anybody else. Thus, when we are with our children, we should keep off phones, or at least spend an hour a day when we are not on our phones and can set an example to the next generation coming through.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is completely right, of course. Studying this topic has made me think more carefully about my phone use. Seeing some of the apps that try to disrupt my concentration as big companies trying to take my time is a helpful way to look at it. As with alcohol, drugs and all sorts of other things, we need to recognise that there is a difference between adults and children. Adults should have free choice about how they use their time; this is about protecting children.

Whatever the solutions, this cannot go on. The problems associated with heavy screen use are presenting younger and younger. A fifth of three and four-year-olds now have their own smartphones. A study last year published in the American Medical Association’s journal JAMA Pediatrics found that more screen time for children aged one is associated with developmental delays in communication at ages two and four. It is little wonder that more and more children are starting primary school unable to communicate, with behavioural and emotional difficulties. This year, a quarter of school starters were still in nappies.

The economic cost of this assault on childhood will be devastating. We have record numbers of young people signed off work with anxiety. Waiting times for child mental health services are measured in years. Our economy and welfare state simply cannot afford to support mass worklessness among the young. There are huge geopolitical risks, too. We spend billions of pounds a year on defence and yet, through the Chinese-owned TikTok, we allow our political enemies direct access to our children in their bedrooms.

In China, under-14s are limited to 40 minutes a day on TikTok, and endless doomscrolling is interrupted by five-second delays. Chinese children are shown only specially selected and inspiring scientific, educational and historical content, but in the US and UK, TikTok feeds our teens stupid dance videos, hyper-sexualised content and political propaganda. TikTok is now the most favoured single source of news among British teens. Our emerging generation is being educated through indoctrination by foreign-owned social media, and the education is often anti-democratic, anti-western and anti-truth. Our enemies are rubbing their hands in glee.

Many people in Britain look to the Online Safety Act to address these enormous issues, and when fully implemented the Act will bring some improvements. It should make it more difficult for children under 13 to gain access to social media, and make it less likely that children encounter the most harmful content. However, even if Ofcom can hold tech companies to account in making the protections highly effective, children will still have free access to social media platforms from the age of 13. Though welcome, the Online Safety Act will not rescue our children.

But the tide is turning. There is hope that the world is waking up to the enormous damage that smartphones and social media are doing to childhood. Governments across the world are taking action. In the US, Florida has banned social media for under-14s, New York has proposed legislation to ban addictive algorithms for children, and Congress is taking action against TikTok. New French Government guidance says that social media should not be accessible to under-18s, and President Macron has spoken eloquently about the need for an age of digital adulthood. In a speech just yesterday, our own Prime Minister raised concerns about children being exposed to bullying, sexualised content and even self-harm online.

Here in the UK, the parents of Molly Russell, Brianna Ghey and Mia Janin, who tragically lost their lives to social media, have bravely spoken about the need to act. Campaign groups such as Smartphone Free Childhood, Delay Smartphones and Safe Screens are organising despairing parents en masse, and calling for collective as well as Government action to preserve childhood. All of them are calling for children under 16 to be freed from a phone-based childhood.

The polling on the issue is decisive. Last week, The Sunday Times published polling by More in Common that showed that seven in 10 Brits think social media is having a negative impact on children, and seven in 10 support banning social media companies from allowing accounts for anyone under 18. Polling from Parentkind produced similar results: it found that 77% of primary school parents back a ban on smartphones for under-16s, and 74% of older teenagers themselves believe that social media is harmful.

Some in Westminster think that using regulation and legislation to protect children from smartphones and social media is an overreaction, or even an un-Conservative thing to do, yet in the country as a whole Conservative voters are the most likely to support strong action: 72% of Tory voters are in favour of a ban on the sale of smartphones to children, compared with 61% of Labour voters. Perhaps the only Conservatives who do not support such measures are those in SW1. The evidence is unequivocal: smartphones and social media are making our children sadder, sicker and more stupid. It is just not good enough to shrug our shoulders and fall back on tired clichés like “The horse has bolted” or “The genie is out of the bottle”. The demand for Government action is clear and growing.

What can be done? First, we must insist that tech companies use highly effective age-verification tools, so that no under-age children have access to social media or pornography. Secondly, we must raise the legal age to use social media accounts to 16. That could be done with a Bill amending the Online Safety Act. Thirdly, the Government should urgently fund phone pouches or lockers for all secondary schools, so that all our children can be free to make the most of their education.

Fourthly, we must tackle the scourge of internet pornography. If platforms such as Twitter, which is the platform on which children most commonly encounter porn, cannot keep porn off their sites, they must be forced to ban under-18s from their platforms, and we must update the law so that all sorts of content that are completely illegal in offline pornography—non-consensual sex; violent, degrading and dangerous acts; and the appearance of minors—are illegal online too. There is no excuse for the lack of parity between online and offline porn. Indeed, 56% of the British public would like to ban online porn entirely.

Fifthly, we need a public health campaign to explain to parents of small children that smartphones and internet devices are not safe for babies and toddlers, and that screen use can cause irreversible damage and developmental delays. Sixthly, just as we have incentivised the research and development of new technologies in other fields, such as energy and agriculture, we should incentivise the development of a new phone that is suitable for children—one that allows one-to-one messaging, phone calls, satellite maps and utility apps, such as online banking, but that has no internet browser or ability to install apps. Seventhly, we should ban TikTok from operating in the UK.

I am not for a moment saying that we should not teach children how to use the internet safely on a computer, or that there are not huge advantages to smartphone technology. I, for one, would be lost—literally—without Google Maps. Yet the internet should be a tool to enhance our lives, not a means through which children can become addicted and be exploited. We should therefore not make the mistake of believing that all new technologies represent progress.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the tech companies will fight all the reforms. Just like the tobacco industry before them, big tech’s business model relies on getting children hooked on their products to provide a lifelong revenue stream. However, it is not only the tech industry that will oppose banning social media for children. There are many well-meaning people, organisations and children’s charities that will argue that social media has benefits for children, particularly vulnerable children such as those who are neurodiverse, have mental health problems or are LGB or gender-questioning. That is a desperately naive position because the more vulnerable the child, the more at risk they are online. If hon. Members do not believe me, they should try creating a TikTok, Discord or Reddit account in the name of a teenager with one of those issues and they will find their feed filled with porn, predators or pro-anorexia content, all to draw the most vulnerable children into a world where they are utterly defenceless.

So many children’s testimonies speak of a stolen childhood. As one girl told Parentkind,

“The other day I was on Instagram. Some random guy started saying I looked like a fat pig and no one likes me. When I tried to get past that I saw a short where a girl looked really skinny and spoke of body goals. I felt so useless and ugly that I cried myself to sleep.”

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The mental health impacts are quite well known, but does my hon. Friend agree that we need to see academia, the NHS and health professionals looking more at the physical implications for the body? We know about the sleep disturbances, but what about the physical implications?

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is right that much more research is needed on the wider impacts. I believe a study was published just yesterday about the correlation between using a phone while eating and obesity, for example. There are a whole range of different issues that we could explore and I highly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Anxious Generation”, for a thorough exploration of all the global trends in the area under focus.

Defending children from this wild west is not the action of a nanny state; it is a moral imperative for Governments across the world. In the past, Britain has had a strong record when it comes to child protection legislation. There have been a number of moments in our history when a new danger to children has emerged, public outcry has ensued and Parliament has been called upon to act. In 1838, the Huskar pit disaster in my constituency led to the passing of the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, prohibiting the employment of children in mines. In 1885, after public outcry over young girls being sold into prostitution, this House raised the age of sexual consent to 16. Again, following public outcry over the sale of alcohol to children, in 1901, Parliament restricted its sale to under-16s.

We are now at a similar moment in history. We will look back and ask why we allowed paedophiles, predators, greedy capitalists and foreign enemies unfettered access to our children online. The evidence of harm is irrefutable and the public outcry is growing. Now is the time to act. The Government have less than a year left in office, but if we could pass the Coronavirus Act 2020 in just one day, surely we can use these next few months to introduce effective legislation to protect children from a real and present danger. Indeed, is there any better reason to be in government than to have the opportunity and the power to rescue the next generation?

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard -

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. In view of the number of people who want to speak and the pressure on time, I am afraid I have no alternative but to impose a four-minute time limit on speeches, which I will strictly enforce.

09:54
Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on her outstanding speech and her commitment to this hugely important issue, which should concern anyone involved in the care or parenting of young people.

The briefing we were provided with for the debate highlighted a few statistics that I will draw attention to before I move on to the substance of my points. Ninety-nine per cent of children spend time online, 90% of children own a mobile phone, and three quarters of social media users aged between eight and 17 have their own account or profile on at least one of the large platforms. Those stats show how ubiquitous it is for young people to be able to access various different sites.

The question is not whether it is good for young people to have the latest gadget, to keep up with their peers and have the social cachet that goes with having a nice smartphone. What that smartphone represents is a portal into a different world. When I was a youngster, it was easy for young people to buy cigarettes and to go into a pub and get booze across the counter, even when they were obviously under age. That would never happen now, because we have made significant changes that limit the sale of harmful products to youngsters. The world online, which these phones are a portal to, is so unregulated that it is the wild west—a point that has already been made. The internet is the wild west.

I will draw attention to a few brief stories to illustrate that. Last week I read a post on Twitter from a father whose 13-year-old boy was part of a WhatsApp group, along with friends from school and friends of friends; the father discovered that on that group they were circulating images of people being beheaded. Later, he discovered another post from a friend of a friend, in which people had put together a compilation of images of people who had livestreamed their suicide by gun. That was circulated in a group of 13-year-old boys. He also drew attention to sites that encourage suicide among young men.

Many issues need to be addressed, but the ability to communicate disturbing images, and young people’s ability to access them, is the most concerning. I would highlight that when someone installs a game for their child, thinking it is innocuous, they may overlook the fact that most of those games have chat functions—they have a chatroom hidden away behind the game. Within that chatroom can be found predators, extortionists and many other people with nefarious purposes. It is so important that we have proper regulation, and that we dismantle the tools with which those nefarious people are able to access young people. I fully support the work of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge.

09:58
Rachel Maclean Portrait Rachel Maclean (Redditch) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate, Sir George. Like other colleagues, I add my extreme thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), who set out the case for change and, what’s more, advanced some practical suggestions, legislative and other, for how we go about achieving that change. I will therefore not focus my remarks on that but instead reflect on my personal experience and perhaps add another dimension.

I am a mother of four and a grandmother to two—a two-and-a-half-year-old and a baby. When my children were growing up, I had my own battles with the internet as it was at the time, and with the phones that they had. I had my battle with video games and all the other things they were involved in, both at school and home. It was extremely tough to have those battles with your children and draw the line between what is educational, what is dangerous and what is addictive. But the world has changed so much since then and we are in a new world. Some people watching the debate may say that it is about parental responsibility and that parents are failing their children and need to do more; I say to them that that misses a big part of the picture.

I accept that we need to ask parents to step up. Whatever we do as a Government, we will still require parents to take responsibility. Parents cannot outsource everything to the Government. We as Conservatives must be bold enough to say to parents, “Look, we have brought in these protections, but if you are trying to get round them by just giving your own phone to your child, of course you are going to have a harmful impact on them.” We need to tell them to take responsibility, but there is a clear moral case for us to act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge set out. I am the first to believe in freedom, but I think we all agree that this is not freedom. We are actually removing freedom from children and parents.

I will focus on two other points, because I am aware that time is short. I have been made aware of a fantastic organisation called Smartphone Free Childhood, which I understand is now setting up groups all around the country. I pay tribute to its work, and I am interested to hear from people locally who are involved in it at the grassroots level. I want to hear from parents, families and young people in my constituency of Redditch. I am interested to hear about their experiences on the ground. Do they think the existing protection of banning phones in schools goes far enough? What is their experience in their own classrooms, families and, most importantly, peer groups? Are the protections working? Do I need to get involved? Can I help in any way on the ground at the grassroots level?

I would welcome the Minister’s consideration of one more point. I know that he is not the Minister responsible for this policy area, but perhaps he could speak to his colleagues; I will certainly be doing so. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned the impact of very early mobile phone use on emotional, social and cognitive development. In this country we also have a concerning rise in the numbers of children in the special educational needs and disabilities category—children with special needs, developmental delays, complex cognitive, emotional and behavioural problems, and autism spectrum disorders. It is a huge area. We are seeing a rise in those conditions, and they require specialist provision from local authorities. I know there is huge pressure on local authorities to provide places for children. I am interested to know what research, if any, has been done to link mobile phone and social media use to the rise in those conditions in our children, young people and even young adults, because some of the conditions—

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. I call Alyn Smith.

10:02
Alyn Smith Portrait Alyn Smith (Stirling) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is good to see you in your place, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on a good introduction to a complex, pressing policy area. This is not an academic exercise: these issues have real-world consequences for real families.

In Dunblane in Stirling, recently we saw the terrible case of Murray Dowey. Murray was a bright, happy 16-year-old. He was football daft, and Stirling Albion was his team. He was well liked and popular. He took his own life after being a victim of sextortion via his Instagram account. Sextortion is a horrible word for a horrible thing, but we must make young people in particular more aware of it because the risks are real and clear. I am speaking today at the request of Murray’s parents, Ros and Mark Dowey, who have been through hell. They want action. They have remained incredibly dignified and brave throughout their ongoing ordeal, but they want to see action. There is a lot of unanimous thinking across the Chamber that we need to do more on this topic. We have not done nothing, but we need to do more than we have done.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alyn Smith Portrait Alyn Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not. I need to make progress.

I have been contacted by hundreds of parents across Stirling who likewise want to see action. It is up to us to decide what that action needs to be, but being aware that we need to do more is a good place to start.

On the petition, I am less convinced that banning smartphone access for under-16s would be effective— I think it could encourage a backlash and it would be very difficult to enforce and regulate—but I am drawn to the idea of restricting smartphone access in schools as a sensible thing to do. I should declare an interest: my husband is a secondary school teacher, and he talks about the impact on youngsters in terms of distraction and mental health, particularly in a school environment day in, day out. I stress that I am pro-technology—children should have access to the incredible technological advancements under way—but it is not safe. Car manufacturers fit seatbelts and catalytic converters to make their products safer or less noxious, at our insistence. The tech companies need to do the same.

I am concerned about the lack of protections implemented by the tech companies and the lack of effective regulation. Our regulators do not seem to have many teeth, or at least did not until recently. I am also concerned that police and legal enforcement across jurisdictions are nowhere near as joined-up as the tech companies and their products, and I am unconvinced that tech companies co-operate to the extent that they need to when things go wrong.

The online environment is not as safe as it needs to be, and there are things we could do to make it safer. We have heard reference to putting the genie back in the bottle; we need to focus on making the online environment safer, rather than restricting access to smartphones. The Online Safety Act is a good place to start. I was glad to see that, in the last couple of weeks, Ofcom published its consultation proposing robust age checks, safer algorithms and the effective moderation of chat and content. That is a good start, and long overdue, frankly. More needs to be done, and I urge Ofcom on to greater efforts.

In Murray’s case in particular, we saw that law enforcement and judicial co-operation between the police and regulatory authorities across jurisdictions is nowhere near as joined-up as it needs to be. We urgently need to address that. Tech has always moved faster than the law—that is not unusual in and of itself—but the law needs to catch up, because this issue is having real-world consequences for real families in all our communities. I will work with anybody to those ends.

10:06
Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates)—one of Parliament’s finest at this moment in time. I hope we will see her in her place for a long time.

I will focus specifically on phones in schools. Having spent my entire professional career before entering this place as a secondary school teacher—in fact, as a head of year, which meant that I had to deal with young people’s behaviour and attendance—and having been a Minister for School Standards, albeit briefly, I will say loud and clear that it is appalling that, despite the Government having issued continued guidance since 2010 that smartphones are not to be used in schools, only 11% of schools have taken the brave and bold step of enforcing the rule that phones must be put away and not visible or reachable until the end of the school day. That is bizarre when we consider that most of those schools go on to achieve an outstanding rating. Michaela, one of the finest schools in the country, has very strict rules. I implore anyone to visit, as I have done on a number of occasions, to see that when phones are put away, the results are far better than most grammar and private schools in this country, because young people’s attention is on the knowledge-rich curriculum in front of them.

I am quite embarrassed, to be frank, of my former profession. Not enough headteachers have enough backbone to take the fight to parents who may want to push back or to pupils who may want to moan and groan, or simply to fight the aggressive educationalists who seem to think that the phone is somehow a tool for learning in the classroom. They think children should spend their time googling how to mind-map themselves on A3 or A2 bits of paper, without any proper guidance on understanding the processes involved in things, from those as simple as making chocolate to ideas about how democracy was formed. That should come from the expert in the classroom—the teacher—who stands at the front, delivers the knowledge and ensures that young people have the ability to critically respond to different ideas and do not just find information, copy and paste it off their phones and write it on a piece of paper without cognitively taking it in or critically analysing it in the way they should.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Look at Parliament: it has pushed for this paperless society, with the Select Committees wanting everything on our tablets. For decades, industry has pushed for it as well. Does my hon. Friend think that has had an impact, and that maybe we should return to using paper again? I myself am addicted—how can we tell our children off when we are addicted ourselves?

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will keep my comments brief, Sir George, to make sure that I do not impact on others’ time, but I will say that I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I am a dinosaur—I like paper and I like to scribble over things. When I was a teacher, I liked having physical paper to write comments on. I certainly did not want to try to use interesting gadgets to get ideas across. Although there is great technology, like Google Classroom, that can be used effectively, ultimately we should not move away from paper-based exercises, because they are still useful, particularly for handwriting skills, which are so important for young people. Fewer and fewer young people have the chance to practise handwriting, because we have all fallen into the trap of being able to type quickly on our phones.

To sum up, let me say loud and clear that I know the Minister gets this. He has been working tremendously hard on the Online Safety Act and on what can be done to make sure that we enforce the rules that have come through that legislation while also looking at the wider debate around this policy area, but he now needs to go back to the Department for Education and we need to end the era of guidance and make it enforceable and directional from the Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge pointed out, schools should have the funding for lockers or storage boxes, to make sure that phones are put away and children can enjoy a childhood in the school day without their phone. Believe me, when I was a head of year I was sick and tired of having to deal with parents coming into school to tell me that their child was receiving harmful online bullying content in the evening via social media communications. It was totally outside my jurisdiction as head of year and outside the jurisdiction of the school itself. That imposed a huge workload on teachers and led to major behavioural issues, which are the No. 1 and No. 3 issues in every single survey on why people are leaving the teaching profession. I therefore implore the Government to act on this. I hope that every school will now take action, look to those like the Michaela school and deliver a smartphone-free education.

10:11
Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien (Harborough) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for making one of the most superb speeches that I have heard in my time in this House.

In the 1940s, advertising men told us that more doctors smoked Camel cigarettes than any other type of cigarette, and as the evidence about smoking piled up they started to say that things were complicated and that it was not obvious what was going on with smoking and cancer. That is a reminder of the ruthlessness that people can deploy when there is lots of money to be made.

When I was Public Health Minister at the Department of Health and Social Care, I was keen that we started to treat this issue as a major emerging public health problem. I am proud that smoking is going down but—oh boy—the problems caused by smartphones and social media are going up and up. The trends, including the explosive growth of children’s mental health problems and self-harm in the real world, roughly since the 2010s, can be seen all over the world at the same time. The evidence is compelling, and increasingly the causal evidence is also there, so it is clear that it is time to act.

There are many channels through which smartphones and social media cause problems. It is not just about the time taken up, the lack of sleep, the increased ADHD and the lack of concentration they cause; it is about the more subtle things as well. Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist, said that the medium is the message, and he meant that about TV. As well as what people were watching, it mattered that people just sat there passively. Smartphones isolate us, and for young people they provide an infinite scroll through the edited highlights of other people’s lives.

There was a famous social science experiment in which people were given bowls of tomato soup and told to eat as much as they wanted. What they were not told was that the bowls of tomato soup were filling up from the bottom. People would drink extraordinary amounts of tomato soup—literally gallons of the stuff; gut-busting amounts. That is a metaphor for what the infinite scroll and the world of social media have done for us.

Young people now effectively live like politicians: they are living a second life in the minds of other people and constantly thinking about their image. They are trying to post what they are doing rather than living in the moment, with disastrous consequences. Smartphones and social media are not the only things driving these problems—adverse childhood experiences are a big part of why people have severe mental health problems, and the increased over-cossetting of children in the real world is another part of the story—but it is clear now that smartphones and social media are a big part of the story.

We have a problem, and it is a collective action problem. Parents do not want to give their kids tablets and other social media devices as early as they do, but they feel the peer pressure to do so. A study by Sapiens Labs shows incredibly clearly that the earlier a parent gives their kids these things, the worse they will do. Kids do not want these things either. A 2018 report by the Science and Technology Committee found, after we had talked to a lot of young people, that they would like to have a smartphone-free childhood. I am not surprised that in recent weeks we have seen literally tens of thousands of parents joining groups that try to get smartphones out of our schools.

I have a question that I really want to hear the Minister address directly. We were promised a consultation on these issues and it should be out now; when is it coming? I really want a date. Secondly, when can we implement a proper ban on phones in schools? Policy Exchange research has already been mentioned that shows that only one in 10 schools have implemented a proper ban, whereby they take phones away from children at the start of the day so that they are not constantly distracted by their phones, are not thinking about the next text, are not slipping phones out in class, and have a blissful moment when they are living in the real world, free from smartphones and social media.

This should be a beachhead for us to start to change the norm. We should start with schools but work outwards to address the effects of the increasing exposure of children to smartphones and social media, so will the Minister please undertake to look seriously at funding and insisting on a proper smartphone ban in all our schools? In that way, we can give our children something that we all enjoyed: a childhood in the real world, not trapped on a screen.

10:14
Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on securing this important debate.

I am the father of three young children, and I am very concerned about the impact of smartphones and social media. This is not just about what is said by the MPs here and the polling that my hon. Friend spoke about persuasively. In the short time I have today, I will focus on the empirical evidence that proves the detrimental effect of these technologies on children’s development and health.

A study by the University of Cambridge revealed that frequent smartphone use among adolescents is linked to decreased academic achievement and delayed emotional maturity. The university has done detailed work on this, so we are talking about these problems not on a whim, but as a result of clear evidence. As the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health warns, excessive screen time can lead to a host of physical health problems too, including obesity, sleep disturbances and vision problems. The NHS already advises that the blue light emitted by screens disrupts the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep, which leads to poorer sleep quality and duration, particularly among children.

In addition to the detrimental effects on children’s physical health and academic performance, it is important that we look at the research that highlights the impact of smartphones and social media on their mental and emotional wellbeing. Leading universities have conducted research on that. Research by the University of Bristol and University College London has found that children who spend more time on social media report higher levels of depressive symptoms, and a study by the Office for National Statistics revealed a significant increase in mental health issues among adolescents in recent years. As my hon. Friend said, it is not a coincidence that smartphone and social media use rose in that same period—the problems are caused by them. The empirical evidence makes it clear that children’s unrestricted access to smartphones and social media poses a great risk to their development and wellbeing.

I remember my first phone, a Nokia 3210; the high point was playing Snake. I remember the Sony Ericsson T68, which had a detachable camera—the first time a camera was on a phone. I remember my first BlackBerry, which put email in my pocket. If my hon. Friend’s inbox is anything like mine, she will know that is a mixed blessing.

As parents of our own children and Members of Parliament for the nation’s children, it is our responsibility and duty to take action to protect them and give them their childhood back. It is only by limiting exposure to smartphones and these harmful influences by banning them in schools and raising the age for social media use that we will be able to safeguard our children’s physical, mental and emotional health, and secure the brighter future for generations to come that I know the Minister and this Government want to achieve.

10:19
Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing this really important debate. I agree with much of what hon. Members have said about teenagers and adolescents, but I want to focus on very young children. Ninety per cent of the brain is developed before the age of five. That is when we learn to communicate and think, and develop problem-solving and resilience skills. The brain is wired in those early years.

Last week, I visited one of my primary schools and spoke to the headteacher Faye White. She explained that the way she sees children using their devices today is completely different to plonking a child down in front of “Balamory” or “Postman Pat” like I used to do. Children are scrolling rapidly—they watch, scroll, watch, scroll and move on to the next thing. She sees that that is making many children lose their ability to concentrate. They do not develop the ability to concentrate for anything but short periods of time. She spoke to me about her deep concern that that is driving some of the increase in more children having ADHD and other needs. Young children are being impacted.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the most vile of content: child sexual abuse. Children are being groomed to perform sexual acts in their bedrooms, directed from afar by hideous online perpetrators and often filmed without their knowledge. The content is so disgusting. At its most basic, it is sexual posing, but it goes on into sadism, degradation and even performing sexual acts with animals. My hon. Friend mentioned the work that IWF does to identify that content and take it off the internet. What she did not mention was that last year 2,401 of those images were identified by IWF as involving children in the age range of three to six. The question is not whether that is okay, but what we as legislators do about it. The Online Safety Act 2023 will make a big difference, but we must not think that the job is finished.

Like many others, I was deeply moved by Brianna’s mum’s call for child phones. We have child-safe car seats and child locks on medicine bottles and on cupboards that contain our household cleaning products. Why cannot we build child safety by design into phones for children? The Monday after Brianna’s mum spoke about the need for a child-safe phone, I put my name down on the list to introduce a ten-minute rule Bill in this place. I will get a chance to present the Bill before the summer recess, and I hope to use it to get people thinking.

My Bill would introduce point-of-sale controls so that if a phone is bought for a child or if someone is passing on a phone to a child, the parents would be given access to and provided information on parental controls. The Bill would introduce app store controls, similar to those proposed in France, so that age-inappropriate apps could not be downloaded if a child is using the phone. To protect children from paedophiles in their bedrooms, the Bill would introduce new system-level controls, so that iOS and Android would stop a child from uploading that content.

10:23
Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If we needed any more evidence of how addictive and distracting smartphones are, I would encourage anyone to look around the House of Commons Chamber later. We are all grown adults working in serious business, and we know that we are on television, yet we often cannot stop fiddling and faffing with our phones—I am guilty of that as well. How the hell can we expect children to stay off their phones and concentrate in schools if that is what they are seeing all around them?

Education is vital. We spend a lot of time in this place arguing about how to do it right, and those hours and years in the classroom should not be compromised. We need to give teachers, who work so hard to qualify—it is vocational; they want to be there and to do a good job—the best chance of teaching well. As Professor Jonathan Haidt said in Policy Exchange’s excellent report, having a mobile phone at school is the equivalent of us bringing our television sets to school back in our day, along with our video cassette recorders, record players, walkie-talkies and any other communication devices or games, and sticking them on our school desks. We would not have done that, so why are we allowing it now?

I wrote about banning smartphones in schools in the Stroud News & Journal. I thank all the parents from around my district who got in touch. One father, Leo, said that despite being a millennial and working in digital marketing for his profession, he personally decided to move away from smartphones about three years ago, partly in anticipation of conversations with his kids regarding this matter. He wrote about that on LinkedIn, and he encouraged me to look at the Smartphone Free Childhood movement. I also applaud UsForThem and the many other organisations.

I think that the argument about whether we need to introduce an effective ban on smartphones in schools has been won, but the question is how we do that. It is tough for some schools, and that is why I encourage people to look at Policy Exchange’s list of recommendations, which includes schools, Ofsted and politicians, and encourages everybody to think those things through.

I was in the park this weekend with my two little ones, who are one and three. I am a proper helicopter parent— I was shepherding them around, worrying about them going up and down slides, and all those sorts of things—yet we are giving children phones to have in their pockets and bedrooms that encourage bullying, harassment, violent porn, dick pics, cyber-flashing, eating disorders, self-harm and exploitation, as many hon. Members have talked about. I spend so much time thinking about how to protect my kids from the world, yet those things are going to be very live in their little lives soon if we do not do something about this issue, and I do not think that is good enough.

One of the campaigns that I have been running for years is about tackling anonymous abuse. No matter what this place does, some children are likely to end up online and on social media even if we put the best bans and the best measures in place. Clean Up the Internet and I are trying to require tech companies to set ID verification options that allow people to follow and be followed by only real people who have been verified online. The Government have legislated for that, and tech companies know how valuable it is because they are charging people for their blue ticks, including me. I signed up to see what it does, so I am charged like 11 quid a month on Instagram just for the privilege of saying that I am who I say I am.

We have to go faster. Ofcom has a lot to do, but it is not implementing that legislation quickly enough. Real people can be caught more quickly if we have their identification. We need to put that in place and I ask the Minister to fast-forward what Ofcom is doing in that respect.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There is time for one last speaker, Lia Nici, but I will have to restrict her to two minutes. I will begin calling the Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.30 am.

10:27
Lia Nici Portrait Lia Nici (Great Grimsby) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Sir George; I will be quick. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing this very sad, but very important debate. It is good to have the Minister in his place, but we need action from the Department for Education. There is no excuse for headteachers and governors not to implement mobile phone bans in every school, nursery school—we know we have problems there—and college if necessary, because we need to halt this now.

Being a parent—having a child and a family—is a precious thing. During the last four years, when I have been travelling by train to come here and back, I have sadly seen only two families who have not plugged their toddlers or children into mobile phones or devices because they just want them to be quiet. In fact, most of those families are not only doing that, but isolating their children by putting headphones on them. Those children are not interacting with their parents, they are not looking at the countryside, and they are not learning about the world around them.

We need action to be taken quickly. As we have heard, the Online Safety Act will do lots of things, but it took this place five years to get it moving. We need some short, sharp Bills. We also need the Department for Education to crack on and tell schools that these dangerous devices should not be allowed in schools.

We need help for parents. It is difficult, but the word is parent, not friend—a parent is there to parent their children. We need not only our tech giants to get on with it, but our broadcasters, such as the BBC and ITV, and internet providers to get a grip. Everybody now needs to work together because this is a vital issue.

10:29
Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you for chairing this debate, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on securing it. I want to talk about a number of things: safety online by design, the safety of devices by design, and parental and child education. Just to confuse everyone, I will do that in reverse order, starting off with parental and child education.

Ofcom has a media literacy strategy consultation on the go just now, as well as the consultation on the strategy around protecting children. Both are incredibly important. We have a massive parental knowledge gap. In about 15 or 20 years, this will not be nearly so much of a problem, because parents then will have grown up online. I am from the first generation of parents who grew up online. My kids are 10 and 13. I got the internet at home when I was six or seven, although not in the way that my kids did. Hardly anybody in this House grew up on the internet, and hardly any of the parents of my children’s peers grew up online.

I know very well the dangers there are online, and I am able to talk to my children about them. I have the privilege, the ability and the time to ensure that I know everything about everything they are doing online—whether that means knowing the ins and outs of how Fortnite works, or how any of the games they are playing online work, I am lucky enough to be able to do that. Some parents have neither the time nor the energy nor the capacity to do that.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the hon. Lady for her knowledge and dedication, but is it not the case that even parents as diligent as her find that teenagers can bypass these controls? Even if our children do not have access to a device, they can easily be shown the most harmful of material on the school bus. Is this not actually about child development, and whether a child has the brain development to be able to use these devices safely, rather than just about education?

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wanted to talk about education among a number of other things. Children can absolutely be shown things on the bus, and stuff like that; children and young people will do what they can to subvert their parents’ authority in all sorts of ways, not just when it comes to mobile phones. Part of the point I was making is that I have the privilege of being able to take those actions, while parents who are working two jobs and are really busy dealing with many other children, for example, may not have the time to do so. We cannot put it all on to parental education, but we cannot put it all on to the education of the children, either. We know that however much information we give children or young people—particularly teenagers—they are still going to make really stupid decisions a lot of the time. I know I made plenty of stupid decisions as a teenager, and I am fairly sure that my children will do exactly the same.

I grew up using message boards, which have now been taken over by Reddit, and MSN Messenger, while kids now use Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. I grew up using internet relay chat—IRC—and Yahoo! Chat, which have taken over by Discord, and playing Counter-Strike, which has now been subsumed by Fortnite. I used Myspace and Bebo, while kids now use things like Instagram. These things have been around for a very long time. We have needed an online safety Act for more than 20 years. When I was using these things in the ’90s, I was subject to the same issues that my children and other children are seeing today. Just because it was not so widespread does not mean it was not happening, because it absolutely was.

The issue with the Online Safety Act is that it came far too late—I am glad that we have it, but it should have been here 20 years ago. It also does not go far enough; it does not cover all the things that we need it to cover. During the passage of the Act, we talked at length about things like livestreaming, and how children should not be allowed to livestream at all under any circumstance. We could have just banned children from livestreaming and said that all platforms should not allow children to livestream because of the massive increase in the amount of self-generated child sexual abuse images, but the Government chose not to do that.

We have to have safety by design in these apps. We have to ensure that Ofcom is given the powers—which, even with the Online Safety Act, it does not have—to stop platforms allowing these things to happen and effectively ban children from accessing them. Effective age assurance would address some of the problems that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge raises. Of course, children will absolutely still try to go around these things, but having that age assurance and age gating, as far as we possibly can—for example, the stuff that Ofcom is doing around pornographic content—will mean that children will not be able to access that content. I do not see that there should be any way for any child to access pornographic content once the Online Safety Act fully comes in, and once Ofcom has the full powers and ability to do that.

The other issue with the Online Safety Act is that it is too slow. There are a lot of consultation procedures and lead-in times. It should have come in far quicker, and then we would have had this protection earlier for our children and young people.

We need to have the safety of devices by design. I am slightly concerned about the number of children who are not lucky enough to get a brand-new phone; the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) talked about passing on a phone to a child. Covering that is essential if we are to have safety of devices by design. Online app stores are not effectively covered or as effectively covered as they should be, particularly when it comes to age ratings. I spoke to representatives of an online dating app, who said that they want their app to be 18-plus, but that one of the stores has rated it as 16-plus and they keep asking the store to change it and the store keeps refusing. It is totally ridiculous that we are in that situation. The regulation of app stores is really important, especially when parents will use the app store’s age rating; they will assume that the rating put forward by the app store is roughly correct. We need to make changes in that respect and we need to come down on the app stores, because they are so incredibly powerful. That is a real moment when parents, if they have parental controls, have that ability to make the changes.

In relation to safety online by design, I have already spoken about live streaming. When it comes to gaming, it is entirely possible for children to play online games without using chat functions. Lots of online games do not actually have any chat function at all. Children can play Minecraft without having any chat; they cannot play Roblox without having any effective access to chat. Parents need to understand the difference between Minecraft and Roblox—and not allow anyone to play Roblox, because it is awful.

There are decisions that need to be taken in relation to safety online by design. If people have effective age verification and an effective understanding of the audience for each of these apps and online settings, they can ensure that the rules are in place. I am not convinced yet that Ofcom has enough powers to say what is and what is not safe for children online. I am not convinced that even with the Online Safety Act, there is the flexibility for it to say, “Right—if you have done your child access assessment and you think that your app is likely to be used by children, you cannot have live streaming on the app.” I am not convinced that it has enough teeth to be able to take that action. It does when it comes to illegal content, but when it comes to things that are harmful for children but legal for adults, there is not quite enough strength for the regulator.

I will keep doing what I have been doing in this House, which is saying that the online world can be brilliant—it can be great. Kids can have a brilliant time playing online. They can speak to their friends; particularly if children are isolated or lonely, there are places where they can find fellowship and other people who are feeling the same way. That can be a positive thing. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge has laid out where often the online world is negative, but it can be positive too. There are so many benefits in terms of schoolwork, clubs, accessing friends, and calendars. Cameras are great, too. My children sometimes use the bird app on their phones to work out which birds are singing. It is brilliant that they can do things like that online.

There are so many benefits, but we have a responsibility, just as we do when our children are playing in the park, to ensure that they are safe. We have a responsibility as legislators to ensure that the regulators have enough teeth to make sure that the online world is safe, so that children can get the benefits of the online world and of using smartphones but are not subject to the extremely negative outcomes. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) mentioned his constituent and the awful loss experienced by their family. Children should never, ever have to face that situation online, and we have a responsibility to regulate to ensure that they never have to.

10:38
Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I first place on the record my enormous commendation to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for bringing forward this debate? These issues are very live in many houses, schools and communities up and down the country, and she has done an enormous service to the House by raising them not just today but on many different days. There may be different elements of the matter on which we do not entirely agree, but I think that bringing such issues to the fore is vital.

I used to be a priest in the Church of England, in High Wycombe. That was where I served my title, and most of my work involved working with young kids—running the church youth groups and so on. Growing up was tough as a young person then; all the issues, such as bullying, the fear of missing out and peer pressure, existed way back then as well. In fact, I ended up doing a series of funerals for children who had taken their own lives, all of whom knew each other.

I am therefore very conscious that growing up has never been easy, but the changes over the last 25 or 30 years have been added to the equation: the arrival of the internet, smartphones with cameras, and social media; in some cases, the problems for chaotic families and those who are really struggling financially; and, in recent years, the problems that covid has brought, with lots of kids not being able to socialise in school in the way that we were all able to—I note that we are all a little bit older than the average. I am painfully aware, then, of the really difficult situation in which many young people are growing up today.

I am also conscious that human eyes today see much more violence. I am not making a flippant point, but I feel as if I have witnessed thousands of murders, just because every week a lot of television is about crime. In the old days, if a child went even to watch a film like “Jaws”, which has frightening moments in it, they would have been going with their parents. If they had been watching a crime programme on television, they would have been watching it with their parents.

Today, that probably is not true. Nearly everything they will have seen, they will see themselves on a small phone up in their room or in their friend’s room or round the back of the bike shed with some friends—although I am not sure whether the bike shed exists any more! The level of extreme violence and sexualised content that we are all witness to, and that children are witness to, often entirely on their own, needs to make us think and pause for a moment. Sometimes, this has meant that lots of kids have lost the ability to relate directly to other people, and that is, in the end, problematic. We need to deal with that.

Social media has turbocharged some of the worst aspects of humanity. Some people put on social media things that they would never ever write down on a piece of paper—that they would never think to put their own name to. A couple of Members have raised anonymity, which is undoubtedly part of the issue. People create some other identity for themselves, which somehow allows them to say some of the absolutely vilest, most despicable things imaginable. It has not been mentioned, but I would add that the algorithms often contribute to the process. They are not neutral, and often exacerbate some of the worst aspects of humanity. I will say a few things about the social media companies in a moment, but they need to take cognisance of that.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I apologise for my late arrival this morning, Sir George—I had a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee meeting this morning, and I had to ask for permission to leave.

On the issue of suicide, the Northern Ireland figures for those aged 16 to 24 in 2014 to 2016 are incredibly worrying. One in 10 children in Northern Ireland suffer from anxiety and depression, which is 25% higher than other UK jurisdictions. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that any policy on this issue must be UK-wide?

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It needs to be UK-wide, but it also needs to recognise devolution. We have been talking about schools, for instance, and some of those issues are devolved responsibilities in Scotland, Northen Ireland and Wales, so we need to work across the whole UK. Of course, some of these issues are not just national, but international, because in many cases we are dealing with companies whose profits may be made in this country but who may not be taxed in this country and are headquartered elsewhere.

Let me state some first principles. First, obviously the primary duty of any Government is to keep its citizens safe. We say that endlessly and repeatedly, but we seem to always think that it means national security and policing. Actually, it is also about online safety for children, as has been said by several Members today.

Secondly, mental health is just as important as physical health. To anybody who thinks it is just about people pulling up their socks or whatever, I say that that just does not meet the need. We should all have understood that better by now. I will say this gently: it was a misstep and a mistake for some to refer to the Online Safety Act as “legislating for hurt feelings.” Hurt feelings can lead to very serious physical harm. We know the story of Brianna Ghey. I will not rehearse it, but I pay enormous tribute to her mother, who has shown extraordinary levels of humanity.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not, if the right hon. Lady does not mind, because I have several points to make— I am terribly sorry.

Physical and personal interaction with others is vital to humanity. I apologise for the casual sexism of the early 17th century, but John Donne said:

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself;



Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.”

We are fundamentally social beings, and sometimes social media can enable that. Grandparents FaceTime with their grandchildren, and they would of course never have dreamed of being able to do so 30 years ago. That is wonderful, but where social media replaces social interaction, we have long-term problems.

Of course, social media and the internet can be enormously valuable. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge said, she gets lost if she does not have Google Maps working—sometimes I cannot get it to work properly. I do not know how anybody ever managed to meet up back in the 1960s and 1970s. These are all wonderful innovations, and they are great for kids, too. They have a place in education: I want lots of kids to learn how to create apps and be part of the vibrant UK economy by creating video games and all the rest of it. That is part of the issue, but we cannot just bow down before that altar and surrender everything.

My other fundamental principle is that no executive is above the law, which is why I believe that swift and full implementation of the Online Safety Act is so important. I echo the points that have already been made. The Minister probably agrees that it has taken us too long to get to this point with the Online Safety Act. I will not make partisan points about all the ups and downs and ins and outs, but it has taken too long, and I worry about whether the next processes will happen anywhere near fast enough.

There are some things that Labour is keen to do. First, we need better mental health support for young people. It is shocking that one in four 17 to 19-year-olds in England now have a mental health problem. That is up from one in 10 in 2017, which is a dramatic increase. That may be partly to do with covid, but it is a significant problem. We want to put many more specialist mental health professionals into schools. I have family members who work in this field, and they desperately need more support. Early support is really important in preventing escalation. The problem of brain injuries in schools has hardly been recognised, and the Government will not even be able to give us proper numbers on how many kids in schools have had a brain injury and needed support. Also, creative education can be an important part of fostering better self-confidence, self-understanding, socialisation, and team working, and one of the problems over recent years is that that has fallen away.

Age guidelines must be truly effective, and it is worrying that Ofcom’s early research on stopping children using social media finds that it is almost impossible to do so even for children as young as five. That is highly problematic, and much more work needs to be done. For all sorts of economic reasons of their own, social media companies have failed to regulate themselves. They have sometimes not told the full truth about what their algorithms do, or about their economic model. The divide between those who argue, “No nanny state,” and those who argue, “Protect our children,” is a false dichotomy. The question is not “What legislation?” but, “How do we make sure that we have the right legislation?”

10:49
Saqib Bhatti Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology (Saqib Bhatti)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing this important debate. She is a passionate campaigner, and I thank her for her engagement on this issue on numerous occasions, including by coming to see me. I also thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant); worryingly, this is the second time in about 24 hours that I have found myself agreeing with him.

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman calls on me to resign. Before he asks me to join him on his Benches, I should say that a space on our Benches recently became available, if he wants it. I found myself in considerable agreement with him.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. This is clearly a hugely complex issue. I want to start by stating that before being a Minister, I am a parent. I probably make my colleagues sick by talking about that constantly, but it is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling privileges of my lifetime. Being a parent is also one of the scariest things. I have to worry, as we all do, about whether they will grow up to be healthy, make friends at school and, now, whether they will be safe in the online world as well as in the offline world.

I also want my children to have a fulfilling childhood, to learn the skills of tomorrow while we protect them online. Therein lies the conundrum.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make a little progress. I want to focus on the issue of research and data. The UK chief medical officer, among others, has systematically reviewed the scientific evidence and concluded that an association between screen-based activities and poor mental health exists, but existing research does not yet prove a causal relationship. Other investigations, however, such as those by Professor Haidt, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, into the link between these technologies and mental health have suggested a harmful relationship. The scientific community is considering Professor Haidt’s findings, and we are watching that discussion with interest.

I want to reassure hon. Members that on research and causality, I am considering every option to ensure we leave no stone unturned. I will look at this very closely to ensure that any policies that come forward are based on science and data.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his reassuring insistence that he will look into the data. The US Surgeon General, who recently visited Parliament, made the point that, if social media or smartphones were a drug, they would be immediately withdrawn from the market because of the harm they are reputed to cause. Even if the full causality is not as established as the Minister wants, is the evidence not so clear and the impact so harmful that it would be sensible to withdraw social media before conducting that research?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend, who has made that point passionately, both here and in private. The important thing is to have the data to back such a significant conclusion, because social media also benefits young people and society and a balance has to be achieved.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am going to make some progress. To be clear, that does not rule out taking a precautionary approach. We need to consider the impacts carefully before taking action. As the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said before this debate, it is important to strike the right balance between protecting children from harm and allowing them to reap the benefits of safe internet use. We will continue to explore options in this space. I welcome further engagement, research and evidence in this area to inform our policies.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On those points, does the Minister agree that this is not just about addiction for some, but about dependency and harm for many? Artificial intelligence is only going to supercharge this. Does he agree that tech companies need to be held to account and ensure protections are in place, and that Ofcom needs to use the powers it has been given to force them to do that?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Let me say clearly that there is no reason why the tech companies could not have acted over the past few years. There is no reason for them to wait for Ofcom’s code of practice; they should be getting on with the job. I said that as a Back Bencher, and I mean it. The Online Safety Act is what we consider to be technology-agnostic. It covers a lot of the incidences of AI, but we obviously continue to monitor the situation.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am so glad that my hon. Friend says he is looking at all options to keep children safe. On the issue of preventing children from being able to upload sexual content or from being groomed into uploading sexual images, will he look at the suggestion put to me by the national police lead and others of putting controls at systems level, so that a phone cannot upload that content when the upload is by a child?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will limit further interventions due the time I have, but I will write to my right hon. Friend on that issue.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make some progress. We are aware of the ongoing debate regarding the age at which children should have a smartphone. We recognise the risks that technology such as smartphones pose, but I would argue that a ban would not necessarily achieve the outcome we wish. As has already been said, children can find ways through. We also have to consider who we are criminalising and how legislation would intervene in the lives of the private individual. We live in a digital age and many parents want their children to have a smartphone, as they provide benefits to children and parents, such as staying connected while travelling alone. In other words, trying to protect children from one harm may well lead to another. I speak to many parents who give me the other side of the argument, and I wanted to put that on the record.

The decision on whether a child should have access to a smartphone should not be one for Government. Instead, we should empower parents to make the right call for their children and their individual circumstances. In fact, parents as consumers can influence the market themselves. It is my belief that choice is a liberty that parents and children should be allowed to exercise.

I agree that online platforms must take responsibility for the harmful effects of the design of their services and their business models. That is why the Online Safety Act is a groundbreaking piece of legislation, which puts the onus on platforms to ensure that children are protected. I want to reassure parents that the legislation will change significantly how our children grow up in the online world. If social media companies do not do the right thing, we have given Ofcom the teeth to go after them—and I fully expect it to do so.

Children’s wellbeing is at the heart of the Act, and the strongest protections are for children. Under the new regulations, social media platforms will need to assess the risks of their services facilitating illegal content and activity. That includes illegal abuse, harassment or stirring up hatred. They will need to assess the risk of children being harmed on their services by content that does not cross the illegal threshold, but that is harmful to them, which is something that was brought up.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make some progress as I am very short on time, and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge time to respond.

I want to be unequivocal here: the Online Safety Act ensures that the UK is the safest place to be online, requiring all companies to take robust action against illegal content. Last week, Ofcom published the draft codes of practice for the child safety rules. Those protections are a real game changer and will establish the foundation to protect generations to come. I commend Ofcom for its proposals. It rightly puts the onus on big tech to do the right thing and keep our children safe. I say this to big tech: with great reward comes great responsibility. They have that responsibility and they must act.

Part of the codes identify risks that children need to be protected from, and they also set out the requirement for platforms to implement highly effective age assurance technology to prevent children from encountering harmful content on their services, including pornography, and content that depicts serious violence or promotes serious self-harm, suicide and eating disorders.

Tackling suicide and self-harm material is a key objective of the Online Safety Act. We have heard too many stories of the devastating impact of that content, and I commend all the parents who have campaigned on the issue. They have gone through the most unimaginable, heartbreaking and heart-wrenching challenges. We continue to engage with them, and I commend them for their bravery. There is a live consultation on age assurance at the moment and I encourage all Members to engage with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) raised a number of key issues and I will write to her in response. She also talked about parental responsibility, which is important. I think she raised the issue of chat functions, which are also in the scope of the Online Safety Act. The hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) spoke about the tragic case of Murray Dowey. I offer my condolences to the parents and my open door; I would be more than happy to meet them with the hon. Member in attendance.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) talked about the responsibility of the Department for Education. I am sure that has been heard, and I will continue to engage with Minsters. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) talked about his Nokia 3210. Nokia has started remarketing the 3210, so he should look forward to a Christmas present—not from me, but from someone who likes him. I wish him all the best with that.

My final comment is that I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, as would the Secretary of State.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I call Miriam Cates to briefly wind up.

10:59
Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed so compellingly to the debate. I am hugely encouraged by the strength of feeling and the unanimity in the Chamber.

I want to make a final point: this is not a debate about liberty, freedom, parenting or technology; it is a debate about child development. The human brain is not wired to learn from passive consumption; it is wired to learn from real-life interaction. That is how children learn. However safe we make the internet from damaging content, children will never gain the skills, knowledge and wellbeing they need from staring at a screen. They will always need real-life interaction. That is why we must restrict screens and ban social media for under-16s —because otherwise they will never learn.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the impact of smartphones and social media on children.